At 15, Ben Greene came out as transgender.
The decision wasn't easy. Greene struggled with his identity for years, which caused intense anxiety and depression. He didn't know who he wanted to be and wondered if his family and friends could love who he truly was. While he received mostly positive responses to coming out, some of his loved ones harbored feelings of sadness.
"When I first came out, my friends and family thought I'd be a completely different person; they said that they're grieving the person who I was," Greene said. "But I said I'm the same person you know and love. I just look a little different—and I'm a whole lot happier."
He said the decision changed his life. Greene is now a St. Louis-based public speaker, consultant and LGBTQ-rights activist. He has shared his journey with audiences of college students, business leaders, religious worshippers and government officials while also educating them on the importance of LGBTQ inclusion.
Greene discussed the experiences of the transgender community as well as the tools required to meet their needs during the concurrent session "Transgender Inclusion: What It Means, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Be an Ally" on June 14 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 in New Orleans.
Greene reviewed the difference between sexual orientation and biological sex, why you should avoid using a transgender worker's birth name, how there are a spectrum of genders and the evolution of gender over the centuries.
He noted how some countries have gender roles that differ greatly from those in the U.S. For example, Finnish fathers spend more time with their children than do mothers.
"Many years ago, it was OK for men to wear dresses," Greene explained. "Then one day, they just decided that wasn't OK anymore, and society accepted that."
Why Transgender Workers Often Don't Come Out
Greene also covered another difficult decision LGBTQ people face: coming out at work.
He referred to a 2020 study showing that 38 percent of LGBTQ workers were out to all their colleagues. Two years later, the Williams Institute in Los Angeles found that less than 30 percent of LGBTQ workers were out to all their co-workers—nearly a 9 percentage-point decrease from 2020.
More than half of transgender employees are not comfortable being out at work, according to a study by McKinsey and Company. And 2 in 3 remain in the closet in professional interactions outside their own companies.
Greene outlined some reasons why many LGBTQ employees do not come out at work:
- Fear of being stereotyped.
- Possibility of making people uncomfortable.
- Possibility of losing connections or relationships with co-workers.
- People might think they would be attracted to them.
"I've spoken with some [transgender] people who say they're waiting to come out at work until it's safe to come out," Greene said. "It is painful to have to lie or conceal who you are at work."
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Transgender Workers]
How to Become an Ally
Greene implored companies not to wait to implement inclusive practices until a transgender worker comes out. Having support systems in place before they're needed shows a dedication to a company's inclusivity.
Additional tips Greene offers included:
- Allow employees to use the bathrooms that make them most comfortable.
- Be mindful and respectful when you choose to ask questions.
- Encourage and support employees sharing their pronouns.
- If you misgender someone, apologize, correct yourself and move on.
- Ask how you can help a specific employee and listen to what they say.
Debra Baker, HR manager for Fountain-Fort Carson School District in Fountain, Colo., said some HR representatives, like herself, do not have enough exposure to the transgender community and therefore might not fully understand which inclusive practices to implement.
"I think there's a lot of fear in the world right now," she said. "I think there's not enough education, and too many people judge before they get to know someone. I think we as HR professionals need more exposure and to embrace the transgender community so we can learn."
Greene also said many people, particularly co-workers, might have questions for transgender people who are out. But he explained that it is important to ask appropriate questions. When determining if a question is appropriate, ask yourself:
- Is this something I could easily Google? For example, "What is trans?"
- Is this an appropriate question? How would I feel if this person asked me this question in this setting? Do I need to know the answer to this, or am I just curious?
- Am I open to being corrected? It's OK if your language isn't perfect if you ensure you're open to learning about the ways language is evolving, Greene noted.
"Make sure you have policies, structure and culture in place," Greene said. "These allyship tips aren't a big lift for you. But the impact on transgender people changes their lives."