Creating Transgender-Affirming Organizations

Gender-neutral bathrooms are only one aspect of creating a welcoming environment for transgender employees and clients, panelists in a recent webinar sponsored by AIDS United said. Transgender communities represent a wide variety of experiences. Gender identity is one of many ways in which people define themselves and/or are defined by the world around them. Transgender individuals may also belong to social groups based on ethnicity, social background, profession, etc. Furthermore, there is a spectrum of genders, not a binary system, and some people may not identify with either of the traditional sexes.

People's gender is assigned at birth by medical professionals who base that designation only on the newborn's genitals. That assignment may or may not conform to the way the person is later perceived by others, that is, their "gender expression." That expression, in turn, may differ from a person's "gender identity," that is, their internal feeling about their gender. Then there is an individual's "sexual orientation," meaning their emotional and/or physical attraction to partners of a specific sex. These two types of attraction may not be congruent, either. For example, someone could be physically attracted to a gender that is different from the gender to which they feel emotionally close. Transgender communities also include "intersex" people: those born with more than one set of genitalia.

The first step in creating a truly transgender-affirming organization or company is to understand this diversity. The next is to include people from these communities in creating policies and procedures or shaping the environment. Don't just hire transgender people for peer outreach, also include them in leadership positions, listeners were counseled. As with any other community, be respectful, use inclusive language and ask questions. Cultural humility goes a long way towards making people feel welcome and accepted.

Specific steps organizations can take to create a transgender-accepting environment include:

  • Make sure gender identity and expression are part of non-discrimination and equal opportunity policies.
  • Never assume a pronoun based on someone's appearance: Always ask.
  • Provide single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms for all employees, if feasible.
  • Ensure that any employee's transgender identity remains private.
  • If possible, have no dress code. When clothing restrictions are necessary, such as in a laboratory environment, ensure that they are not sex-specific. Better yet, explicitly permit cross-dressing. Be flexible when applying any dress code to employees who are transitioning since that process takes time and may result in intermediate gender expressions.
  • Have a plan for employees who are transitioning, and publicize that plan along with a confidential contact for those who may be affected by the plan.
  • Update all public references to a person's name and/or gender marker as soon as possible after transition, even if the name has not yet been legally changed.
  • Have a system for navigating background and reference checks for people who may have been previously employed under a different name or gender.
  • Negotiate with your health insurance company to have transition-related care covered. If needed, ask how to prove that certain procedures are medically necessary rather than cosmetic. Laws about insurance coverage vary among states; make sure you know the rules in your location.

Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C., worked with a consulting firm to implement these recommendations. It found that creativity was needed to overcome the binary-gender limitations of most commercial software. Client services organizations may also need to modify their intake forms, phone call scripts and other processes to accommodate multiple names (legal name, preferred name, prior name) and gender designations (sex assigned at birth, current gender identity). Transgender clients may initially contact an organization about a matter not related to their gender identity, such as immigration. Train all staff to avoid using, "Sir/Ma'am," and similarly gendered forms of address for anyone who contacts them, not just for people asking about transgender-related services.

Providing a welcoming environment for transgender people in your organization or company is a process, not a one-time makeover. Keep listening and learning, nurture potential leaders from these communities and include them in decision-making processes. And work with cisgender allies and other organizations to address the issues faced by transgender persons when they step outside your offices.