Be Prepared to Support Employees Undergoing Gender Transition

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 27, 2016
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​AUSTIN—As a little boy at the age of 8, Grace Anne Stevens knew that something was "off" about her: Her perception of her gender did not match her outward appearance. Later, as a teen experiencing puberty, Stevens struggled with being attracted to women while also believing that her true gender was female.

She recalled buying adult magazines with centerfolds and the ensuing confusion and inner struggle.

"I wanted the playmate and I wanted to be the playmate," she said. "How do I date? The needs of the body," she observed, "will often overcome the needs of the mind."

It was not until after 25 years of marriage that the athlete, design engineer, holder of two patent awards, father of three adult children and grandfather of two took action.

In 2011, at age 64, Stevens transitioned to female.

"My body now represents myself," she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Transgender Workers]

Today Stevens is divorced, has a master's degree in counseling psychology and is the author of the memoir No! Maybe? Yes! Living My Truth (Graceful Change Press, 2015). She works with individuals and organizations to help them understand the issues and emotions related to gender nonconformity. She shared her personal story and professional insight during a concurrent session Oct. 26 at the Society for Human Resource Management's Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

"I always thought of myself as female," she said during her presentation, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Gender Transition in the Workplace but Didn't Even Know to Ask." Stevens never let people get too close for fear that they would learn her deepest secret.

"People do not have a choice of being transgender. They do have a choice of what they do about it. It took me 60 years to figure that out."

Education, Best Practices

While no two transgender experiences are the same, Stevens said, she did identify stages that a transgender person often goes through—hiding, self-acceptance and transition. The hiding stage includes confusion about how the person's gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, the discovery of transgender and transsexual concepts, and identity comparisons.

Self-acceptance spans a range that includes identity tolerance, a delay before acceptance of the transgender identity, acceptance and a delay before transitioning.

[Related resource: HR Magazine's "A Remarkable Transformation"]

The transition stage includes acceptance of the post-transition gender and sex identity, integration, and pride in one's identity.

Stevens shared her "Transgender 101 Top 10" list:

  1. Sex and gender are not the same. "Male" and "female" are terms used to describe both sex and gender.
  2. "Sex" usually refers to biological and anatomical characteristics.
  3. "Gender" refers to a psychological sense of self and the cultural norms expected.
  4. Sex and gender are aligned for more than 95 percent of the population, but not for everyone.
  5. This has been true across all ages and cultures throughout history.
  6. "Transgender" is an umbrella term for people who express any form of non-traditional gender identity or expression.
  7. "Transsexual" is a term used for people who express their gender differently from the sex they were assigned at birth—independent of any surgeries.
  8. Not all transgender people wish to transition from their sex assigned at birth.
  9. Not all transgender people who transition will have surgery or use hormone therapy.
  10. Transgender people are just people who are living authentically.

An estimated 1 out of every 167 people are transgender, Stevens said, noting that "HR and D&I [diversity and inclusion] professionals have their work cut out for them."

What do you do, Stevens asked HR professionals in the audience, when you get a phone call or e-mail from an employee announcing that the person is transgender and plans to transition while employed there?

She suggested the following best practices for organizations:

  • Create and publish a corporate gender transition guide. This will require some training for senior HR and D&I professionals and benefits staff. Stevens said the guide should include a message of corporate support and company policies; information for employees, managers and business partners; and external sources of support and references.
  • Determine and publish the organization's health benefits and coverage for transgender employees and their dependents so it is clear what is and is not covered by the employer.
  • Offer proactive training events—such as bringing in a speaker who is transgender—as part of the organization's D&I education efforts even if no employee has yet come forward as transgender.  
  • If an employee does come forward, have a conversation about any support systems that he or she may need; determine a timeline for the various aspects of the employee's transgender experience; if appropriate, ask the employee to create an announcement letter to colleagues, which can include such information as the preferred pronoun, and review the letter; and offer training to co-workers to help them process the change.

She urged HR professionals to remember that transgender experiences are not all alike and that the employer likely has no idea how long it took for the employee to get to this point in his or her life.

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