Ashley T. Brundage is a leadership and empowerment expert and an “open, out, proud woman of transgender experience.”
She’s also a mom and spoke with me recently about empowerment, parenting, and more.
“I wanted to have kids so bad,” she said. When she was 17 and thinking about transitioning, she told her brother, “I always see myself as a mom.” He suggested she just have children and “do all the things that a mom would do.” She married her high school sweetheart and had two kids to see if that “‘solved” her. “Having kids was my way of still existing in the world and not wanting to kill myself. That literally was how serious it was for me,” she said. She would think, “I can't leave them without me. Maybe they need me in their lives.” Now, she reflected, “I would not be here if it wasn't for them.”
She finally started transitioning in 2008, after she lost her job as an HR person in the restaurant industry. “I was living a double life and it was affecting my work performance,” she explained. The 2008 economic crisis dealt another blow, and she and her family lost their home. She realized that in order to find a job, “I was going to have to start at the bottom and work my way back up again.”
She decided, however, that “I was going to do it as me.” She faced harassment and discrimination in job interviews — but this led her to begin researching empowerment, looking at systems of authority and power and how they connect to human differences. From this, she developed a process for “Empowering Differences,” or “[bringing] together what makes you unique with how to use that to grow in your life and empower others along the way,” as she explains on her website.
Applying this leadership model to herself, she found part-time work as a teller at PNC Bank. Within five years, she had become the FORTUNE 500 company’s national vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, bringing her family out of poverty and back into a bigger house, “all because of the will and determination to fight against oppression.” She also became a board member of GLAAD, the national LGBTQ media advocacy organization, where she was vice chair for two years. Now, she owns her own company, Empowering Differences, which offers motivational speaking, leadership development, and organizational training (empoweringdifferences.com).
In living as herself, she was applying the first step in her process of empowerment, “to know yourself.” This has helped her as a parent, too. She explained, “When you're navigating something within yourself and you're not right, you can't really drive empowerment for others. I was so conflicted in my own self, in my journey before transitioning, that I never even thought about what it was like to move in the world for other people.”
When she began transitioning, she bought her kids the book “My Princess Boy,” by Cheryl Kilodavis, about a child, assigned male at birth, who likes to wear princess dresses. After her oldest son read it, he said that its lesson was that if someone was a friend, “then they're your friend. Who cares about all this other stuff?”
She asked, “So if you had a friend that wore princess dresses, they’d still be your friend?” He said yes.
Brundage then told him that she sometimes wore dresses. When he didn’t believe her, she showed him a photo. “Oh wow, you're really pretty!” he exclaimed. She didn’t assume the path forward would always be smooth, but “at least we started on a good note,” she said.
Her kids are both teens now. “It's like I exist in the world only when they need to eat something,” she joked. “I love them so much. My oldest at 17 is the smartest human I know. My 15-year-old is like my mini-me. He has the biggest heart and already knows what he wants to do for a living.”
She advises other parents of teens “to be really patient.” When her kids were little, she said, “I felt so purposeful, that I was always needed. Now it's like I'm almost never needed … For new parents, cherish those moments because they go so fast.” With teens, “Eventually, they will say, ‘Hey, I need something,’ but it might come a lot slower than you are hoping.” She added, “I'd like to think they still need us a little bit even if they don't admit it at that age.”
The Florida-based Brundage has garnered many accolades for her work, including being named one of Florida’s Most Influential and Powerful Women by the National Diversity Council and winning a Champion Award from Out and Equal, an international nonprofit working for LGBTQ workplace equality. This past June, she received the Community Spirit Award from the Florida Commission on the Status of Women. Although she has spoken out against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and the anti-trans legislation he supports, this award came with a letter of congratulations from his office, signed by DeSantis. She reflected, “Empowerment is apolitical and this is the ultimate proof point.” At the same time, she said, “Gaining the recognition for my commitment to women and girls in Florida was a very ironic honor in many ways, especially considering much of my nomination was about empowerment of all people, including the trans and gender expansive community.”
At a time of rising anti-trans legislation in Florida and around the country, when there is also deep division in our nation around many identities and topics, Brundage’s work to view our differences instead as empowering strengths feels both timely and necessary.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 1000+ LGBTQ family books, music, and more.