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The man who didn't exist
They thought Seth Katz was lying about his professional experience when, in reality, he had just changed his name.
One thing everyone can say with confidence is that job hunting sucks.
As a recent grad in the visual design field, I can confirm that. When I was in college, all my professional work in the field came from unpaid internships. I was told it was necessary and that no ‘real job’ would hire me without that experience, but I couldn’t pay my San Francisco landlord in portfolio pieces or exposure. When I graduated in 2017, I struggled to find a job so much that I ended up couchsurfing until I found a part-time retail gig. I was fortunate enough to move my way up the ladder and soon found myself working with the company’s graphic design and marketing elements that I had prepared for in school. But I was growing and changing in ways beyond my job position.
Working at this job provided me the health insurance and financial stability I needed to begin my medical and legal gender transition. I had also only begun my social transition (coming out of the closet as a transgender man to my family and friends, living socially as a man, etc.) a year or so before getting this job. I was and am eternally grateful for the opportunities provided me to become my most authentic self. But, despite my gratitude, I knew this job couldn’t be forever and that to grow as a person and as a designer, I would need to move onward and upward in the creative world.
And so the hunt began. Living in a dense city like San Francisco, I assumed the opportunities would be abundant. Wasn’t this the promised land? But reality slowly began to set in when I remembered how difficult my previous search was, and recognized how truly painstaking this was going to be. I made an account on every job hunting site and applied for every possible design related opening. I gave myself a quota of applying to ten jobs a day until there weren’t any openings left in the Bay Area. Then I would wait a day or two, and start all over again. The rejections came pouring in, but for every 50 nopes I got one maybe. And then the dance would begin.
Most often, there would be a phone call or video chat before I got the ‘thank u next’ spiel. Sometimes I got up to five or six steps into the interview process before rejection hit. But one particular rejection stood out to me amongst the rest. I had just spent 24 hours pixel-perfecting a design exercise for a company only to be turned away 24 hours later. Seeking critique, I reached out and asked what I could have done better. I was informed that, although my design was great, they had reached out to previous employers listed on my portfolio only to hear that Seth has never worked for us. They thought I was lying about my professional experience when, in reality, I had just changed my name.
I was stuck. Do I reach out to all my previous employers and inform them that I legally transitioned from female to male? Do I tell my potential future bosses my dead name, sharing the truth that I’m transgender, and bank on the fact that they legally can’t discriminate? Even if I got the job, they would know the truth and I would lose the comfort and opportunity of being stealth in the workplace. No matter what I would be making myself extremely vulnerable, sharing personal details that I wouldn’t otherwise, and for a position I might not even get.
Weighing the pros and cons, I scanned through all my listed work experience. Most of my previous jobs were based in the Bay Area, so I hoped for open-mindedness even if it would be awkward at worst. But that was just optimism -- what if this changed the way they would speak of me in a possible referral? Even if speaking honestly, they might out me anyway. And what if these jobs didn’t have liberal work environments and I couldn’t bet on tolerance in the first place?
I worked in design and marketing back in my small hometown before moving to the big city, but I hadn’t visited since coming out as transgender for my own safety. Coming out as queer in high school resulted in my family’s home address being circulated amongst my peers along with slurs and threats. This was difficult enough to live through, and I wouldn’t deal with it again if I could avoid it. As a junior designer or intern at those hometown firms, I understandably worked with familiar faces including schoolmates’ parents and family friends. I knew if I had to contact and explain my transition to these companies, it would out me to everyone and potentially put my family and I in danger. But I also couldn’t take what design I did for them off my portfolio, as it was some of my strongest work. I felt like I had no choice but to risk potential employers asking my previous jobs about a man who didn’t legally exist more than a year ago.
I scoured the internet seeking advice or similar struggles in hope of finding a solution or at least feeling less alone. As much content as there is online about how job hunting is the worst, preparing for bizarre interview questions, and even how to hide your tattoos from your potential boss, there was nothing about how to hide your secret female past.
While processing all of this, I took a short hiatus from applying to jobs. Along with trying to solve this seemingly unsolvable problem, I used the time to focus on some of my personal art, writing, and design. I collaborated with a local queer-centric collective to showcase art and design about my experiences as a transgender person. I published a few pieces about my perspective as a trans man. I also spent time on creative work that never saw the light of day (or the internet) that further touched on my identity. All this creative content grounded me and reaffirmed my sense of purpose. The more I made work that I was both proud of and that represented myself as trans person, the more I realized that this was the work I could be presenting to my potential employers.
Unfortunately, including queer and trans-centric work in my portfolio could inadvertently out me, but it was a risk I was willing to take. Rather than awkwardly explaining my journey to a past or future employer, sprinkling my portfolio with this work would not only show that I am a great creator, but also imply that I have previously worked under a different name and gender.
It’s sad that I have to sugar coat the fact that I’m trans by subtly expressing it to hiring managers through portfolio pieces. But I’m proud of this work. Both because it is personal to me and also because it puts my talent on display. Also, if it will keep me from unnecessarily speaking to an old boss about being trans, I don’t mind.
But how would this work if I was wasn’t in the creative field and couldn’t use my portfolio to subtly communicate my situation to employers? What if I was applying for work in a more conservative city where any hint of my diversity would make my rejection more likely? I don’t have the answers to these questions. But sharing the story of how I learned to communicate my trans identity to employers has the power to help others facing adversity, and can lead to other important conversations supporting trans people in careers.