By Bennett Kaspar
At trans.cafe we aspire to provide content for everyone—transgender folks, friends, family, allies, and employers. The goal is to speak to everyone… After all, that’s how beliefs actually change at scale.
This article is the first in a series aimed at educating professionals about transgender issues in the workplace. This is only a start to what we hope will be a long and meaningful conversation that will help both employers and transgender employees to prosper. Without further ado, here are three things that are essential for every human resources professional (or employer) to know about transgender employees.
1. Vocabulary matters, so study up and know your terms!
This fairly common reminder is first on the list for a reason—because a basic understanding of the terminology used to describe and interact with transgender employees is essential knowledge that represents the bare minimum of trans sensitivity and awareness. To me, this is the root of every good employer-employee relationship!
Without even getting into details, these are the most basic terms that every HR professional should know and feel comfortable with:
- Pronoun: This is the term used as shorthand for a person’s gender—“he/she,” “him/her,” “his/hers,” “they/them/theirs,” among others. Note that “they/them/theirs” is not used here to refer to a group of people (e.g. the way “they” is commonly used—as a plural third person pronoun). Some transgender folks do not identify within the gender binary (male or female), and instead identify as non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid, or gender non-conforming (GNC) in some other way. Many of these folks prefer the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them/theirs,” and even The New York Times and Merriam-Webster are noticing this growing trend among GNC folks.
Regardless, it is very important for HR professionals and employers to respect the pronouns an employee uses.
Pro Tip: many progressive businesses are normalizing the process of asking what pronouns someone uses, regardless of whether the employee may or may not be trans. In fact, many businesses with work emails have added a line to their signature blocks stating, “Pronouns: ____/____” below the person’s name. Try it!
- Cisgender vs. Transgender: So you’ve probably figured out that a transgender (or “trans” for short) person is one whose gender assigned at birth does not match their true gender. Cisgender is the opposite—it’s someone whose gender assigned at birth matches their gender “inside,” sometimes referred to as gender identity (though some trans folks prefer to conceive of their gender as just that—not “gender identity.”) Calling non-trans people “cisgender” or “cis” for short helps erase the implied “otherness” that results from calling a non-trans person a “man” and a transgender male a “transgender man.” Trans folks use “cis” or “cisgender” to refer to non-transgender folks, so practice using it in your everyday vocabulary, too.
Note: HR staff and employers should always use the employee’s proper pronoun and name, regardless of whether or not the employee has had a legal name and gender change. While there may be certain internal databases or documents in which you cannot change this without legal documentation, you should try to change the employee’s name and gender marker as appropriate to the greatest extent possible.
2. Remember that literally every trans person is different—just as every person on earth is different.
There are an estimated 1.4 million transgender people in the U.S., according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. And that estimate is likely below what it actually is (consider all of the folks who are unaccounted for). Needless to say, there will be a lot of differences among all those 1.4 million individuals in terms of their experiences and how they view their own journeys. Because of this, it’s best not to assume anything about someone’s journey simply because they’re transgender. Instead, be open to letting the trans person communicate that journey to you! Here are some differences you may find:
Some trans people align with the “gender binary” while others do not—both of these forms of gender expression fit under the umbrella of being “transgender” and both are equally valid identities.
There is no single way to transition. Some trans folks use medical intervention (in the form of hormones, surgery, therapy, or all of the above) to align their bodies and their identities, while others do not. Any and all decisions about how to transition really are up to the trans person and their doctors, and even if someone doesn’t undergo any medical intervention, their identity is valid and should be respected.
Some trans people are okay being “out” as transgender to colleagues, friends, and family, while others prefer to live “stealth” and do not want to be public about their identity. To be safe, do not EVER “out” a transgender person without their express permission.
There is no connection between someone’s sexual orientation and their gender—trans people identify as gay, straight, queer, bisexual, pansexual, and any other orientation that cisgender people express. Don’t assume you know who someone is attracted to because they’re trans!
Even if someone is “out” as trans, they may not want to discuss their transition. For this reason, it’s best not to ask any questions that are not absolutely necessary for professional reasons. If the person opens up to you, that is one thing. But don’t assume any topic is fair game for conversation!
3. Know your laws—municipal, state, federal—and their relevance within your company.
As awareness around transgender people and the issues facing them continues to grow, so do the protections afforded them at the federal, state, and local level. As of January 2015, at least 225 cities and counties have local protections for transgender persons in employment. Twenty states have explicit statewide protections for trans people against discrimination, and federal agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) have begun taking formal positions on protections for transgender workers.
Beyond the obvious laws that directly protect trans people from discrimination in myriad ways, regulations like HIPAA, laws like the Affordable Care Act, and state privacy or confidentiality laws also protect transgender employees in the workplace. The bottom line is that laws related to protecting trans people are rapidly changing, and HR professionals and employers should subscribe to organizations or services that provide employer updates on legislation, or should talk to Employment Law counsel if there are any questions regarding whether a transgender person is protected in any given situation.
This will make sure that employers and HR professionals do the right thing, trans employees are protected, and together the organization and the employee grow and prosper together. Avoiding litigation is always a good idea, too.
Watch this space for further articles on how to best address issues facing transgender employees in the workplace.
Bennett Kaspar is a transgender lawyer from Los Angeles, California, who specializes in employment and labor law. He received his J.D. from the University of California, Irvine School of Law in 2014, and has helped numerous employers on a variety of issues related to counseling and litigation. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his blog, www.thatguykas.wordpress.com.