Transgender In The Workplace: Are People Ready For This?

Transgender employees may not make up a large percentage of the workforce, but with no policy on the books at most companies, the office environment can be a dangerous place for employees dealing with gender issues.

We spoke to a few transgendered workers about how their gender has affected them at work. Some fared better than others, but none had an easy time of it. It’s the stigma that’s attached to being transgender that keeps many individuals silent about their gender identity. While some transgender people are fortunate enough to work in open-minded and safe office environments, lack of understanding and ignorance on the part of others has many hiding this aspect of them to avoid ridicule, harassment and–in some cases–job loss.

C who works at a college, transitioned while a work. Before him, there had never been a transgender person at his college, this includes students, faculty and staff. C says of his beginning experience of the process:

“I had to teach HR about trans issues, which was difficult; it is not easy to be an advocate for yourself during such an intense experience.”

That is not uncommon. According to Jo, who works in human resources at a marketing firm in lower Manhattan:

“Honestly, I don’t know what we’d do if we had a transgender person. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the employee handbook. I’d like to hope that they wouldn’t be treated differently, but it’s hard to say.”

In 2009 the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force interviewed 6,450 transgender people for a six-month data collection process. It is the largest study of its kind, and found that a devastating 97% of transgender individuals experienced some form of harassment or mistreatment while on the job.

That’s why C tried to keep things under wraps at work:

“Initially, I was not open about my decision to transition. I made a social transition (asking my friends to change pronouns and begin using ‘he’ instead of ‘she’) about eight months before coming out at work. I had more anxiety about transitioning at work than I did about any other area of my life because I had worked there for five years before transitioning, and people knew me as ‘she.’ Coming out at work for me meant transitioning pretty publicly, because all of the faculty and staff would know, and also all of the students. I felt like a target because I was getting harassed before coming out because I was gender non-conforming.”

When we asked C if we could speak to his HR office, he said “no – absolutely not,” citing that the human resources department was not welcoming or supportive at all.

In addition to harassment, transgender people have twice the rate of unemployment than the population as a whole and 47% “experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired or denied a promotion.” Also, 26% lost their jobs because they were transgender.

With such high levels of discrimination, the effects trickle down to severe poverty and even homelessness. According to the study:

“Respondents experience poverty at a much higher rate than the general population, with more than 27% reporting incomes of $20,000 or lower and more than 15% reporting incomes of $10,000 or lower. Only 7% of the general population reports incomes of $10,000 or lower.”

That gap in salary has resulted in 1/5 of transgender individuals becoming homeless. And without a doubt, this can be contributed to discrimination in the office as well as by people outside the work environment who aren’t educated on the issue or don’t want to make the effort to understand.

States that actually acknowledge discrimination against transgender people are few and far between. Just last month Connecticut became the 15th state to pass HB 6599 that prohibits “discrimination of the basis of gender identity and expression… aiming at protecting transgender people, forbids discrimination in areas including employment, public accommodations, issuance of credit, and the sale and rental of housing.”

There are also only about 100 cities nationwide–including major hubs like Boston, Philadelphia and New York City–that have made laws to protect the transgendered from discrimination.

But what about those who are aren’t fortunate enough to live in one of those cities or states? What becomes of them? Even in New York City acquiring that level of respect has been hard.

In March of this year three transgender residents sued the city for not allowing them to change the gender on their birth certificates. According to a 40-year-old city health code, before changing gender in writing, a person must undergo “convertive surgery.” The operation is defined as the “construction of genitalia” of the gender with which the individual associates. However, not only is the process extremely expensive–upwards of $17,000–but it’s also not covered by insurance. In fact, some transgender people are even denied any insurance at all, because carriers regard “gender identity disorder as a ‘pre-exisiting’ condition.”

For C, even though he eventually came out about his decision and tried to educate his work and HR, the negatives responses were evident. This fact puts C in that overwhelming 97%:

“I did have some backlash and a few negative reactions when I came out at work. One high-level employee made an inappropriate comment to her entire staff, which also consisted of student workers. I heard about it through the grapevine and it was a very upsetting experience. I knew I was opening myself up to criticism, but I didn’t expect people to be so rude about it.”

Although it took time and acceptance on the parts of others, C is finally feeling more comfortable. In fact, with those who don’t know that he was born as a “she,” C has noticed a “shift” in his privilege in the workplace. Which of course brings up the issue of how men and women are treated differently at work:

“I have noticed a general shift in the way people interact with me – I have shifted identity from a masculine female in a same sex relationship to being perceived as a ‘straight white male’ which has definitely impacted my privilege in the workplace (for example, with parents or students who don’t know I’m trans) and definitely out of the workplace.”

For B, who worked as a camp counselor and does not like to be referred to as “they/them/their, as there is only one of me,” (instead choosing the singular gender neutral pronouns “zie/zer”), telling someone at work was a big mistake:

“Next thing I know, my bosses are pulling me aside and telling me that if I don’t shut up I’ll get fired, and by the way do I need time off for counseling? I was very, very unhappy at that job, and since I was living there (a standard summer camp setup) I kinda had to deal with it all the time.”

L, who is a transgender woman, works for herself. Acknowledging the “grim” prospects of a standard work situation, L says:

“I work for myself so I don’t really face discrimination.”

Considering the small percentage of the population that has dealt with these issues firsthand, the first step toward fixing discrimination problems like this is through education. Says C:

“Being trans in the workplace means constantly educating others. It was a difficult position to negotiate. I didn’t want to be the token trans person (since I am the only one) but I know that educating others makes my experience better at work, and hopefully will make it better for other trans employees after me or for other trans folks in those people’s lives because people will have a better understanding of trans issues. I’ve become a trans advocate and worked to change policies, bring trainings, and make my work environment more inclusive and less hostile. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.”


Photo: LGBT Learning Curve

You can reach this post's author, Amanda Chatel, on twitter.
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    • Delphi Omally Yes…….we go through much much grief. I spent countless hours detailing our grief…it is a must-read for those who “d0n’t know a trans person”…

    • Louise Hannon

      A very accurate article reflecting the strong lack of knowledge and support in the work place. In Ireland you may have seen my own case, which was the first to use gender discrimination laws and was a test case to include transgender under our gender discrimination employment laws. The biggest draw back to fighting cases is the lack of support, although I had great legal help from our Equality Authority, there was no one to one mental support and the stress of reliving the issues in the Equality Tribunal was the most difficult part three and a half years after the event. I would encourage anyone to stand their ground and fight any cases that are happening but it would be great if employers thought more about their employees than the bottom line and what other people and customers think. Society is changing here in Ireland and I hope across the globe

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    • Teona Constance Watson

      As a transgender female it’s been very hard for me to in getting a job all the interview process I had let down’s but I never thought of giving up