‘A story of personal empowerment’: Transgender transitions in the workplace and beyond | St. Louis Public Radio

‘A story of personal empowerment’: Transgender transitions in the workplace and beyond

Aug 27, 2015

Jessica Liss (left), Michelle Smith (middle), and AJ Bockelman (right) joined "St. Louis on the Air" in studio.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

Awareness of transgender individuals and trans* issues has grown substantially in the past couple of years, but for many people—transgender and cisgender alike—uncertainty still prevails.

For individuals in the midst of transitioning, big issues like violence, discrimination, and health disparities hang heavy. But equally pressing are the changes in the mundane tasks of daily life that come with transitioning.

As for family, friends, colleagues and employers, many feel uncertain about the correct way to interpret transgender issues and interact with transitioning individuals. Employers may feel particularly uncertain about how best to accommodate individuals who transition while in the workplace because gender expression is not completely protected by law in most places.

Workplace protections

Title VII does not expressly list gender identity as a protected class, said Jessica Liss, attorney at the St. Louis office of Jackson Lewis. So while sexual discrimination is prohibited by federal protections, discrimination based on gender identity is not.

Furthermore, the law is inconsistent across and within states. While Missouri does not recognize sexual identity as a protected class, some municipalities, including St. Louis City and unincorporated St. Louis County, do.

“So from an employer’s perspective it is so important to understand your state, your federal, and your local laws in order to ensure that you’re in compliance,” Liss said.

Ultimately, ensuring the safety, security, privacy and dignity of transitioning employees comes down to developing an understanding and working closely with the employee, his or her coworkers, and relevant supervisors.

Michelle Smith, an employee of Boeing and co-chair of the advocacy group Out & Equal, said her transition “went flawlessly.”

Boeing updated its non-discrimination policy to include gender identity in 2006 and worked with her to compile a plan and timeline for her transition.

“Everything’s basically on the table,” Smith said of the timeline. “When do we think names are changing? When do we think any surgeries or health things are going to occur? So that everyone, up front, understands, and we can work it around business needs if necessary.”

Employee meetings not attended by Smith provided her colleagues an open forum for asking questions and learning company expectations for behavior. When Smith reached the end of her timeline, all necessary accommodations and protections had already been set into place.

“The minute I came back on January 2, 2007, presenting as Michelle, I could use the women’s restroom,” Smith said, “and if anyone had issues the global diversity person or team lead was the person to go to, and not me.”

Smith said that she only rarely experiences lapses from coworkers or clients. “Sometimes they’ll screw up a pronoun.” But while she is not offended by that unintended discrimination, other transgender individuals might be.

Whether coworkers are being passive-aggressive or simply not thinking in cases like these, they need to have expectations and guidelines, and transitioning employees need to know where they can go if they experience problems with their colleagues, Liss said. “We counsel employers that it’s just good business to make these changes and prevent discrimination in the workplace.”

Growing awareness

AJ Bockelman, executive director of LGBT rights group PROMO, said that rising understanding and acceptance of trans* issues stems from transgender individuals opening up to friends, family, and colleagues.

“It’s a story of personal empowerment,” Bockelman. “Each time a family member, an employee, a neighbor, a coworker, somebody in your immediate circle comes out, it helps break down those barriers.”

Smith agreed. She has met people who simply do not understand why she underwent her transition, she said, and “In a lot of cases, it’s really just getting to know a transgender person.”

Smith says that as a member of Out & Equal she frequently goes to schools’ Gay-Straight Alliances and to corporations and businesses, showing people that it is possible to transition and continue to be successful in the business world. She demonstrates that life does not stand still while a person transitions; one still works, studies, and successfully interacts with colleagues.

Bockelman acknowledged that high-publicity transitions and statements of celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Chaz Bono certainly contributed to raising awareness and prompting education and dialogue. But the star-studded reality of Caitlyn Jenner, he emphasized, does not accurately reflect the experiences of many transgender persons.

Transitioning as a person of color, for example, can be both more difficult and more dangerous than the transition process for white individuals. “Right now, in this country, we’ve seen a tremendous number of trans* people of color, in particular, targeted and killed.”

Some interactions remain difficult for all transitioning individuals. Communication with law enforcement officials can be especially problematic during transitions, as a person’s legal identification may not match their presentation. This can create problems with even regulation traffic stops, Smith said, when officers see apparently-incongruous gender signals as deception.

“I represent a lot of law enforcement agencies, and it comes down to education,” Liss said. “This issue unfortunately has not been at the forefront of law enforcement.”

Nor has it been at the forefront of legal change, Brockelman said. Updating a driver’s license to reflect gender identity can be a long process in the state of Missouri. It’s not as simple as sending in a change-of-gender form; transitioning individuals must submit a doctor’s note saying that they have undergone some manner of treatment to change their sexual characteristics.

“The actual statute says you need to have one irreversible surgery,” Smith said—“however you define ‘one irreversible surgery.’”

And that does not cover the changes that then have to be made to tax forms, Social Security information, medical records, and even the more mundane modes of identification and communication: emails, business cards, memberships.

Liss said overall, U.S. businesses are moving in the right direction in accommodating and respecting the wishes of transgender individuals.

But legal protections, the guests acknowledged, have a way to go.

“As we know,” Bockelman said, “marriage wasn’t the end-all be-all for the LGBT community, and we still have a lot of work to do.”  

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.