Equality’s Latest Frontier

More companies are knocking down barriers pertaining to employees with nontraditional gender identities - and for good business reasons.

By Diane Cadrain Mar 1, 2003
Reuse Permissions

HR Magazine, March 2003 How do you go to work every day with a personal secret that threatens to burn its way through your corporate uniform? With “a lot of trepidation,” says American Airlines pilot Bobbi Galarza, who started life as Robert.

Galarza is a 55-year-old former Vietnam combat veteran who grew up in a very religious home and was chastised for being attracted to feminine things. He cultivated a macho veneer—joined the Marines, took up skydiving, got involved in so-called manly activities. But inside, Galarza says, he was troubled by a current of confusion, which was diagnosed in the mid-1980s as gender dysphoria.

In 1996 Galarza accepted his orientation and over the following year became comfortable being referred to as “she.” In 2001 Galarza “came out” at work. In the male-dominated world of airline pilots, Galarza’s action took more than a little courage.

But the process was smoother than Galarza may have expected because his employer—for business reasons—had already developed a nondiscrimination policy for employees who may have nontraditional sexual identities.

“A friend knew I was terrified,” Galarza says. “Through him, I found Jack Wing, an HR manager in our Tulsa office. Jack told me American valued me as an employee, and helped me come up with a plan to approach my boss. We did it in a letter. After my boss finished reading, he looked up at me and said, ‘How can I help?’”

American’s Dallas flight office accepted Galarza’s choice and offered to let the accomplished pilot continue flying or work elsewhere in the company. Galarza had risen in the ranks to become a check airman, a pilot who evaluates other pilots’ performance and serves as an instructor.

Galarza decided to return to the position of line pilot at American but identify as a woman. Galarza had to obtain a Federal Aviation Administration waiver for hormone use and, under agency rules, has to have a psychiatric evaluation every six months. The company helped with applications for a change of gender identity on government documents. Galarza decided to inform co-workers of the gender identity change via e-mail and got more than 200 responses—all but two expressing support.

Attitudes About Ambiguity

Gender identity refers to a person’s self-described gender—whether male, female or somewhere in between—regardless of whether the person’s appearance is male or female, according to “Transgender 101: An Introduction to Issues Surrounding Gender Identity and Expression,” an article on the web site of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group focuses on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) issues. The article’s author, Jennie Smith, editorial coordinator of the HRC’s web site, writes: “Some people say they have felt trapped in the wrong body for as long as they can remember and, at an early age, redefine their gender. Others don’t come out until middle age, and still others don’t realize or aren’t able to be honest with themselves until they are seniors.”

Although employers generally embrace the concept of racial equality and include women in the ranks of upper management, many are still uncertain how to treat employees with ambiguous sexual identities.

That’s only human nature—it’s disturbing for people when they can’t figure out if a particular person is a man or a woman. “Nature loves variety. People hate it,” says Amy Bloom, a psychotherapist and author whose recent book, Normal, explores the lives of those whose gender is variegated rather than monochromatic. “People respond to displays of sexual androgyny out of fear and anxiety,” she says.

Nonetheless, employers increasingly are adopting nondiscrimination policies pertaining to GLBT workers, who generally have no legal protection from being fired if they express a nontraditional gender identity on the job.

In 2001, the latest year for which statistics are available, the HRC identified about 2,000 companies, colleges and government bodies with written nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation, up 17 percent from the previous year. Nearly 300 were Fortune 500 companies. “The closer a company is to the top of the Fortune 500 list, the more likely it is to have such a policy,” according to a 2001 HRC report, The State of the Workplace.

The Business Equation

More and more companies are deciding that it makes business sense to attract and retain the best employees regardless of how they identify their gender. Consider what happened after the HRC last year released its Corporate Equality Index, awarding perfect scores to more than a dozen companies—among them American Airlines—for their nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. (See “The HRC’s Yardstick” and “The Top Tier.”) When aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain found themselves at the bottom of the list, they worked their way to higher rankings by adopting nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation.

“Quite candidly,” says Lockheed Martin spokesman Tom Jurkowsky, adopting the policy “was a business decision.” He explains: “The aerospace industry needs to hire and retain tens of thousands of employees over a relatively short period of time. The people who are the ‘engines’ of the industry are aging and retiring.”

Establishing a GLBT policy is also a competitive move, says Dennis Liberson, executive vice president for HR at Capital One Financial, a consumer lending company based in Falls Church, Va. “The way we win is by being better than other companies. And we win when our people are better than everyone else’s. We ask what we can do to attract the best talent. It’s a very business-focused approach.”

Nondiscrimination policies for GLBT workers offer morale benefits as well, says Suellen Roth, vice president of global policy and diversity at Avaya, a communications systems provider based in Basking Ridge, N.J. “People who are comfortable and who feel included are more effective as employees—more creative and committed. That helps the company attract and retain top talent and reach more markets.”

Moreover, a company can benefit from becoming known for its nondiscrimination policies toward GLBT employees. Bob Witeck of Witeck-Combs Communications in Washington, D.C., says about seven of every 10 gays are brand-loyal to companies that publicize progressive GLBT policies. Estimates of the GLBT consumer market range widely—from $456 billion to $532 billion last year, for example—and are based on the belief that the country’s GLBT population is 6 percent to 7 percent of the total adult population.

The Three Main Ingredients

Companies at the forefront in establishing GLBT nondiscrimination policies share several characteristics: commitment at the top, advocacy from the bottom up—and HR in the middle to craft the approach.

Support for diversity at Avaya comes from Don Peterson, president and CEO, who recognizes its competitive value, says Roth. The company’s nondiscrimination statement addresses not only sexual orientation but also gender identity, characteristics and expressions.

IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., has had nondiscrimination policies regarding race, color and religion for 50 years. Sexual orientation was added in 1984. Last year gender identity and expression were included in the company’s nondiscrimination policy—an action driven by upper management, specifically by Ted Childs, IBM’s vice president of global workforce diversity.

In many companies, even those with strong support from upper management, the push for GLBT nondiscrimination policies has come from below. Kara Choquette, a spokeswoman for Xerox, headquartered in Stamford, Conn., says a caucus group took the issue to the company’s HR team, and caucus member Jim Lesko, vice president for e-business and web operations, carried the idea to senior managers, including CEO Anne Mulcahy.

At American Airlines, the GLBT policy had input from within the company’s ranks but initially was an attempt to recover from a misstep. In 1993 the airline, part of Fort Worth-based AMR Corp., drew criticism in news accounts for perceived insensitivity in its treatment of passengers with HIV and AIDS. That prompted American to undertake marketing outreach to GLBT travelers.

In turn, an employee resource group called GLEAM (Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual Employees at AMR) decided to make sure that internal corporate policies matched the external marketing campaign. “It kind of rings hollow if the company says, ‘We value GLBT customers as flyers but not as employees,’ ” says corporate spokesman Tim Kincaid. American is now the official airline of national GLBT groups.

HR’s Crucial Connection

In companies with strong GLBT policies, HR managers typically have played a critical part: benchmarking, gathering pertinent information for formulating the policy, showing how the policy would be consistent with the company’s strategic purposes, drafting it and implementing it. “Obviously, HR controls what goes into the policies,” says Capital One’s Liberson.

HR also can expect to be a key source of help for employees seeking to come out at work. Airline captain Galarza found a sympathetic HR manager. “He was totally supportive and understanding, and it’s been that way all the way through,” Galarza says. “HR really drove the process, from setting the tone of the corporate response to helping me document my identity change.”

Galarza also cites the support of Sue Oliver, American’s vice president for human resources, who had directed that gender identity be added to AMR’s employment policies.

American spokesman Kincaid says HR “listened to GLEAM when it brought out the gender identity issue” and “let the company know that employees were in transition, or cared about someone who is. We decided that it would be good to have a policy of treating them with respect. We looked around at other airlines and saw they weren’t doing much.”

At Xerox, the entire HR leadership team, including HR Director Patricia Nazemetz, got involved in benchmarking, brainstorming issues, taking the idea to senior management, drafting it and communicating it to employees, says Choquette. “Xerox has an HR representative assigned to every business group within the company. When we were studying this issue, HR did benchmarking, examining the practices of other companies, and figuring out issues that may arise and how to deal with them.”

Developing the GLBT policy at IBM “was a very collaborative process,” says Childs. “We worked with people in the legal office and throughout the company to make sure it was phrased properly. It was a long and thoughtful operation that took several months.”

Reaching Employees

All the best GLBT policymaking by HR and other core company groups would matter little, of course, if their work failed to reach employees. Virtually all companies with diversity policies communicate them on their company intranets and through other channels. At Avaya, for example, the policy appeared on an electronic employee guide, in e-learning courses stressing the company’s cultural mores and behavior expectations, and in internal communication about various GLBT issues.

Xerox has stated its GLBT policy in many internal communications, including an HR-oriented “What’s New” section on the company’s internal web site and an annual e-mail asking all employees to read the diversity statement and acknowledge that Xerox won’t tolerate harassment of any kind.

Communications are especially important because of the sensitivity many people have to this particular diversity issue.

“There will always be people who, as a result of previous learning, will bring with them preconceived biases or notions,” says Avaya’s diversity executive Roth. “We provide them opportunities to learn about the culture we’re fostering here. We can’t change people’s beliefs, but we make a strong effort to say, ‘When you’re in the workplace, we expect you to behave in a manner consistent with our cultural expectations.’ ”

IBM corporate spokesman Jim Sinocchi says: “We took out the religious aspects of the issue—the idea that gay people are ‘choosing not to do right by God’s law.’ ” IBM’s response: “We’re not mandating your religious beliefs. We’re talking about fairness in the workplace and the marketplace. We’re giving people the opportunity to work in environments that will show their talents.”

Says psychotherapist Bloom: “What people are objecting to is, in fact, nature. People’s reactions are natural, too. A great many people like to imagine nature as a sweet, simple voice: tulips in spring, Vermont’s leaves falling in autumn. But nature is more like Aretha Franklin: vast, magnificent, capricious, occasionally hilarious and infinitely varied.”

Diane Cadrain is an attorney and has been covering workplace legal issues for 20 years. She is legislative affairs director of the Human Resource Association of Central Connecticut.

Web Extras

Reuse Permissions


The application deadline is November 11

Apply Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect