Straight Talk from the Straight Baby Boomer Mom of a Gender Bending Millennial
Q&A with DEI Speaker Julie Tarney

For Mother’s Day, our very own Fabrice Houdart interviewed Super-Mom Julie Tarney, author of My Son Wears Heels, who wrote so eloquently about her journey parenting a gender nonconforming child from toddler to adulthood and since then has been training thousands of executives on how to challenge their own misconceptions about gender identity and gender expression.

Julie, as a baby boomer businesswoman and parent of a nonbinary millennial, do you have any thoughts on what effect generational shifts happening in the workforce might have on corporate initiatives for LGBTQ+ inclusion?

I think those generational shifts we’re seeing in the workforce make LGBTQ+ inclusion even more of an imperative for businesses. And here’s why.

More than 1 in 3 of the U.S. labor force, about 35%, are millennials, making them the largest generation in the workforce. By 2025, millennials are expected to make up 75% of the global workforce, with many already in managerial positions. Not far behind are members of Generation Z, those born after 1997. By 2028, these two generations will make up 58 percent of the workforce.

Now here’s what’s really interesting. The February Gallup poll found that 1 in 6 Gen Z adults identify as LGBT. That’s a big demographic shift. They are also more likely than other generations to know someone using gender-neutral pronouns and to say forms should offer gender options other than “man” or “woman.” And in a 2017 Harris poll, 20% of millennials identified as something other than strictly straight and cisgender, compared to 7% of boomers.

The future is changing fast and based on studies and trends, people will be more open about identifying as nonbinary. And both millennials and Generation Z – our future leaders – think society is not accepting enough of those individuals.

In fact another recent study in the UK found GenZers said were more likely to stay with organizations they perceived as having a diverse and inclusive workforce. So, to attract, engage and retain the newest members of the workforce, there must be dedicated focus on a corporate culture of inclusion and belonging.

We already know that the more a company can reflect society and its diverse representation the better it will perform. So, to keep up companies need to hire a workforce that reflects the population. That is not new news.

Companies need to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in the same way they embrace all their business goals. Some leaders struggle, because there’s a learning curve, but everyone has a responsibility to do this work. And despite generational differences and shifts, the most important thing is to treat people as valued individuals.

You talk to business executives – particularly in companies that are at the beginning of their D&I journey – what do you think moms can teach CEOs?

That’s such a wonderful question, Fabrice, because I think leadership and parenting are very similar in that you are creating a path for others’ success.

And honestly, as a new mom I often drew on my leadership skills to inform my parenting in challenging situations.

For example, when my child Harry was two years old, he asked me how I knew he was a boy. After a brief anatomy lesson – that now makes me cringe when I think about it – Harry informed me, “Well, inside my head I’m a girl.” When I wasn’t sure how to reply, I defaulted to a basic principle of leadership: Maintain the self-confidence and self-esteem of others. I told him I thought it was great he knew that about himself. That was the right answer, because he smiled as wide as a coat hanger. I still had no idea at the time what his statement meant, but he felt good about himself.

All moms ever want is for their children to be happy, kids who feel protected, safe, and valued for just being themselves. I believe CEOs should want happy employees – those who are engaged, committed to vision and mission, and feel safe enough in their job to contribute meaningfully to the success of their organization.

Additionally, I think moms can teach CEOs to remember the soft skills, like empathy for one. Leaders can draw on the same empathy they have for their family members. And ideally, when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion, they can empathize with how much work it can be just to show up at your job when you are part of a marginalized community.

Mothers also give their children a strong sense of belonging. They need that from us, as much as employees do from a company’s leadership. I believe moms can remind CEOs that they need to think about how someone feels in the culture they are responsible for creating or re-creating. Creating a company culture of belonging requires a focus on other core values, like trust, encouragement, two-way communication, validation, and a positive attitude.

Lastly, just as moms don’t know everything, leaders don’t know everything either. Both must remain curious, ask questions, listen carefully and commit to being life-long learners.

You wrote beautifully about your own journey as a mother, what made a difference for you?

Two things made a difference for me on the gender journey I took with my child. First, it was realizing what was at stake for me. I didn’t have good role models for parenting, so I was determined to be a good mother. I wanted my child to have unconditional parental love, and I wanted to encourage and support him in every way possible. Secondly, and this relates back to your previous question, I had much to learn about parenting a child who was different from any child I’d ever known. And a lot of that learning required unlearning.

After Harry’s “inside my head I’m a girl” declaration as a toddler, I was confused, worried and fearful. And I had so many questions! Surely, I thought, I had to set some limits to his self-expression – or did I? Would he be bullied? What kind of guidance would he need? Could I do the right thing? And what was the right thing?

The internet was no help because in 1992 there was no internet. There weren’t support groups, chat rooms or online resources. And the language was very inadequate then. There were no terms like gender nonconforming, gender expansive, gender fluid or nonbinary. What did exist where Harry grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was a lot of misinformation, stereotyping and judgement. If you were the mom of a feminine boy, it meant you were doing something wrong to your child.

So, Harry became my most enlightened teacher. As a parent, I learned to rely on my instincts, I listened carefully and kept an open mind. I decided that as long as Harry was happy, I’d let them lead the way. By the way, Harry now interchanges all of the gender pronouns. At the same time, I learned to think differently about society’s expectations that boys and girls fit neatly inside a gender box that was either pink or blue. I came to understand that there’s more than one way to be a boy or a girl, or a man or a woman.

I also learned to examine my own double standards. That was especially true at Halloween. I made some of my biggest parenting mistakes over Halloween costumes, like not getting Harry the Pink Power Ranger costume they really wanted.

I had always wanted Harry to fit it. I thought he would be safer that way. But what I learned from Harry in middle school, was that fitting in doesn’t mean being like everyone else – it means being accepted for who you are.

Change is happening all over the world on the issues, but for many coming out to their family, within their community, workplace or place of worship remains a source of suffering, which path forward do you see?

There’s been an enormous amount of progress on the issues, yes, and of course backlash as well, but the progress has been significant. Yet to be discriminated against, harassed or victimized for your gender identity or loving who you love is stressful and exhausting. And that has over-reach as you say in all social situations.

I believe the path forward must start at the top. And in a country’s case, that’s the legislative branch of government. In the U.S. passage of the Equality Act is a must. And in other countries, similar laws are required that provide LGBTQ+ people equal protection under the law in all areas – housing, education, healthcare, the workplace.

Changing the world requires action, and each of us can drive continued change for fairness and equality and help eliminate suffering. We can write to government officials. We can attend school board meetings. At the very least sign a petition. And paying attention to equality legislation in the works and how it might affect the people you know can help you understand what friends, family and colleagues might be going through.

While LGBTQ+, gender nonconforming and nonbinary visibility is at an all-time high, allies must also be visible. I think the path forward widens when we’re all forging it together.

Sunday is Mother’s Day, for many LGBTQ+ people there is a long road to reconciliation with their family, do you have advice to the many LGBTQ+ kids who will reach out Sunday to mothers they resent?

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, not every mom accepts and celebrates her LGBTQ+ child exactly as they are. Parents who aren’t supportive or who are openly homophobic or transphobic understandably trigger lots of hurt feelings and unspoken tensions.

So, to any adult LGBTQ+ child, I will say you don’t have to tolerate that lack of acceptance or pretend it’s not eating you up inside. While you can’t pick your genetic family, you can choose how you interact with them. You can set your own boundaries of what you will or will not do.

What’s really important to tap into on Mother’s Day or any day is your own personal power. Choose how you spend Mother’s Day based on what will give you the strongest feelings of joy. Surround yourself with your chosen family or friends who care about you and respect you, whatever your differences. Most of all, know your value, trust yourself and your feelings. Believe in yourself always. You are perfect.

And because I’m a parent, I must speak also to the unaccepting moms, or dads, because Father’s Day is coming up soon. Unconditional love and support have no expiration date. If you have rejected your child because of who they are or who they love, know that it is never too late to have a close relationship with your child, no matter their age. Admit your mistakes, acknowledge what you don’t know. Your beliefs were influenced by others, so now lead with your heart. We can always demonstrate in the present moment what it means to cherish our children, even if we previously didn’t have the resources to do it.


Straight Talk from the Straight Baby Boomer Mom of a Gender Bending Millennial: Q&A with DEI Speaker Julie Tarney 1Julie Tarney is a speaker, trainer, and executive coach who helps business leaders learn how to better build their employer brand by creating LGBTQ-inclusive, welcoming and supportive workplaces.

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