On any given day, it’s not unusual for Emerson Thoenen to be smack in the middle of animals both large and small; it’s what comes with the territory working for a pet insurance company, where employees can bring their pets to the office. In particular, Emerson likes “small animal day,” because he can bring his beloved hedgehog Lola Moon to work.
“We get lots of visitors on that day,” he laughs. “She’s pretty adorable.”
While Emerson gladly reaps the benefits of such a work environment, what gives him even more joy is that his company is fully inclusive of LGBTQ people — which is incredibly important to him, as a transgender man.
“I was upfront about who I was from the very beginning,” he said. “My boss had no concerns or questions whatsoever. All that mattered was that I could do the job to the best of my ability.”
Sadly, this has not always been the case. Emerson, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Kent State University in Theater, was previously employed by a local high school district as their theater operations manager. Well-liked by his peers and the theater students, Emerson felt safe enough to come out as transgender in November 2015. Unfortunately, the welcoming environment he’d hoped to find did not become reality.
In August of 2016, he was called to the high school principal’s office, presumably to discuss the upcoming school year. However, once they began talking, the principal unleashed a torrent of criticism — calling Emerson unprofessional and saying that he was unable to successfully perform the functions of his job. Having never received any negative feedback, verbally or in writing, Emerson was confused to say the least.
“I was upfront about who I was from the very beginning. My boss had no concerns or questions whatsoever. All that mattered was that I could do the job to the best of my ability.”
“He essentially told me I had no idea what I was doing, and that he couldn’t understand how I had lasted as long as I did. From that point, he said we were going to create an ‘action plan’ — and that if I followed that to the letter, he wouldn’t dismiss me. So essentially, I spent an entire school year walking on eggshells.”
In April of 2017, at the end-of-year meeting, the principal produced a packet of supposed complaints from peers of Emerson’s. Additionally, he commented on the fact that Emerson’s “lifestyle” and the “way he presented himself” was unprofessional and an act of insubordination, terminating him on the spot.
Because Ohio is one of thirty states with no statewide laws on the books preventing discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, Emerson had no recourse to fight back.
“There was literally nothing I could do,” he stated. “I tried to talk to an attorney, but they told me there was essentially no way to go about trying to get my job back, because there was nothing in place to prevent the district from doing what they did. I had to leave this program that I loved, these students who looked up to me, colleagues that I appreciated and who I felt supported me, all because I simply began to live my truth.”
Currently, the Ohio legislature is considering the Ohio Fairness Act, which would enact explicit statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations. State Senator Nickie Antonio has been the bill’s champion for several years, first introducing the legislation during her term as a member of the Ohio House. The state’s leading advocacy group, Equality Ohio, continues to champion the bill, which has received the endorsement of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and over 600 small and large businesses that make up the coalition named Ohio Business Competes.
“We’re all going through our own individual messes,” Emerson says, “and we can all get bogged down. But if we all work with each other to dig ourselves out, we can really work at building something great together. All I want are the same opportunities as other people — and I feel like most others don’t see a problem with that.”