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By Deirdre Schwiesow
e can't afford to pay your salary." That was the official reason Jolene Gillies heard when she was laid off recently from her job at a home health/hospice care company in Michigan. But, adds Gillies, her boss also said "they were worried that I was going to get a sex change."
"Like a lot of transgender people, I knew at a very early age—probably 5 or 6—that I was different, that I didn't fit in with other boys," says Gillies, a licensed social worker and doctoral student in Psychology at Walden University who was born biologically male but identified with females. Nonetheless, she served in the Navy as a male ("If I hadn't been able to hide so well, I probably wouldn't be alive," she notes), and then worked as a Christian missionary before returning to school for a bachelor's degree in social work. After working in the field and obtaining her master's degree, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Psychology to increase her professional credentials and opportunities.
Gillies is a transgender woman, who, after living socially as a woman for several years, had decided to transition to a female gender expression at work. "I just decided that I wasn't afraid anymore—that I didn't care about what I would lose," she says.
This decision has had serious professional consequences.
Gillies had attempted to transition at other jobs, always with a similar result. For example, she was working as a mental health counselor at a clinic, but once she started taking hormones and growing her hair, she says, "a lot of people didn't want me to be their therapist." A job offer with another company was rescinded after Gillies told her prospective employer that she planned to transition. And an assisted living facility had asked her employer not to send her back because they felt "the residents would not like a person like me there."
"This loss builds upon other losses," Gillies says, "and I began thinking that there was no place for me in the professional world."
Glossary of Terms
- Transgender: A term referring to someone with a socially nontraditional experience or presentation of gender
- Transgender woman (or "transwoman"): Someone who was born male-bodied, but experiences herself as female
- Transgender man (or "transman"): Someone who was born femalebodied, but experiences himself as male
- Transsexual: A person who has taken or is taking medical steps (such as surgery or hormone therapy) in order to live as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth
- Transitioning: The process by which a transgender or transsexual person switches from living as one gender to another
- Sexual orientation: A person's gender preference in sexual partners
- Genderqueer: The experience of being outside binary definitions of gender
THE GENDER CONTINUUM
Gillies' experience is not unique. Although companies and organizations are increasingly taking steps to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, it can still be very challenging for transgender men and women—especially those who go through the process of transitioning on the job—to negotiate their professional spheres.
Like Gillies, while seeking inclusive, respectful professional environments, transgender men and women—just by being who they are—often challenge the gender norms that people hold. The resulting discomfort on the part of employers and colleagues can be compounded by unfamiliarity and can lead to bias. Dr. Tracy Marsh—a faculty member in the School of Psychology who supervises a number of students conducting research about transgender issues—explains that, "In many instances, people don't even necessarily understand the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation."
The distinction between "transgender" and "transsexual" is also not well understood. As Dr. Andrew Forshee—a faculty member in the School of Counseling and Social Service whose dissertation addressed perceptions of masculinity among transgender men—puts it, "'Transgender' is an umbrella term for many people who may be what we call 'gender non-traditional.' 'Transsexual' is a term oftentimes reserved for people who go through what we call 'sex affirming' procedures, such as surgery or hormone therapy." (See sidebar for a glossary of terms.)
Transgender is "a dynamic experience on a continuum, not a fixed point," Marsh says. And because of this, it's impossible to know how many people are transgender. Marsh explains, "More and more transgender men and women are choosing to live at varying points on the continuum"—that is, someone's internal sense of gender may be expressed through clothing, behavior, and perhaps hormonal therapy, but not necessarily through total gender re-assignment surgery. Particularly for people born female-bodied, "genital surgery is still rather crude and the results vary," says Marsh, "so they'll go through what's called 'top surgery,' a mastectomy," but not make a complete transition.
"The concept of a 'continuum' is really important, because it honors that there are many expressions of gender, not just two," Forshee explains. "And what one expresses may not be one's felt gender, or someone may identify as 'genderqueer.'" This gender fluidity can be disturbing to those with more traditional perspectives on gender, Marsh says. "One of the first things we do when we meet somebody is to try and figure out their gender, and when that's not crystal clear, those instances throw us off."
Dr. Colleen Logan, president of the American Counseling Association (ACA), agrees that in this culture, "We're very binary in our thinking—we're either a man or a woman, we're either gay or straight—nothing in between," says Logan. But she believes that the problem isn't some kind of "transphobia." Rather, she says, "People in general are uncomfortable with difference across the board. This is a society that still doesn't deal well with left-handed people. If it's different, it's either wrong or scary. I think it's as simple and complex as that."
Supporting Transgender Teens
With the experience of being transgender manifesting in very young children, elementary, middle, and high school teachers should also take steps to support transgender students. This is important particularly, says Dr. Tracy Marsh, faculty member in the School of Psychology, because "the suicide risk is so high among GLBT youth."
"With teenagers there's an added vulnerability, because they're oftentimes living in situations with caregivers who are not supportive," Dr. Stacee Reicherzer, faculty member in the School of Counseling and Social Service, adds. "In our adult lives, people can choose their community of support, but teens can't.You want to be the one who was there for the kid." Here's how to help:
- "The counselor, the teacher—whoever is the interface with the family—needs to be willing to be a guide and a mentor," says Reicherzer.
- "At the same time," Reicherzer says, "don't overwhelm them—don't assume they have needs that they don't."
- To ensure the safety of transgender students, Equality California recommends that schools adopt written policies that prohibit harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and train teachers to identify and prevent harassment.
- A PDF, Beyond the Binary: A Tool Kit for Gender Identity Activism in Schools, with tools to help make schools safe and welcoming for transgender students, is available to download for free at Transgender Law Center (TLC).
'THE LAST FRONTIER'
In this context, transgender women and men—particularly those about to transition from one gender expression to another or in the process of doing so—face particular challenges in the workplace. Logan explains that, for a transgender person, transitioning—"taking steps to be congruent" with an internal sense of identity—is "far along the mental health continuum."
Nevertheless, says Forshee, transitioning often becomes a problem for a transgender person, "because they become the victim of bias and discrimination in the workplace." No federal law protects transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, and workplaces vary widely in supportiveness, from very negative environments—where there may be threats of violence or where the employee, like Gillies, may be terminated if they risk transitioning— to companies that strive to facilitate transitions.
Dr. Stacee Reicherzer—a faculty member in the School of Counseling and Social Service and a transgender woman who has published and presented extensively on gender identity issues—made her transition while working for AT&T a number of years ago. "The corporate structure was supportive, and I was in leadership for my last six years there," she explains. Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a national organization devoted to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community in the workplace, lists AT&T—along with a number of other companies such as Bank of America, FedEx, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, and Target—as a corporation that supports GLBT workplace equality by encouraging and fostering employee resource groups.
However, even in relatively supportive workplaces, difficulties show up around very basic concerns. On a day-to-day level, aspects of life in the workplace that most employees take for granted, such as being addressed by the correct pronoun or simply using the bathroom, can become minefields for transgender employees and their co-workers. Reicherzer explains that "transgender people aren't looking for special rights and privileges. They just want to use the bathroom and receive respect for [their preferred] gender pronouns." In the workplace, she says, "the bathroom is always the last frontier." Gillies, who has experienced awkward situations when using a women's bathroom, agrees, joking that "the slogan of the transgender movement should be, 'Let my people pee!'"
On a more subtle level, Reicherzer says, "There are often people who will aggressively refuse to use the correct pronoun [when addressing or referring to a transgendered person] or refuse to use the person's chosen name. For a person who's transitioning, those experiences are very painful. People just want to live and not talk about gender. But what happens is that we have to be advocates for our own rights and hope that someone's going to care enough to be an ally."
PUBLIC POLICY CHALLENGES
Workplace issues are just part of the larger public policy and societal picture of transgender acceptance or lack thereof. High-profile cases such as the recent murder of transgender teenager Angie Zapata and the 2007 firing of a Largo, Florida, city manager who planned to have gender-reassignment surgery indicate the need for consistent legislation and policies.
A Human Rights Campaign report states that "nearly 100 cities and counties, 12 states, and the District of Columbia have laws and ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity." According to Dr. Mark Gordon, interim associate dean at Walden's School of Public Policy and Administration, in addition to employment, important public policy issues related to the transgender population include healthcare (specifically, training doctors and other healthcare workers to understand and address the needs of this group) and the treatment of transgender people in the legal system—particularly family court.
"There is no silver bullet," Gordon says. "Just like any large-scale public education effort, it takes [extensive] community outreach, with non-profit organizations leading the way."
WORKING TOWARD ACCEPTANCE
When it comes to transgender employees, ACA President Logan says, "the onus is not on the [transgender] person to make everyone else OK; the onus is on me as your co-worker to work toward acceptance."
Key to this process is developing empathy, says Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, associate dean for the School of Counseling and Social Service. "We all have those places [where] we are powerful and privileged, and we all have those places where we are marginalized. Maybe I don't understand everything that a transgender person experiences in the work environment, but as an African-American woman, I do understand [limitations to] access and opportunity." To understand the subtleties of discrimination and bias, she suggests, pay attention if a manager makes a negative comment about a transgender person—"reflect on how a statement like that would impact you, coming from someone in a leadership position."
Open dialogue can facilitate awareness, Dixon-Saxon says, but "don't make that person be the ambassador for all the transgender people in the world" or approach the person in a voyeuristic way. She recommends creating "a rubric for genuine inquiry" by prefacing questions with, "I'd like to know this information because I want there to be genuineness in our relationship, and I want to know how to interact in the workplace."
Transgender Inclusion in the Workplace, 2nd Edition, a report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, recommends that organizations adopt the following policies and practices to promote transgender inclusion:
- Include "gender identity or expression" as a protected category
- Establish gender-transition guidelines
- Provide information and training
- Ensure employees' privacy
- Update personnel records
- Grant restroom and locker room access according to an employee's full-time gender presentation
- Make dress codes gender neutral and apply consistently
- Remove discriminatory health insurance exclusions
To begin with, Forshee believes that managers and co-workers should ask all employees, regardless of whether or not they are "out" as transgender, which pronoun they choose—male, female, or third-gender pronoun such as "ze," "sie," or "hir"—and use that pronoun in all conversations related to the employee, whether or not the employee is present. "I think we don't do that enough with everyone," he says. "We often take people's pronouns for granted. But who am I to assume someone's gender? I also don't want to assume that someone has grown up as the gender they're expressing currently."
Dixon-Saxon believes that managers of transgender employees should "facilitate a respectful and productive environment," and validate the person's experience of discrimination. But, at the same time, she says, "don't take that person's power by trying to protect them."
A person who goes through sexual reassignment is not losing skills," Reicherzer emphasizes. "They're going through changes, but those changes are not a basis for discrimination." She encourages transgender men and women who plan to transition in the workplace to proactively team with management—to ask themselves what kind of support they need to continue to perform well during the transition and work with management and HR to have those needs met.
Dr. Susan Jespersen, program coordinator for the Ph.D. in Applied Management and Decision Sciences in Walden's School of Management, enumerates steps HR professionals can take to support transgender employees, including conducting training, developing support groups, and communicating clearly the organizational policies regarding gender identity and expression. "It becomes a matter of making it clear to the entire workforce that this is the policy and that the company is going to stand behind it," she says. (See sidebar for the Human Rights Campaign's recommendations.)
Whether as part of standard corporate diversity and awareness training or on an ad hoc basis in response to a specific situation, effective training around gender identity issues is crucial. This requires a commitment to "talking about issues that are sensitive," says Logan. "If you name it, if you look at what's really going on, then you can work with it." Forshee elaborates, "A video is not going to do it. A lecture is not going to do it. Interactive, role-playing training is most effective. People have to play with the concept of gender in order to understand it."
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR GROWTH
Ultimately, a transgender employee—particularly one who is transitioning—can present an opportunity for a workforce to increase awareness and for all employees to learn and grow. As Forshee says, "When one person transitions in the workplace, everyone transitions." Walden offers an example of how an inclusive environment can support its community members.
"Walden's such a beautiful place, because I don't just feel accepted, I feel supported, I feel championed," says Reicherzer. "And I don't ever believe that championing my rights diminishes someone else's. The common denominator here is education—that's key to being able to create supportive environments."
Jen Padron, a student in the Ph.D. in Health Services program who recently served as chair, GLBT Subcommittee to the United States Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, feels that Walden's inclusiveness benefits students as well. "Walden staff and faculty have all been excellent with their level of awareness for multiculturalism," she says, "and for having a zero tolerance policy for anything discriminatory." The online environment keeps the focus on what people have to contribute, rather than gender expression or any other aspect of a person's physical presentation, Padron explains, but she feels that Walden's mission draws people who are open-minded: "I think it wouldn't matter even if it were a fully face-to-face environment."
Despite experiencing some awkward situations at Walden residencies, Gillies agrees with Padron's assessment. "At my last residency, we attended a seminar on multiculturalism, and I offered to advise people about transgender issues," she says. "A number of people approached me afterward, and that was a very positive experience."
An inclusive atmosphere makes business sense as well. As Gordon notes, "Corporate America is really finding that having a satisfied workforce is a competitive advantage, and the way to do that is to embrace and value diversity in all its forms." In addition, Jespersen explains, a workforce comprising diverse groups is much better able to meet the needs of the customers who are members of those groups.
Whether at work or in our personal lives, ultimately, "we all benefit from seeing gender on a continuum," Forshee says. "Binary gender definitions limit us—you see that in historical struggles of women to get the vote or the more contemporary challenges of men trying to enter the childcare field."
Gillies is still experiencing that limitation. Having completed everything except for her dissertation and field work, she continues to look for work in her field that will allow her to express her gender identity, beginning with a practicum that can pay her for her work. "I feel caught in a no-win situation," she says. "Progressing in my transition with face feminization surgery would make it easier to find and keep a job, but [to do that] I need money, which I don't have because I have not found a place that would accept me."
Transgender Individuals in Popular Culture
Both real and fictional transgender individuals have been featured in the media over the past decade. Here is just a sample:
- The film Boys Don't Cry stars Hilary Swank, who won an Academy Award for portraying a transgender man.
- The film Transamerica stars Felicity Huffman, who was nominated for an Academy Award, as a transgender woman.
- The ABC comedy Ugly Betty features a transgender woman played by Rebecca Romijn.
- Southern Comfort, a documentary about Robert Eads, a transgender man, won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
- MTV's RealWorld: Brooklyn included the show's first transgender roommate.
- Tom Wilkinson portrayed a transgender woman in the film Normal.
- Transgender M.D., on the Discovery Health channel, tells the story of Dr. Marci Bowers, who specializes in gender reassignment surgery.
- Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono, child of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, publicly announced his female to male gender transformation in June 2009.
For more information about transgender issues, visit the following sites: