At Sunday night’s Golden Globes, Jeffrey Tambor dedicated his award-winning performance on Amazon’s original series Transparent to the entire trans community. He thanked them for their inspiration, and for their patience as a world caught up in binary gender dynamics struggles to realize they deserve to be recognized as people with basic rights. When the show’s writer and creator, Jill Soloway, accepted Transparent’s award for Best Television Series, Musical or Comedy, she dedicated it to Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen who committed suicide in December.
The transgender community was in spotlight this year in a way it never has been before, marking 2015 as a year of enlightenment and attempted understanding—at least in the entertainment world. As pop culture comes around to acknowledging transgender people, businesses need to catch up.
In terms of actual equality, or even protection, we have a long way to go in 2015. There are currently only 18 states in which people cannot be fired for being transgender, according to the Movement Advancement Project. Transgender people have double the unemployment rate of their peers, and 97% report some type of harassment at their job, according to The National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
“Once, I was hired for a retail position where gender played absolutely no role in my ability to do my job, and somehow someone there found out I was born with female sex parts,” said Aaron, a friend. “From that day on, I was frozen out. No one spoke to me. I even got anonymous notes that called me an anatomical monster and threatened to slash my tires.”
Aaron (name changed for protection) never reported it because he was afraid of even harsher retribution from his coworkers and/or employer. Whether that would have proved true in his situation, the fact of the matter is that more than 200 transgender people a year are reported murdered, according to The Trans Murder Monitoring Project.
Bill revisions on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) continue to arise and be debated. Before long, protections will be extended to people in the trans community. There’s no need for businesses to wait for that legislation, though, and to be caught unaware. There are simple things companies can do to be on the right side of history. It’s not only good for society, but good for business.
While other discrimination laws, like sex discrimination ones, may cover transgender people, avoiding punishment should not be the main reason employers open their arms to transgender individuals, said Ben Klein, Senior Attorney for the Gay and Lesbian Advocate Defenders.
“Discrimination like this impedes having the most competitive workforce,” Klein said. “If businesses are acting on fears and stereotypes, they are going to miss out on talented employees who can give their business an edge.”
So, how can businesses pave the way for a comfortable, integrated workplace?
Above all, promote diversity and inclusion by hiring people regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or physical affiliation, said Christine Walters of The Society for Human Resource Management.
Second, if the business knows on-the-record that one of its employees is transgender, it’s best to ask the employee how he or she would like to handle it. Some people want to further the awareness of the community and will not mind an introductory email including his or her transition, as was the case recently with one of my husband’s coworkers. Some would prefer to keep their private lives private, and nothing is more private than one’s private parts. Businesses should refer to their employees by the name and gender pronouns they prefer. It’s not only common courtesy, but a large part of personal identity and acceptance.
Third, human resources departments should do their best to stop gossip and discrimination, not only from the top down, but also amid lower-level employees. A person’s identity isn’t water-cooler fodder. To accomplish this, it’s important to have an outside agency or your company’s human resource department provide employee training, taking the onus off the transitioned employee.
“Often what happens is that the first transgender employee is forced to educate everyone about their identity and is subjected to invasive questions,” said Missy Sturtevant, founder of MaeBright Group LLC, a consulting firm for companies and groups looking to improve services to LGBTQ people. “Sometimes trans and LGB people are asked to give a company training on LGBTQ identities, which is something we never expect from people of color, people of different religions, or other marginalized identities.”
Also make sure the health insurance offered covers transition-related medical issues, so that transgender people can continue to take the medical steps necessary to complete their transition while on the job, should that arise.
Finally, install a unisex bathroom, or make it clear that transgender people can and will use the restroom of their identification. Restroom issues severely inhibit and cause anxiety for transgender employees who can feel unwelcome taking care of the most basic need of nature.
While getting the best talent and improving the bottom line are important, the real reason to practice non-discrimination is simply that it’s the right thing to do. Pop culture has begun to pave the way for general understanding of the struggles of the transgender community. Now is the time for businesses to act on that understanding and move forward into equality.
Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Gainesville Sun and Gainesville and Ocala magazines. You can reach her @parentwin on Twitter.