Vanessa Sheridan is a woman of many talents.
She's an author and a musician, a veteran and an advocate. She was a transgender inclusion consultant for businesses like McKinsey and Company, Mayo Clinic, Best Buy and the Human Rights Campaign, and agencies like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
She was also the first person to write a book on transgender Christian spirituality and have it published by a mainstream publisher. Now, Sheridan is using her talents at Chicago's Center on Halsted, the Midwest's largest LGBTQ community center, as the Center's first-ever director of transgender relations and community engagement.
Sheridan took on the job in February 2016, and since then has been tasked with building a department focused not only on offering resources and support to trans people in need, but also on creating a space where trans people can find and build community.
"It's been wonderful, terrifying, challenging, problematic, fantastic and everything in between," Sheridan said. "When you're doing anything new from scratch, there's always challenges, but then there's always some great opportunities as well, and I like to focus on the opportunities."
Among the events Sheridan has helped spearhead are the annual Transgender Community Ice Cream Social, Trans Military Appreciation Day and the annual Trans Turning Point, a series of presentations by vendors that provide goods and services to the trans community. The Center on Halsted also offers several transgender support groups as well as specialized counselors equipped to work with trans individuals struggling emotionally or psychologically.
Sheridan is especially excited about a current project: developing a Transgender Leadership Academy. "We want to help train and equip the next generation of trans community leaders," she says, "and this will be a way to help us move in that direction."
Throughout her 26 years working as a trans advocate, Sheridan has placed a major focus on educating people on the realities of transgender life. "People can't begin to change their attitudes or their actions until they're given enough information to make them want to do that or help them to do that," she says, "I see a big part of my role here at Center on Halsted as being one of those folks to educate and to bring some of that into the mainstream, to give people a framework of understanding, so they can make better choices about how they deal with transgender people."
One of the realities about which Sheridan wants to spread awareness is the high transgender suicide rate. Forty percent of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey said they have attempted suicide. The suicide rate of the general U.S. population is 4.6 percent.
"If that were any other demographic group in this country … we'd have already declared a national emergency," Sheridan said. "We'd have been calling out FEMA and all that kind of stuff, but that's not happening, and it's not happening because there's a lack of understanding and a lack of respect I think for trans individuals in this culture, and I think we need to do a better job of educating people."
Trans unemployment rates are another big issue. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found trans unemployment to be three times that of the national rate. "I don't think you can have full social equality until you first have economic equality," Sheridan said, "and you can't have economic equality until you have employment opportunities. So we have to try to educate employers, hiring managers, recruiters about the realities of the fact that transgender people have a lot of talent and they're an untapped demographic group to a great degree.
"My hope is the rising tide will lift all the boats: The employers get a better employee, the trans employees have the opportunity to work for a living, companies get better products or services and society wins. Because again, the rising tide lifts all the boatsbut that only works if you have a boat. So in this case we have to build the boat around authenticity, around facts and around realities, and that's what I try to share with folks."
Education, however, is not only for cisgender folk attempting to better understand the trans community. Sheridan said she urges those struggling with their gender identity to educate themselves as well. "There's a million things online to look at," she stressed. "There's good books out there to read. Do that. Educate yourself. Find out what your options are. A lot of folks don't think they have any options but I think we find out as we begin to educate and inform ourselves that options begin to appear."
Sheridan said she believes the Center on Halsted has a fantastic opportunity to make an impact not only on the transgender community of Chicago but also on a national level. She hopes, for example, that the Transgender Leadership Academy may become a template other cities can use to develop their own.
"I think this organization is so uniquely positioned to have an opportunity to move forward and to help trans people gain self acceptance, become equipped with skills they need to be successful in life, and to create community that will provide support and resources and reinforcement as people struggle with, again, the realities of life as a trans person," she said.
Sheridan also stated that she wants to help the Center on Halsted remain a safe haven for LGBTQ people. "When disaster strikes for the LGBTQ community in Chicago, this is a place where people come," she said. "They gravitate here, and we want to be prepared to be supportive of the trans community. … I think that's really important for us on any number of levels, not just on a practical, resource-based level but on a symbolic level too. My hope is that people will look at this organization and say, when things go bad, we know we can depend on Center on Halsted, and I want to be part of that and help create that support that people want to find when they come to a place like this."
Center on Halsted will hold its TDOV Transgender Day of Visibility program, coming up on March 31. Here is a link to it: www.centeronhalsted.org/newevents-details.cfm .