Christopher Palma was living a comfortable life. Sure, the 26-year-old PricewaterhouseCoopers assurance associate was struggling with his gender identity, but he’d already achieved so much since moving to the United States at age 18: learning English, earning a master’s degree, landing the job of his dreams, and reaching financial security. Unhappiness still nagged at him, but it was manageable.
Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, Palma says he wasn’t a “particularly feminine individual” growing up. He had a loving family that protected him and always allowed him to be himself inside their home. Outside those walls, however, a young, gender fluid Palma says he had to conform to traditional gender roles.
“When I got to a certain age I realized that’s not how I want to live my life,” says Palma, who now lives in New Jersey. “I wanted a place where I could be me everywhere.”
Palma arrived in New York after finishing high school in Colombia, with the goal of working for PwC. The company has long been providing services in Colombia, and it was the largest accounting organization he knew growing up. He joined in 2015 after earning a master’s degree in accounting.
He was living as a female, but exploring his gender identity. He’d cut his hair short for the first time at age 25, and immediately felt better—“it had to do with the way I saw myself after I did it”—and tried cross-dressing outside of PwC, a common method of coping with gender dysphoria, he says. Palma wanted to consider other options before undergoing a medical transition.
Then, on June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Palma, unable to fully express his grief, knew it was time for a change.
“I was upset and I wasn’t saying anything because nobody knew that I identified as transgender, and I felt for those people who got shot,” Palma says. “I really had nothing to lose. Those people lost their lives. That was a defining moment for me.”
That year, at the age of 27, Palma decided to transition. He'd become the first employee at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ U.S. operation to request and receive financial support for his transition and the first to help the company create a policy around how it would support transgender employees. “For me, it was a necessary change, so I wasn’t really looking for it, it just kind of organically happened,” says Palma. “It was a necessary step in my life.”
Sitting in a PwC conference room towering above Midtown Manhattan two years later, Palma says he felt safe and believed he’d be supported when transitioning at the firm. The company has a handful of diversity and inclusion groups, including for LGBTQ employees and the Latino members of staff. But he still wondered whether it was going to have an effect on his career.
Ultimately, he took a leap of faith. Palma recalls springing the unexpected news of his transition on his friend and colleague Maria Merchan, diversity leader of PwC’s Office of Diversity, who assured him that everything would be fine. The rest, he says, is history.
2016 was a big year: He started hormone replacement therapy, came out to his family and co-workers, and had his first surgery. His work health insurance policy covered all the out-of-pocket medical costs of his transition. And at a meeting held for about 40 employees, Palma’s colleagues learned his preferred pronouns and new name.
PwC asked him how they could support him, and hired the Ackerman Institute, a family therapy center, to help Palma’s colleagues be supportive and comfortable. Palma has always encouraged his co-workers to ask questions; he’d rather they went to him than consult the internet, which might give them the wrong, or misleading, information.
Palma describes himself as a private person, but “when I think about being public and visible about this very personal aspect of my life, I truly and honestly think about the impact this can have in other people’s lives,” he says.
He’s helped PwC develop guidance for people transitioning within the workplace, which provides answers to frequently asked questions, details workplace procedures, and lists outside resources and organizations. That information is available to the company’s staff on PwC’s internal website. For him, being asked to play an integral role in that process was more fulfilling than following a rigid policy already in place, because he had a hand in crafting it.
Over the past two years, Palma has held one-on-one conversations with his colleagues. Those chats, he says, have made people more comfortable, “because it’s made the relationship more human and organic and natural.” Confident and motivated to help others, he says social media has helped him to form friendships and make connections with trans communities all over the country and throughout the world, from Spain to San Antonio, New York to Germany.
Ultimately, Palma says he had to do it. Because “the pain of not being my true self and not living my life fully is greater than the fear of losing it all.”
The First Actionable Step He Took
Research on transgender protections in New York City, in New Jersey [where I live], looking at the resources I had. I also had to tell my family. I assessed the financial situation and medical costs, the professional impact, and how it might affect my professional development.
The Biggest Challenge He Faced
People have issues, it’s a human thing. Life is difficult for everybody. We all have to deal with our struggles. For me, the most difficult thing was balancing out everything. Like my family grieving the loss of an individual. The difficulty for my family has been my safety and the loss of a family member. Besides transitioning, families go through stuff. A lot of my family relies on me emotionally, they see me as someone they can count on and [who can] protect them.
Corporate work is not easy. You also have to do your job and do the best you can. I had a girlfriend at the time [I transitioned] and that didn’t go well, so a break-up. All of that, on top of going through a medical transition. I felt like I had to go through this transition to be able to live life normally.
Advice He’d Give Another First
Take it a day at a time, but always, always keep your head up. If anyone comes to a point where you have to do this and there’s no way to not do it, keep your head up and don’t feel any less than anybody else. Be patient; everything in life takes time.
Nothing’s easy, and this is no different. It’s going to get difficult. The first few months were more difficult for me than coming out. It’s adjusting to medical treatments and figuring out how to balance that with everything else. The first few months it’s like you’re out of college and you’re trying to figure out how to go from student to adult. It’s like doing that all over again.
This article has been updated to clarify the ways in which Palma was the first (after PwC corrected an error in the information it provided to The Muse). He was not the first to transition at the company, but he was the first to request and receive financial support for his transition and the first to help the company create a policy around how it would support transgender employees.
Photo of Chris Palma courtesy of Diego Molina.
Lucy Westcott is a journalist based in New York City. She is currently the James W. Foley Fellow at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), where she's conducting research on safety issues for women journalists in non-hostile environments. Prior to joining CPJ, Westcott was a staff writer for Newsweek, where she covered gender and immigration. She has reported for outlets including The Intercept, Bustle, The Atlantic, and Women Under Siege, and was a United Nations correspondent for the Inter Press Service. As a fellow with the International Reporting Project in 2016, Westcott wrote about gender and development in South Africa and Lesotho. She has reported from Egypt, Jordan, Cameroon, and the U.S. She has a master's in multi-platform journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a bachelor's degree from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. In her spare time, she enjoys trivia, running, and volunteering with cats.More from this Author