Jackie Ferguson: Please join me in welcoming Jake Rostovsky to our show. Jake is a licensed psychotherapist based in Los Angeles and a globally known advocate, thought leader, and facilitator working to bring awareness, inclusion, and empowerment to the transgender and non-binary community.
He has worked with some of the world’s top entertainment, media and educational brands, including NBC Universal, Lion’s Gate, Warner Brothers, Buzzfeed, UCLA, and Kaiser Permanente. Jake, welcome to Diversity Beyond the Checkbox. So good to have you.
Jake Rostovsky: I am really happy to be here. Thank you so much.
Jackie Ferguson: Of course. Well, Jake, you’re an advocate for the transgender and non-binary community. Let’s start with some definitions for those who are earlier in their diversity journey so that they can know what that means.
Jake Rostovsky: Absolutely. And I love to use a little metaphor.
So first I’ll go into a literal definition and then tie it off with a metaphor. So gender identity is how you identify in your gender, right? So you can identify as male, female, non-binary. So non-binary is actually part of a gender identity. And then not to be confused with sexual orientation, which is, who in your gender identity are you attracted to in their gender identity?
Right. So male to male, female to female male to female, whatever. Right. Gender expression is how you express yourself through your gender. So, you know what I’m wearing, what I decide to wear, and then non-binary, which is a relatively newer term to the non-queer community, is someone who lives in-between genders. So I don’t identify as male and I don’t identify as female. The easiest way to remember this, I call it the bed metaphor. Right? So gender expression is what do you go to bed wearing? Right. So what do you go to bed wearing? Do you wear a nighty? Do you wear nothing? Do you wear boxers? Gender identity is, who do you go to bed as? Do I go to bed as male? Female? Non-binary? The 400 other definitions that there are for gender? And then, sexual orientation is, who do you go to bed with? Or who do you not go to bed with? Right. Cause asexuality is also valid. So that’s the easiest way for me to remember that.
Jackie Ferguson: So helpful.
Jake Rostovsky: Of course.
Jackie Ferguson: As a DEI leader, I found that people often don’t have access or experience with people from the trans community.
And so they avoid conversations as to not offend, but in doing that, it makes people feel excluded and unwelcomed. Let’s talk about some trans basics. What are some things that we need to know?
Jake Rostovsky: It’s really interesting because a lot of employers that I work with say, Oh, well, we’ve never had a trans employee. I don’t know how to have these conversations. To which I respond, well, you’ve never had a trans employee that you know of. Right. It’s quite possible they’ve not come out yet. Or they’re, you know, living stealth, right. Which means that they just don’t tell anyone. So already it’s a bit too late for these conversations that employers are not having.
But some basics that are really important to know are just to be open, honest, and always take the lead of your employee. Right? So if an employee comes out, instead of being like, well, I took this training, which is good, please take trainings. But say, okay, this is what I’ve learned in this training. How is this applicable to you? And how can I help you? Because I could sit here and list, you know, the top five things to know when working with a trans employee and your employee will come out. And it’s absolutely not applicable to that employee. In a nutshell, the great answer to that is take as many workshops with varying different facilitators because we each have our own perspective.
And then when you’re ready to have those difficult conversations, follow your employees lead.
Jackie Ferguson: Love that. So Jake, you’ve been speaking as a transgender advocate since you were 14. That’s incredibly brave. Can you tell us about your journey and how you became a voice for this community at such a young age?
Jake Rostovsky: Yeah, so I came out actually at 12 and when I came out let’s see, that was – ooh I’m going to give away my age – very early 2000s.
And at the time there was absolutely nothing around trans individuals under 18, let alone trans individuals in general. Right. So, yeah. I had no information on what to do. And so I literally like created a PowerPoint presentation, went to my mom and was like, this is who I am. This is what I need. And she was like, great, thank you for explaining.
And then it made me start thinking if I couldn’t find stuff and I, this sounds – not so modest, but I’m usually pretty good at finding and researching and looking things up from a young age. If I couldn’t find things and I had privileged access to the internet and resources, imagine all of these other people who didn’t have resources to anything.
So I kinda just decided that for whatever reason I was very fortunate to have privilege and access. I was going to be able to give that to other people. And I realized it was very dangerous at the time to be out. And I realized that I could have been putting myself in situations that might not have been good for me, but I decided I needed to do it because if not me, then who?
Jackie Ferguson: Wow. Jake, tell us a little bit more about that journey and some of the amazing people that you’ve had the opportunity to talk to as you became this advocate for the transgender community.
Jake Rostovsky: Absolutely my journey, I’ve met so many incredible people, as you mentioned, you know, Oprah, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with her like three times I think. I think I actually had more fun hanging out with her Cocker Spaniel though cause I’m a big dog. But besides all the big flashy names, cause I could list names forever, I’ve actually gotten to meet some amazing grassroots organizers and some incredible mentors. I remember when I was 13, 14, I was in a group therapy. I think I stayed from about 13 to 16, 17 with these trans women, mostly of color, mostly HIV positive, who had nothing in their lives, except for these weekly hour groups, and just sitting in their room and watching them and watching their resilience and watching how they just survived and thrived actually, rather than survive.
That that was my incredible sort of journey to witness. And that was my privilege. And unfortunately many of them have since passed because of lack of resources, but I carry them with me wherever I go.
Jackie Ferguson: That is so fantastic. You know, it’s amazing to think about how the people that we meet along in our life journey that impact us in such a real way. Can you share a memorable story or someone that you inspired by being an advocate for the trans community?
Jake Rostovsky: I love this question. I think I was about 19-20.
I was doing a conference, the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. Awesome conference. Please check it out when it’s back in person. I had done Oprah just for some background around 15-16 years old. And at the time a lot of people were like, why would you do that? That, you know, you’re putting yourself at risk.
Right? So keep that in the back of your mind, it’s important for the story. So 19-20 years old giving a presentation, there was this tiny little kid sitting in the back. I want to say 10-11, kept like looking shy. And afterwards waited until every single person left the presentation. And he came up to me and he was like, Hi, Jake you know, my name is so-and-so and I wanted to let you know that my mom was watching a rerun of your episode on Oprah a couple of months ago. And I was actually so depressed. I didn’t know how I was going to tell her. I was suicidal. I was planning on actually killing myself the next week. Your episode aired. My mom saw it and I had the courage to tell her after the episode, because I saw her reaction was positive. And I just wanted to thank you for saving my life. And I was like, Oh my God, like, I didn’t know what to do. I was like a young, I was like this, what? I was so overcome with emotion and it ties back to all the risks that I took as a youth were worth it.
And, if that was the only kid that I helped, well, I’ve stayed in touch with him and he’s gone on to do some incredible things inspiring other people. I’d like to think that like that was worth it
Jackie Ferguson: Wow. Thank you for sharing that, Jake. That is, that’s such an amazing story.
Let’s talk about Queer Works, your nonprofit. What are you doing through that organization? Tell us about it.
Jake Rostovsky: Yeah, Queer Works. It’s my baby. It was my dissertation in grad school and turned into a real life non-profit. Our mission is to provide affordable, accessible, and affirmative mental health services to the LGBTQ+ community.
What that looks like, it’s very broad on purpose. What that looks like right now is developing a training program for other therapists so that they can go out and do affirmative work with a huge concentration on trans non binary clients. There aren’t a lot of trans identified therapists. So, you know, why not make the cis-identified – so cis is non trans identified individuals – as affirmative as possible. I also go and do training and development for employee resource groups, HR companies, huge organizations. Because how that ties into mental health is if your workplace is somewhere that supports you, you’re going to be a lot healthier, happier, and thrive.
So Queer Works just started. It’s our baby. We’re still building stuff out. Please check us out. We always are looking for volunteers.
Jackie Ferguson: Fantastic. And then Jake, tell us what affirmative therapy is.
Jake Rostovsky: Affirmative therapy is such a complex word. So I’ll give you the easy sort of non psychobabble version. Affirmative therapy – so going to therapy and feeling that your identity is not something that you have to explain to somebody. Your identity is not something that a therapist thinks is the cause root of all of your symptomology. Right? So you’re not anxious because you’re trans, you’re trans and anxious, which is a huge difference. Or you’re anxious and you also happen to be trans. So affirmative is your identity is affirmed throughout your therapeutic process, as opposed to being competent or supportive or knowledgeable, that doesn’t really cut it when your client is trying to implicitly trust you as a therapist.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. That’s an important distinction, you know, and it’s, it’s important as we think about, you know, who we need to be seeing for therapy, which I love that it’s becoming more commonplace and people are talking about it more, and I love that. So Jake, let’s talk a little bit about therapy, especially for people in the trans community.
What do they need to be asking when they seek out a therapist?
Jake Rostovsky: That is an excellent question and first of all, I feel like it’s important for clients to know that you are the one who is in power in the situation. You know, a therapist cannot have a business without a client. So asking questions are totally valid. And if you don’t like the answer, you don’t have to see the therapist, right. It’s not like you’re contractually obligated from a phone call. So questions that you should ask are, you know, what does trans and non-binary mean to you? And listening to how the therapist answers. So, you know, red flags would be like, well, it’s , you know, people choose to transition.
You’re like, you know, red flag “choose”. It’s like, no, you don’t choose to transition, we have to transition. Right. So there’s differences there. Also asking their experience with the community. So, you know, I’ve never really worked with a trans client before, but I’ve always wanted to. That’s an issue because now you’re sort of a check box, a goal for the therapist to say. You can also ask about personal experience. Do you know anyone? Is there anyone in your life? What does the community mean to you? And whether or not a a therapist discloses is their decision. But if you want a therapist who discloses more, you know, that’s a way to look at it. So asking questions around community is important and listening to how they talk about the community.
Well I’ll always respect your preferred pronouns and names. Well, it’s not preferred – it’s your name. Right? So wording is very, very telling.
Jackie Ferguson: That is so important. You know, we at The Diversity Movement did a course on inclusive language. And just listening to how you’re speaking about what you should be listening for in choosing a therapist, you know, for the rest of us, the people who are just in the workplace, the people that are in, you know, these communities, our communities, all of our communities. We need to think about the language that we’re using to make sure that when we talk to people, they feel affirmed and they feel welcome and they feel valued and appreciated, and it’s so important to use inclusive language in how you’re talking to people in general.
Um, so I love that you talked about using the word choose. I love that you talked about using preferred pronouns, which are you know, mistakes people make. But you know, you want to make sure that you’re not using non-inclusive language and making sure that when you’re having conversations with people, you’re not offending them and you understand a little bit, at least about, their life. Love that.
Jake, tell us more about you. You know, we had this discussion previously, but very often people are identified by a single dimension of diversity or one descriptor. So a black woman or a trans man or a person who’s hard of hearing, something like that. But there are so much more to each of us than just that one descriptor, right? So I’d love to hear more about you. Tell us about Jake.
Jake Rostovsky: Yeah. This is always such a hard question cause you know, it might not seem like it, but I rarely sit and talk about myself. So, you know, I also identify as a gay man. I think I actually hang out more in the queer gay culture. I’m engaged to a wonderful cisgender male. And we are really just kind of wack – I call myself like wackadoodle. I’m just sort of out there doing strange things all the time. One minute you can catch me building a Lego city. Like that’s my current project is like, I’ve made a Lego me and I’m like, I’m going to make a Lego city.
If I can’t go out, my Lego person can go out. But then in the next minute, you know, I’m sitting on the couch watching Forensic Files and trying to be what we call a civilian investigator. I’m like always trying to figure out like, who is the Zodiac Killer? So I’m just sort of this eclectic weirdo and I love it. And yeah, most of my time is spent immersed in queer culture. I think just because of the fact that LGBTQ individuals are so big on chosen family, that most of our family reflects us. It happens to be that most of my friends are gay men, but you know, we still do things that are not stereotypically, you know, gay identified. It’s just nice to be in that culture. So that you don’t feel alone. But yeah, my partner jokes, like he’s like, what are you doing now? And I’m like, I’m just on LinkedIn messaging people cause it gives me life or like I’m creating a new, you know, conference or whatever. Just like I I’m one of those people that just need to constantly be working – in a healthy way, I can set boundaries.
Jackie Ferguson: That was fantastic. Now I understand too, and you mentioned it around the conversation with Oprah. You love dogs.
Jake Rostovsky: I do.
Jackie Ferguson: Love that. Now another point in a conversation that we had earlier is that, you know, we all have our ways of arguing. But I understand that you do it with PowerPoints.
Jake Rostovsky: I do. I argue with PowerPoints. I think it’s really important because that way I can show data. Right. You know, data doesn’t lie. My partner’s always laughing at me. He’s a therapist in training too. So our arguments are actually more around like, I don’t want to shame you, but – or like, this is, what’s been coming up for me.
You know, so we don’t do the PowerPoint arguments, but we actually just last week decided Thursdays are going to be Thought Thursdays, and we’re going to do PowerPoints on random subjects, just so that we can learn something new cause we’re so bored. This pandemic, we just want to go and get a $12 overpriced cocktail at a bar and hang out with people. But instead we’re making PowerPoints around like gray whales or the invention of the washing machine.
Jackie Ferguson: Oh my goodness. I love that.
Jake, with your experience in the entertainment industry, how do you feel about the way trans people are portrayed in the media?
Jake Rostovsky: Yeah, that’s a tough subject for me, because I actually avoid heavily anything that has to do with trans individuals as the star or the main narrative because I’m so activated by how poorly they’re represented. And I know there’s been a lot of movement on that. You know, I still haven’t seen Disclosure, which is supposed to be like really, really good. I still haven’t seen – I can’t remember what it’s called – but it’s the new one on HBO following a young trans but like, I can’t watch those things because there’s just something in me that gets activated. So I guess short version of that is I think there’s still a really long way to go. I think that the world, the trans community is getting tired of these narrative tropes of following me through my transition. I would love to just see a main character in a television show who also happens to be trans and once in a while something comes up, but you know, they’re busy dealing with – and I’m thinking like a Lucille Ball, you know, what if Lucy was trans? Like, yeah, she’s dealing with trying to eat all these chocolates and then also having heart to heart moments with Ricky about how, you know she was mis-gendered.
Right. So that, that’s what I would love to see, as opposed to like, the two main things, which are like, let’s look at someone’s personal life and sort of like put that on display or, you know, stories of hardship and then maybe triumph at the end.
Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. Such an important point. And just going back to, you know, there’s so much more to each of us than just that one storyline. We’re all doing so much and thinking about so much and feeling so much. And we are you know, well-rounded individuals, all of us. And you know, when you’re focused on only one aspect of a person you miss so much, so thank you for sharing.
Jake Rostovsky: Well, and I feel just to add too is my dream would be to see trans actors, actresses in CIS gender roles so to see, you know, like if, like I said, like a trans person playing Lucy in a remake, right. Like that would be awesome, which is also I think – and I have a very different opinion – I think it’s okay for CIS people to play, you know, trans roles or it’s okay for straight people to play gay roles because that’s acting. Because trans and queer people should play CIS and straight roles right? Like it should be opportunities for everyone, because what I worry is that only trans actors will be cast in only trans roles, which then, you know, it goes through that whole trope of like, well, I don’t necessarily need my story as representation. I just need me as an actor.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. That makes sense.
Can we talk a little about trans employees’ workplace? What is your experience firstly, and then what do we need to know to successfully lead inclusive cultures?
Jake Rostovsky: Yeah, trans employees in the workplace kind of goes back to what I said about, when someone comes out or you think you want to do something around a trans employee is to like stop, ask questions, and sort of go from there. Also though, caveat is, I always think it’s really important to be proactive rather than reactive. So you are that company that’s like, we’ve never had anyone come out or we’ve never had anyone have to do anything. That’s fine. You could still go take a training and still be prepared for when that time happens. A lot of data estimates , this is a compiled number from a bunch of different research – 39% of the future workforce generation is going to be trans or non-binary identified. So that’s a huge number. And when we get back to the roots of a business, it’s to make money, right? Every CEO, every company wants to make money. And doing that is simply, you know, calling me up and being like, Hey do you want to do a hour long town hall? Or having an employee that you trust lead and say, this is my experience within the company, or downloading a toolkit. There’s tons of free trans toolkits out there. People are giving this information away for free because they want you to learn about them. So just making that decision that like, this is the work that I’m going to do today, and these are the employees that I’m going to fight for.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. 39% is such a big number. And when you think about recruiting the best and the brightest, you’ve got to tap into that 39%. When you think about expanding your market share as an organization, you’ve got to tap in to that 39%.
Jake Rostovsky: Well and look at Dr. Rachel Levine, right. You know, if you look at the news it’s – she could have been passed over. She came out later sure. But she could have been passed over by tons and tons of people simply because she came out as trans and now she’s the highest trans official in the country, by the new administration. So imagine all of the Dr. Rachel Levines out there that aren’t being given consideration because maybe their resume doesn’t match the name in which is on their legal documentation. So thinking recruiting, it always sparks conversation. Like how do you want to do recruiting? What questions do you want to reshape around recruiting? References – what if they don’t have references because every person they’ve worked with knew them in their previous life and they don’t want to talk about that? So it’s like thinking about how we can hire and recruit in the future in a safe and affirmative way.
Jackie Ferguson: Jake, just a sidebar, because I’ve never thought about that with the references piece.
What do we do instead? Do we just forego the references? Like how do we, how do we as employers navigate that?
Jake Rostovsky: I think, you know, I think references – I mean, I used to work in recruitment, you know, just disclosure purposes and I think references can be very helpful and very telling. So broadening our idea of what a reference can be, right. So maybe not someone that you’ve worked with, but someone that you might’ve done like grassroots organization with. Or someone that you went to school with for a really long time and saw you transition and saw you triumph and overcome things. Thinking about what we use as hard skills. Thinking about what we use also as soft skills and references and how we can translate our experiences into the needed skills. So maybe someone who came out at like 35 years old, had a family – you know, a heteronormative family – had to make the decision to transition, like that’s pretty brave and that’s pretty strong. I would want that in an employee, someone who has the ability to stand up for what they believe in. So how do you use that? Like, okay, so maybe his ex-wife is, you know, or, you know, ex-husband is a reference in talking about that, you know, and what that was like.
So just kind of thinking about what a reference can be, and sometimes you know, just to end on this one is, sometimes they don’t have any job experience or references because they waited to transition to be able to get a job. So thinking, you know, what a reference can be in that way is important too.
Jackie Ferguson: That’s so helpful because you know, it just shows that no matter how much time you spend right in the diversity and inclusion space, there’s always something new to learn. So I appreciate that. that’s something that I just had never thought about before.
Jake Rostovsky: Yeah.
Jackie Ferguson: Jake, as a therapist, I want to talk about the fact that 10% of LGBTQ teens attempt suicide at some point. This is heartbreaking, right? From your perspective, why is this? And how do we as advocates and as parents support our children as they begin to understand and come into their own identity?
Jake Rostovsky: Yeah, that’s a great one. And that statistic, I can’t give you a specific number, but it’s actually much higher now. We haven’t quite published data on it, but it’s known within the community, it’s probably double. And then 40-60% of those, let’s say if it’s 20%. 40-60% of that 20% are trans non binary individuals. So that’s just something I like to say is that we’re reporting what we’ve recorded, but there’s always so many individuals that aren’t taking account for. Also people that have committed or attempted suicide that haven’t been out, thus, we don’t get them in that data. But for parents, you know, loved ones, it always goes into, again, open honest communication. So if you might have an inkling that your child is going through something, and they’re a teenager, you’re not going to go up to them and be like, tell me what’s wrong with you. Cause they’re going to be like, get away you suck. It’ll be like, put on a television show. There’s a queer character and make a comment about like, Oh my gosh. If I was their parent, I’d make sure that they always felt loved and they always felt safe and they always felt supported right. Kids are listening, even if they seem like they aren’t. They can have their AirPods in all day, but they’re actually on mute and they’re listening and watching everything you’re saying. So the way in which a parent, a family member, an employer walks about, and this world tells the person, like the trans non binary, queer person, how to interact with them. So, you know, I have a couple of clients who talk about their employers making comments about trans people, you know, like, Ugh, Oh my God. You know, he/she/this and they’re like, Oh, it’s not going to be safe for me to come out. Same thing with parents, you know? Oh, this show Pose. Oh, it’s so gross. Like, ick, what are these? Kid’s not going to want to come out. So just being mindful of the conversations that are being had in the household can save someone’s life.
Jackie Ferguson: It’s so important that we create environments and that the work that I do you know, we want to create environments where people feel safe and feel like they can be themselves and, and don’t, we all deserve that, you know?
Jake Rostovsky: Absolutely.
Jackie Ferguson: Thank you for that. You know, it’s important to remember that people are listening. People in the workplace are listening, your children are listening and we have to be mindful of how we talk and what we say and how we talk about people because you just never know who’s in earshot and what they’re listening for.
So, Jake, as we begin to wrap up, what would you like to leave our listeners with today?
Jake Rostovsky: I hope that people hear this conversation and they want to continue it. I hope that people reach out not necessarily to the trans people in their lives because that can put them on the spot, but to people who can help them understand the trans people in their lives just a little bit better, right?
They’re never going to fully understand. They’re never going to live the authentic experience, but to sort of see the world through our eyes, just a little tiny bit more. And you know, I invite people to reach out to me. You’re listening to this. You now know a trans person who is welcoming conversation. Right? So you can’t ever say again that you don’t know a trans person cause you do. And also not assuming just from my conversation, that everything I’m saying is applicable to every trans non binary person. It’s my experience. I come from a privileged experience. I’ve worked most of my life, which many trans individuals have not. So it’s quite a different experience. So I hope that people just take away, conversation needs to just keep happening.
Jackie Ferguson: Jake, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. You can learn more about Jake at JakeRostovsky.com. And that’s JAKEROSTOVSKY.com. Jake, thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation today.
Jake Rostovsky: Me too. And like I said, let’s keep on having them.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely.