Transsexual Transition at Work
Manage a Gender Change at Work
by Dan Woog
One transsexual employee was forbidden to use any bathroom at work for two years. Saddled with concerns about transitioning from male to female, she chose to use the restroom at a nearby gas station rather than fight.
Gender transition raises basic issues. "The big things are bathrooms and pronouns," says Denise Leclair, executive director of the International Foundation for Gender Education. How employers and colleagues deal with them are of major importance for transsexuals.
The umbrella term "transgender" includes female impersonators and cross-dressers. However, "transsexual" specifically refers to individuals whose gender identity does not match their sex at birth. "Transition" and "gender reassignment" include the process, involving hormones and surgery, through which a transsexual person changes gender.
Gender Identity: Beyond Sexual Orientation
Though many government antidiscrimination statutes include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are generally not protected classes. Transgender people -- estimated at 2-3 percent of the population by the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition -- have only recently sought protection, so they enjoy fewer legal precedents than gays and lesbians.
However, things may be changing. According to the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) "The State of the Workplace for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans 2004" survey, 51 Fortune 500 companies included gender identity in their nondiscrimination statements as of December 31, 2004. This represents an 89 percent increase year-over-year.
An employee undergoing gender reassignment surgery should get help from a trained mentor, coach or gender therapist, says Sarah, president of the Tiffany Club. "Transitioning creates a visceral reaction in people, and you shouldn't do it alone."
Planning a Transition
The transitioning employee should work with the employer to help ensure that everyone, including managers and colleagues, feels comfortable. Leclair recommends telling supervisors or the human resources department two weeks before surgery. "People have active imaginations," she says. "They need time to digest the news -- but not too much time."
The employee can bring a letter from a therapist or social worker stating that transsexuality is a legitimate condition and transitioning proper treatment, Leclair says. The employee should also be familiar with company policy, including insurance coverage, and be ready to educate others about transsexuality. Open communication is important.
"Initiate the conversation with a clear idea of what you want," Leclair says. Sarah adds, "Reach full agreement about what will change after transition -- job functions, tasks, etcetera -- and what won't." Leclair says major unions have good records on transgender issues and can help.
While the old conventional wisdom of quitting no longer applies, Leclair suggests switching to a new division or taking a different assignment might give colleagues time to adjust -- and the person transitioning time to refine his or her presentation to the world.
A transitioning employee needs a backup plan that includes financial coverage. Leclair says 50 percent of transsexuals lose their jobs; that figure was once 90 percent. Among the casualties: Sarah, whose job performance ratings plummeted after gender reassignment surgery.
Setting the Tone
When a transsexual employee announces transition plans, managers should set a tone of respect and nonharassment. According to the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, one company sent employees a memo that stated: "While this is an extremely personal matter, XYZ has asked us to share this information with coworkers to avoid any misunderstandings, and hopefully allay any concerns. We realize that different people may have different reactions, but we wish to support XYZ as much as possible." The memo noted the employee's new female name and urged anyone with questions to contact the vice president of human resources.
But don't expect instant understanding and acceptance, Leclair says. "The person transitioning can't be overly sensitive," she adds. "People are used to interacting with you one way. It takes a lot of energy to switch. Be patient. If people get the name right most of the time, it shows they're working at it."
Transsexuals just want to be treated like other employees, Leclair says. "If a workplace is understanding and nondiscriminatory, chances are its transgendered employees will be very hardworking and loyal," she adds. "They know every employer is not like that."
About the Bathroom
After two years, the employee using a gas station bathroom persuaded her company to turn a janitor's closet into a single-use restroom. Leclair terms that solution "silly and expensive." "Most places already have a handicap or single-stall bathroom that can be used," Leclair says. "I understand the problem: People fear transgendered people because they don't know them, but we're just like everyone else."