Hollywood awards shows aren’t necessarily where we hear frank conversations about acceptance and authenticity, but Sunday’s 72nd Golden Globes refreshingly highlighted some of today’s most important civil rights issues. Feminism, discrimination, racism, and terrorism were acknowledged not only by popular hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but also in compelling, passionate speeches from almost all the award recipients.
For me, the most moving moment was when Transparent creator Jill Soloway dedicated her show’s award for Best Musical or Comedy TV Series to the memory of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn—who tragically killed herself in late December—and to the “too many trans people who die too young.” Soloway was composed and loving when she also went on to openly share that the show was inspired by her own “Moppa”—her real-life parent who transitioned.
Our society needs cultural moments like this—they remind us how the community yearning for change and greater equality is all around us. As a fan of Transparent, I am now hopeful for more mainstream stories about and from the transgender community.
Yet as a diversity and inclusion consultant to Fortune 500 clients for almost 10 years, this moment reminds me of the work we need to do in the corporate world to ensure transgender employees feel Welcomed, Valued, Respected, and Heard℠.
Pushing Past the Tipping Point
When statistics show that only 8% of Americans personally know a transgender person, the overall transgender community faces an uphill battle in gaining public attention. Transparent and the Golden Globes wins will help increase exposure for the community, but at Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC), we often find ourselves as educators first.
One of the core misunderstandings centers around the concept of “gender identity, ” which is defined as the sex a person identifies being, not withstanding the sex assigned to them at birth. Gender discussions, particularly around gender identity as a subjective experience, one that is not defined by physiology, can be a source of challenges and adversity. Witness last year’s tense conversation between trans advocate Janet Mock and TV host Piers Morgan, with the latter showing a lack of understanding by consistently referring to Mock as someone who “used to be a boy,” instead of respecting that she had always identified as a female.
Although TIME proclaimed a transgender “tipping point” in civil rights last summer, putting trans actress Laverne Cox on the magazine cover, the visibility of transgender people and advocates continues to center around whether gender identity, an aspect of identity as innate for all of us as personality or sense of humor, should be recognized and respected.
Then Attorney General Eric Holder announced in mid-December 2014 that anti-discrimination employment policies extended to transgender people under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which makes discrimination based on race, religion, or sex, illegal. It seemed that perhaps the government was finally acknowledging that gender identity deserved as many protections as afforded to other individual rights.
Instead, only days after Holder made his announcement, Saks Fifth Avenue made an argument that a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former employee should be dismissed “because transsexuals are not a protected class under Title VII.” The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) responded by suspending the company’s rating on their Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which rates Fortune 1000 companies on their inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
The Saks case is a reminder that despite the changes the corporation will make to embrace transgender rights, bias may still remain.
Moving Beyond Competence
One of our latest partnerships with a client entails moving leaders past competency with transgender issues and more toward fluidity around diversity, where every employee is recognized for layers of identity. JBC has worked with clients in large-scale staff trainings and in one-on-one coaching to ensure the human component is never lost.
Fluidity starts by encouraging open and authentic dialogue, and an example would be starting dialogue among employees about gender identity and expression. But also by ensuring companies have compassionate pathways for transgender employees to work with HR and leadership without stigma.
Transgender advocate and diversity consultant Lori Fox knows all too well what it can cost to live as one’s “authentic self” when she transitioned while employed.
“Without trans-inclusive policies, practices, and benefits I felt unsafe and powerless to do anything [in my former workplace]. I felt that if I advocated for myself or for others too strongly, I would be demeaned and dismissed. I felt that I had no other option but to leave. Sadly, this is what the power of fear and shame can do in a non-inclusive workplace culture.”
Fox’s experience is not uncommon, but she has hope in the resources and momentum of the workplace today.
“An impressive group of 418 companies [on the CEI] now have trans-inclusive healthcare coverage. Over 290 have adopted supportive gender transition guidelines, to ensure that employees experience a safe, respectful, successful transition in the workplace,” says Fox.
As we continue to work towards more inclusion for healthcare and discrimination protections, the visibility for transgender people in mainstream culture can only help the cause of transgender employees. At JBC, we welcome shows like Transparent, because they embrace the very diversity we seek to elevate and embrace—not just in our personal lives, but also in every workplace.
“The most successful businesses have fully embraced trans-inclusion as a top priority to support their workforce, their families, and the bottom line,” says Fox. “This is what it takes to become a truly courageous, inclusive, and successful organization in the 21st Century.”