Push for Transgender Rights in the Workplace Continues to Grow

By Rita Pyrillis

Aug. 15, 2011

Kathleen Culhane was thrilled to land a job two years ago with a large Minnesota-based employer known for its commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Culhane, a chemist, was born male. Her decision to change gender in 2001 forced her to quit a job she loved at a university research lab in Iowa after her supervisors tried to fire her, telling her that they doubted she could do the job in her “condition.”

She found a position at another lab and was doing well until she got a new manager who harassed her constantly, she says. Eventually, she quit that job and decided to move to Minnesota where state law bans discrimination against transgender people.

Her new employer, where she still works and which she declined to name, has policies that address LGBT discrimination, but within a few months Culhane, 46, overheard two women make disparaging comments about her gender in the most dreaded room in the workplace for transgender employees: the restroom.

“I was waiting for one of the stalls and I heard one woman say to the other, ‘Did you hear that some guy is using our bathroom?’ It was a kick in the gut,” she says. “All this time I spent building my self-image, and I felt like it could be undercut with one comment.”

Culhane reported the incident to the human resources department, which took it very seriously, she says, although no one was disciplined because she fled the restroom before identifying the women. HR representatives filed a report and a diversity training session for employees soon followed. The incident left Culhane rattled, but thankful that her employer had policies to deal with the situation.

Many companies seem to be taking note of growing support for the rights of LGBT employees. Policies have been introduced by some employers specifically for transgender workers that go beyond written statements and address such issues as safe access to bathrooms, health insurance policies that cover medical treatments and training for supervisors of employees undergoing gender reassignment procedures.

Nearly three-fourths of registered voters from various political parties recently polled by the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy think tank in Washington D.C., say they are in favor of protecting gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination. And a new study by the New York City-based Center for Work-Life Policy that is featured in the July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review highlights the financial impact on companies that fail to create a safe workplace for LGBT employees. According to the study, almost half of all LGBT workers surveyed remain in the closet, resulting in higher rates of depression, stress-related illnesses and greater turnover.

On the legislative front, a growing number of states including Connecticut, Hawaii and Nevada have passed laws prohibiting workplace discrimination against transgender people. In May, the federal government issued guidelines for the treatment of transgender federal employees and called on government agencies to review their anti-discrimination policies for inclusion of transgender workers.

“We are seeing a greater recognition of the importance in taking affirmative steps toward making workplaces more open and accepting,” says Michael Silverman, executive director, Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund in New York City. “More and more companies are offering fully inclusive health care benefits to all employees. Transgender workers are almost always excluded.”

The first case in the country to tackle the question of a transgender person’s sex is making its way through the legal system. It’s not the first job discrimination case filed by a transgender person, but it’s the first one to take on the question of what is a man, Silverman says. It involves a worker at a New Jersey drug treatment center who was fired after his supervisors learned that he was born female.

The man was a part-time urine monitor who tried to ensure that recovering addicts did not substitute someone else’s urine for their own. His employer asserts that gender plays a critical role in the qualifications needed for that specific job. The Transgender Legal Defense Fund, co-counsel in the case, contends that legally, the employee is a man.

Companies with comprehensive policies and programs in place are often cited in the Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies on how they treat LGBT employees, customers and investors. The index is published annually by the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT civil rights organization.

The index includes gender identity and expression policies, health insurance coverage for domestic partners and plans that provide transgender employees with medically necessary care like hormone therapy. Specific to transgender employees, it also looks at dress code policies and safe access to gender-appropriate restrooms.

This year, 477 companies participated with 337 earning a perfect score of 100 percent, the highest number since the organization launched the index in 2002.

Kellogg Co., the Battle Creek, Michigan-based packaged-food producer, last year amended its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity and expression and scored 100 percent. So did communications giant AT&T Inc.

Belinda Grant-Anderson, AT&T’s vice president of workforce development and diversity, says the company wants to “make sure that employees are bringing their full self to work.” In 1987, AT&T established one of the first LGBT employee resources group in the country. Called League, the group has helped to guide the company’s diversity policies.

“We don’t approach this policy by policy, but rather we ask ourselves, ‘What is our global strategy?’ ” says Gary Fraundorfer, vice president of human resources at AT&T. “You can limit your strategy to health and welfare benefits or compliance to state and federal laws, but our approach is totally comprehensive.”

And that means providing unisex bathrooms for AT&T employees undergoing the gender reassignment process—a move that Culhane, the Minnesota chemist, applauds.

“This is the No. 1 issue for transgender employees,” she says. “You hear about transgender people with bladder infections because they hold it every day while they’re at work. The best thing an employer can do is to have unisex bathroom where you can lock the door.”

Workforce Management Online, June 2011Register Now!

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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