Ben Nicholas is co-chair of our LGBTQ+ Alliance ERN and is a transportation engineer in our Knoxville office. While sharing his vision for what he hopes the ERN can achieve, Ben recently provided some insight into his personal story, including his gender transition experience in the workplace. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
What motivated you to join the LGBTQ+ Alliance ERN?
Ben Nicholas: My reason for joining the ERN was twofold. First, at the time that I came out as transgender at Gresham Smith in 2018, I felt a bit like an island and pretty lonely in my life in general. That feeling extended into the workplace as the only queer person in my office. Consequently, I had a strong desire to connect with other members of the firm’s LGBTQ+ community through this ERN. Also, I have a significant amount of LGBTQ+ advocacy experience in Knoxville. So, having the opportunity to bring that to Gresham Smith was incredibly meaningful to me.
What do you hope to achieve with the LGBTQ+ Alliance ERN?
Ben: One of my personal goals for this ERN is to have LGBT-specific nondiscrimination policies and practices put into place that protect the rights of employees of all orientations and identities. This is important—not only because it creates an inclusive and welcoming work environment where everyone can be their personal best, but because having a policy establishes consistency, regardless of who happens to be in a leadership position at any given moment.
“I think the intrinsic value of the LGBTQ+ ERN is that it’s going to help us all respect one another’s humanity.”
Tell us about your LGBTQ+ advocacy experience.
Ben: I served on the steering committee for Voices for Trans Youth, which is a non-partisan, nonprofit LGBTQ+ activism organization based in Knoxville. Their overarching mission is to make Knox County schools safer and more supportive for LGBTQ+ students by getting LGBTQ+ inclusive policies adopted by the Knox County Board of Education. I also sing with and serve on the board for the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus, where we use our voices to promote inclusion, equality and empathy, and to help end hostility toward minority populations.
Ben breaks out a song with the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus.
What was your experience of coming out at Gresham Smith?
Ben: I feel fortunate that the first person I came out to at work was our Human Resources Director Carolyn Kitts. She helped me navigate coming out and transitioning at the firm. Carolyn handled it with a ton of grace and professionalism and put the reins in my hands in terms of what I was comfortable with, and how I wanted to handle it.
I will say there were a few bumps in the road and some rocky moments in terms of coming out at work, but that has gotten better over time. I think it’s a combination of folks just getting used to it and also having some hearts and minds change as they’ve gotten to know me as Ben. I definitely don’t feel lonely and out of place within my Knoxville team anymore, even though I’m the only out and visible LGBTQ+ person in my office.
Ben and members of our Knoxville office take part in a spring stream cleanup. Left to right: Ben Nicholas, Mathew Giles, Cameron LaRose and Jason Brady. Front and center: Shap Stiles.
What is your story?
Ben: Growing up in East Tennessee in a fairly conservative family, I didn’t have a frame of reference for my queer identity or the discomfort I was experiencing as a teen and then as a young adult. I didn’t really know that gay was a “thing” until I got to college, and I definitely didn’t know about trans people.
It was during my junior year of college, when Orange Is the New Black introduced a transgender person to the show, that something really resonated with me—although I didn’t know just what yet. All I knew is that I had this growing discomfort within myself, and that I didn’t feel comfortable about what was expected of me in terms of my gender.
It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I had an ah-ha moment about myself and my own feelings when Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender very visibly in the national spotlight. Suddenly, I found someone whose feelings and struggles I could identify with, and everything that previously felt inexplicably uncomfortable in my life had an answer. It took a few more years, however, to become truly confident that coming out as transgender was the right answer for me and to start transitioning.
Ben and members of the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus take part in Knoxville Pridefest 2019.
How do you help people better understand the “T” in LGBTQ+?
Ben: When I’m asked what it means to be transgender, I simply do my best to educate. For example, I think it’s important that people recognize there is no such thing as an “LGBTQ+” person. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, plus others, are all different labels that represent separate parts of our identities. They are words that relate to people’s incredibly diverse experiences of gender and sexual identity—two things that are often confused for being one and the same.
When I joined the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus, I was the first trans man ever to sing in the choir, and many chorus members didn’t have a good understanding of gender versus sexuality. To start the conversation and clear the air after a lot of questions came my way, I gave a 30-minute learning seminar using a great little teaching tool called The Genderbread Person, which uses a Gingerbread Man-like figure to break down the concepts of gender and sexuality. For example, the Genderbread Person’s brain signifies gender identity, while the heart represents romantic attraction.
What I really like about this tool is that it shows how everything is on a spectrum, and that male and female aren’t the only two options—there are infinite variations between the two. And every single one us, straight or gay, transgender or cisgender, has all of these components to who we are.
“Yes, I’m transgender, but I’m also just a person. I’m an engineer. I’m a singer. I’m a “dog dad” who likes to go kayaking and hiking.”
Are you comfortable with being referred to as transgender or queer?
Ben: I’m comfortable with being referred to as either. I think “queer” is great for me personally because it covers the fact that I’m gay and I’m transgender. Some people say that “labels” are divisive, but I think it’s important to note that labels can be OK, and even good, because they can help us find common ground with other people and form a community. For example, if I write an article about being trans, then other trans people know there are people like them and that they aren’t alone in their journey and struggles.
Having said that, these parts of our identities that we label and talk about aren’t unilaterally defining characteristics. Yes, I’m transgender, but I’m also just a person. I’m an engineer. I’m a singer. I’m a “dog dad” who likes to go kayaking and hiking. And there’s a whole human being here who doesn’t just boil down to this one identity trait.
Ben with his “fur children” Charlie and Chezy.
What is the overall value of the LGBTQ+ Alliance ERN, not just to Gresham Smith but to the community as a whole?
Ben: I think the intrinsic value of the LGBTQ+ Alliance ERN is that it’s going to help us all respect one another’s humanity—even those who don’t identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. It will help broaden our perspectives on other people, and when we do that, it ultimately broadens our communities. I think this is especially important for our company and our designers because people from all communities have different issues and needs from the spaces we create. And, I personally think that when we hire and value diverse perspectives, we get better design.
I also believe that the LGBTQ+ Alliance ERN gives Gresham Smith an important platform as an industry leader to show our support for LGBTQ+ equality. It allows us to have meaningful and constructive conversations that help change the dialogue around the community in a positive way, and when the dialogue shifts from the negative to the positive, that is when hearts and minds have been known to change.