An Employee's Sex Change Requires Sensitivity

By Diane Cadrain Jan 5, 2010
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Kathryn Winters was 33 years old when she decided she had to stop living as a man. “Since birth I was treated as a male,” she says, “but I felt something was wrong with that. I tried to conform. But the older you get, the harder it is. There was a limit as to how masculine I could be.”

Winters reached that limit in early 2008. Her transition from male to female played out in a workplace—JP Morgan Chase. The process could have been particularly daunting because Winters was working in a bank branch at a supermarket, so she had contact with bank customers and was a familiar face to scores of shoppers every day. But peers and supervisors were ready to help her through the transition.

“It’s about talent—about creating a workplace with the broadest base of talent you can—because a broader base of talent makes for broader creativity and resonates with a broader customer base,” says Ray Flautt, vice president of corporate diversity for JP Morgan Chase.

Employers haven’t always taken a supportive approach toward gender transition. Managers in some of the country’s most respected organizations—including IBM, Continental Airlines and Lucent Technologies—used to fire star employees upon learning that they were undergoing such transformations.

But times are changing. In 2002, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people, surveyed 319 companies with more than 500 employees each, finding that 5 percent barred bias based on gender identity; by 2009, 66 percent did so. The HRC has been pushing employers to add gender identity to their anti-discrimination policies.

“The country is on a path of increasing respect for gays and lesbians as well, and transgender people are riding the coattails,” says Janis Walworth, co-founder of the Center for Gender Sanity in Bellingham, Wash., another organization that assists employers as they strive to resolve transgender issues in workplaces.

Lawmakers and courts at federal, state and local levels sometimes protect transgender workers from discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 recognized that discrimination against a female who didn’t conform to female stereotypes was a form of sex discrimination in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (490 U.S. 228).

Last April, a transgender woman won a jury verdict of $491,000 from the Library of Congress, whose managers reneged on a job offer after learning she was transforming.

Diane Schroer, a male-to-female transsexual and a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran with 25 years of service, saw her job offer from the Library of Congress rescinded after her future boss learned that she was transitioning.

“We made a simple claim of sex discrimination,” explains attorney Sharon McGowan, who took Schroer’s case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Price Waterhouse says, ‘Don’t penalize someone for not conforming to stereotypes.’ In Schroer’s case, the library withdrew the job offer based on sex stereotypes. If a person doesn’t follow a traditional life path or conventional ideas of conformity, it’s a form of sex discrimination to take that into account in employment decisions.” McGowan says Schroer didn’t want to work there after all the acrimony.

Meanwhile, Congress is weighing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 2981), which would bar most public and private employers from discrimination based on sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity.

According to the HRC, as of January 2008, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia barred discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. As of April 2008, 98 cities and counties barred discrimination based on gender identity.

Definitions

Gender identity refers to a person’s innate, deeply felt sense of gender. It may or may not correspond to the sex listed on the person’s birth certificate.

Gender expression refers to external characteristics and behaviors such as dress, grooming and mannerisms that are socially identified with a particular gender.

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose sense of themselves as male or female differs from that associated with their birth sex.

Transsexuals are transgender people who live or wish to live full time as members of the gender opposite to their birth sex. They may have medical treatment to make their bodies congruent with that sex.

Co-workers’ Concerns

Some employees “are concerned with the bathroom,” says Jillian Weiss, a transgender woman and associate professor of law and society at Ramapo College of New Jersey and principal of a transgender consulting firm. “The transgender person has the right to use restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity or expression.”

Other concerns surround co-workers’ religious beliefs. “We explain that the company values diversity, respect and inclusion,” says Connie Summers, cultural diversity and inclusion manager at Boeing’s Seattle facility. “We have no expectation of changing people’s minds, but we do ask them to change their behaviors. And, invariably, we see people go from heavy resistance to ‘getting it.’ ”

Weiss agrees that it’s important to focus on behaviors, not beliefs. “When co-workers say their religious codes don’t accept this, the answer is that in the workplace, we’re concerned with your behavior, not your religious code,” she says.

“Most people want to know ‘How does this impact me?’ ” says Walworth. “Most people are afraid of using the wrong name, the wrong pronoun—that’s a difficult thing. People are afraid of being caught in a slip-up. Or, they wonder if the transition will affect the abilities of the co-worker, especially in situations where co-workers help one another, such as police and firefighters. They wonder if the person won’t be as strong, whether their judgment won’t be as good.

“The response should be that minds aren’t changed. People can be easier to work with after the transition—they’re happier, they’re more present.”

Winters affirms: “After the transition, I was more confident, more comfortable, more capable, more focused on the job, more productive. Now, I can put 100 percent of my energy into a happier life. I can’t emphasize enough that an employee after transition will be as valuable to the company, if not more.”

The author is an attorney and writer based in West Hartford, Conn., and a member of the Human Resource Association of Central Connecticut.

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