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Living in Transition

Seeking Refuge at Work in a Not-So Inclusive World

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Editor’s Note: In honor of LGBT Pride Month, the WorldatWork Publications team is celebrating diversity and inclusion in the workplace by publishing Op-Eds that are meant to provoke thought, discussion and action. The views and opinions expressed in the following text belong solely to the author, and not to WorldatWork, the leading nonprofit professional association in compensation and total rewards.

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) may sound like a corporate buzz phrase to some, but for this father of a 22-year-old transgender male, it holds a meaning that transcends the workplace. Without D&I training and companywide initiatives, things would be much worse for my son.

When you’re on the receiving end of incessant bullying and cruelty, the needle of social justice moves at a glacial pace. Thankfully, some workplaces have stepped up and delivered by proactively creating inclusive cultures and celebrating the diversity of their employees. 

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For psychological support, some transgender individuals and their family members lean on employee assistance programs (EAPs), but those services don’t provide much solace with all that appears wrong in America when it comes to living as (or with) a person in transition.

Let’s start with what’s happening in the United States when it comes to the general treatment of transgender individuals, both legally and symbolically. Far more fundamental and harmful than people getting up in arms and protesting transgender bathroom access laws are the abolishment of basic rules that protect transgender patients from discrimination by providers and insurers under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) announced at the end of May that the Trump administration plans to roll back Obama-era regulations to remove gender identity from the class of people protected from discrimination in health care.

If that’s not a blatant slap in the face to anyone who has gender dysphoria and dares to publicly claim that his or her assigned sex was wrong, I don’t know what is.

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This proposed rule change could potentially affect an estimated 1.4 million people, or 0.6% of U.S. adults who identify as transgender, according to a June 2016 report by the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law.

The fact that we as a wildly diverse nation can celebrate LGBT Pride Month (June) indicates progress, but it remains shameful that the federal government has not passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA), a proposed law to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Nor does it appear that the historic Equality Act, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, will even go to vote in the Senate after the House passed it on May 17.

These are proposed bills that would address the fact that 28 states are without any such workplace protections for LGBTQ+ employees who face discrimination in such forms as offensive microaggression and termination.

In addition to banning transgender Americans from serving in the military because they take a “massive amount of drugs,” the current administration also has identified seven words that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can no longer use in official budget documents. The seven banned words are not the vulgar kind that comedian George Carlin made famous in his 1972 skit, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” No, these are everyday words that the DHS, which oversees the CDC, has forbidden from budget documents because they are “controversial.”

The words? Vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.

It feels like open season on science. And transgender groups, among the most vulnerable of Americans, are one of the targets.

Social Justice Allies

While many support groups and resource guides for transgender in the workplace exist, it sometimes must feel to a transgender that the self-diagnosis is a new form of leprosy. That may sound overly harsh, but many transphobes dismiss gender identity as symptomatic of a chemical imbalance (i.e., mental illness) or an outright denial of reality. In addition, the history of violence against LGBT people in the United States is well documented and the intolerance of transgender people — not to mention the ostracization — is pervasive.

In the minds of the morally offended and opposed, and, yes, in their actions and words, my son does not have the right to say or feel that he was born the wrong gender. And he’s in danger of his life because his truth doesn’t square up with the myopic perception of others.

I’m as confused and disgusted by righteous, exposed bigotry as the next person. Whose business is it to forbid and condemn my son’s fierce independence and adamant personal beliefs?  

I understand his stunning life-altering revelation remains a rare occurrence. Most people can’t relate to the tribulations of a parent whose daughter changed into a son (not overnight, mind you, but over an extended timeframe in his late teens).

But it happens, folks. I’m proof of it, and it’s happening more frequently. So, please deal with it. Forget your stumbling over pronouns. That’s a minor detail and infraction compared to the almost daily harassment he faces.

Whether conventional citizens fight this uprising or not, we collectively need to do a better job of dealing with it or live with the inevitably dire consequences: increased hate crimes, targeted attacks, self-harm and suicide.

These are the hard facts. And between all the hardships and bureaucratic obstacles to have his name and gender officially changed on his birth certificate, I’m amazed at my boy’s persistence. The complications and funny looks he faces are severe.

All because he identifies as the opposite gender.

For conformists and nonconformists alike, the world can be a cruel place. For those whose personal choices are judged as insane, ill-advised or worse, it can be unlivable.

The next time you find yourself questioning someone’s appearance because of a body tattoo, lip piercing or style of dress, remember your manners.

Your idea of “normal” is different than your neighbor’s and it’s likely very different from mine. My son’s name is now Shawn. His reality is atypical, but all he really wants is for others to respect him as a fellow human whose body is his own.

If employers want employees to feel part of a greater good, then it’s time to put into writing with employment policy what our legislators have failed to do with employment law: Ensure fair and equal treatment by making gender identity discrimination part of your corporate nondiscrimination policy.

Treat your employees equally. Have their backs. And go to battle for them as social justice allies. When they feel valued, they will pay you back handsomely in trust, loyalty and deeper engagement.

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a publication that provides guidance to employers on best practices regarding restroom access for transgender workers. OSHA’s goal is to assure that employers provide a safe and healthy working environment for all workers. Thank goodness for model practices that do not require employees to provide any medical or legal documentation of their gender identity in order to have access to gender-appropriate facilities.

Moreover, stress your commitment to equal employment and remind employees about workplace policies that relate to protections, harassment and expected behavior. In the most accepting of work environments and cultures, transgender employees will have nothing to fear and everything to gain by an inclusive sense of belonging.

About the Author

Dan Cafaro is editor-in-chief of Workspan magazine.

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