Michaela Mendelsohn calls right on time, eager to talk, despite everyone in the house being sick.
“I’ve got three grown kids, I know what it’s like,” says Mendelsohn, shrugging off the inevitability of colds and flu with a preschooler in the house. Hopefully all’s well by the upcoming family outing to Disneyland, which includes her partner Carmel and their toddler Isadore, plus Mendelsohn’s three adult children.
It’s a big deal for Mendelsohn, because it’s a sign that the adult children are coming to terms with her transition from the macho Dad with whom they grew up to the dynamic woman she has become.
“I didn’t have a very close relationship with my own parents growing up,” says Mendelsohn, the respected CEO of Pollo West Corp., and a prominent member of her community. “I wanted them to know how much they were loved every day.”
Mendelsohn owns six El Polo Loco stores, down from the 18 stores and 400 employees she oversaw previously as one of the Brand’s largest franchisees. She scaled back her business operations during the recession, and focused more time on her transition and advocacy for the transgender community.
“I was so good at being this macho-hero Dad that when I came out to [the children], it was really difficult,” says Mendelsohn, who began living as a woman in 2008. “It took a few years before that started to heal.”
She was born Michael Mendelsohn in Bronx, NY, in 1952, playing ball and running the streets, “pretty much like any other boy.” She legally changed her name and gender in 2008 to Michaela Ivri Mendelsohn. Ivri is Hebrew for “one who crosses over.”
There was “kind of a duality” from a young age, Mendelsohn recalls. “I loved having girls as best friends, and playing dolls, jacks and jump rope. And I loved wearing my sister’s clothes.”
She started her first company, a coin-operated video game, pinball and vending machine company, in her parents’ garage at age 21, and it “grew to the largest in the state by the time I was about 28.”
No one used the word transgender then. “There was nothing on the news, there was no Internet, there was no way to understand it.” About a decade ago, Mendelsohn began to look into the transition process.
“At that point I had adopted such a macho exterior, I was an extreme sports advocate, I was building businesses, raising and coaching my kids. I had such an image in the community that was so antithesis to what I was struggling with inside.”
To those exposed to the much-publicized story of Olympian Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlin, there are similarities to their journies.
“It wasn’t until suppressing it got so difficult it was making me absolutely ill,” recalls Mendelsohn. “I went from being an extremely public person across the country to just hiding out in my house. I woke up one morning and this little voice just said, ‘if you don’t deal with your gender issues, you’re not going to make it.’
“I ordered a dozen books online about being transgender and read them all within a week. On each page I saw myself. I was not crazy, sick or alone. I was transgender.”
Mendelsohn’s wife for more than 30 years, the mother of their three adult children, tried to be supportive.
“We went to a convention in Provincetown [where] there’s therapy and you learn more about the experience.”
While there, Mendelsohn met another Angelino, who had spent 22 years on a Swat Team and “was well under way in her transition.” She became her mentor.
Living in Los Angeles, “we’re in a bit of a bubble” as far as acceptance, says Mendelson. But even in LA, friends and neighbors had a difficult time with the news.
“People just didn’t know about it, they didn’t understand it.”
Now, there’s a perceived acceptance that doesn’t extend as far as people might think, Mendelsohn says. There is more violence against transgender people than ever, and a severe resistance from parents of trans kids, “especially in areas like the South where there’s a cultural divide.” Parents are “basically dumping their kids on the highway,” telling their kids that “if you’re gay or trans, we don’t want you.”
As a CEO, Mendelsohn didn’t have to worry about losing her job, but today she’s putting her skills, connections and experience to work for others. She’s forging alliances with several prominent trans advocacy groups, working with chambers of commerce and various employer associations, to make the California Transgender Workplace Project a resource for transgender employees.
“The Mission of the CTWP is to make California a truly positive environment for transgender employment and a model for the rest of the nation.”
Recently, Mendelsohn joined the board of the Trevor Project, the teen suicide prevention hotline. She cites Trevor Project stats that say 35% of its calls are from young people in the South, and that 41% of LGBT teens attempt suicide.
“I know what that’s like,” she says, having contemplated suicide during her transition in the “misplaced notion” that she would be doing her family a favor. It was her then 20-year-old son who talked her out of it. “He looked me in the eyes and said, “Dad, I don’t care what gender you are in, this family needs you.”
Asked about her committed relationship with Carmel, Mendelsohn says her sexual preference stayed “pretty much the same” after transitioning, adding that raising children has been “the best part of my life.”
“I’ve always been bisexual,” she says. “I’ve had relationships with men, and several since I transitioned and separated from my wife. I just feel more comfortable in relationships with women. So I’ve chosen to live a lesbian lifestyle.”
Carmel identifies as lesbian and is the mother of Isadore. “We’re trying for No. 2 now with the same donor,” Mendelsohn says.
If she’s in a relationship with a woman, why go through so much physically and emotionally to transition? Mendelsohn explains that for a lot of people, “it’s a matter of survival.”
“At some point they get to a point where suppressing it is going to kill them. [If] the choice is to be miserable or live the greatest life you can and be happy … I don’t think it’s a choice to make.”
For more about The Trevor Project see: thetrevorproject.org; for more on California Transgender Workplace Project call (818) 661-8272.