When Annette Elliott showed up for work on that first day, her co-workers were stupefied. They have always known her as Anthony, the father of four and a diligent air traffic controller at NAV Canada’s tower in Winnipeg since 1994.
Elliott’s transformation from a man to a woman may have been a shocking change for her fellow colleagues, but for Anthony — now Annette — her new skin signaled the beginning of the end of her inner turmoil and a manifestation of her true self.
However, coming out as transgendered in the workplace was as daunting as it was liberating; a journey that was, to say the least, littered with challenges.
Elliott is not alone in her struggle. On the whole, the transgender community faces significant barriers on the job. While lawmakers scramble to update human rights protections to safeguard the rights of transgendered employees, the duty to accommodate this group of workers has, inadvertently, fallen on the laps of employers.
Despite a consistent education rate, the transgendered community has high unemployment and low salaries, notes a study by Trans PULSE, a community-based research project investigating the impact of social exclusion and discrimination on the health of trans people in London, Ontario.
“The first two years were the toughest by a long way, especially at work,” recalls Elliott, who underwent sexual reassignment surgery in 2008. “It was a sliding scale — the first three months were a nightmare, the first nine months were ‘Oh my god, I’m sleeping 10 hours a night because I’m so worn out by the end of the day’ — and then after that things got much easier.”
Faced with discrimination, stigmatization and even harassment, transgendered employees must tackle day-to-day challenges on the job, notes barbara findlay, a Vancouver-based lesbian feminist lawyer who specializes in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues (and prefers to use only lower-case letters in her name.)
“Their first question is, ‘Is my employer going to freak out if I tell them that I’ve been coming to work as Sam, and I want to start coming to work as Samantha?’” findlay says.
However, she notes the general climate toward LGBT workers over the last two decades has become more progressive, although the reaction and tolerance of employers can and do vary widely. “You just have to take the plunge and see what they say,” findlay adds.
After Elliott took that plunge, her work life became much worse before it took a turn for the better. On her first day back in the office as a woman, wearing jeans and a zip-up hooded sweatshirt, Elliott says her knees locked and she could barely walk, feeling like “the prized gorilla at the zoo.”
“It was horrible, absolutely horrible,” she says, adding that the human resources department had denied her request to be transferred to another control tower as they were short-staffed. “I wanted to finish in Winnipeg one day as Anthony, and then go to a new tower so at least, it would be a fresh start for me and the people.”
Instead, she returned to the Winnipeg tower. “That terrified me. That was the hardest part of the transition: facing all these people who I had worked with for 12 or 13 years.”
ON THE MARK
Gender dysphoria refers to a gender identity disorder in which an individual is discontent with one’s biological sex or its usual gender. Treatment for this medical condition includes counselling, undergoing cross-gender hormone therapy or sexual reassignment surgery.
“It is not a psychiatric illness; it is a physical condition with a physical fix,” says Lindy Mechefske, author of an upcoming book on the transgender experience and an editor in Kingston, Ontario.
If an individual has decided to undergo the surgery, he or she will have to inform the employer that a transition is taking place. At this point, the employer will have to look into any occupational health and safety accommodations that the worker may need, Mechefske notes.
For most transgendered workers, facing their peers post-surgery requires gall, says Françoise Susset, president of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health (CPATH) in Montreal. One also has to be ready to make such a move. Elliott, for instance, was counselled by her psychiatrist at the time, who determined that she was ready to go public with her sexual transition.
It is also a conversation for which every employer must be prepared. “The employer needs to know they have a responsibility to each and every one of their employees, and any one of them could one day show up and tell them that they are in the process of changing sex,” Susset offers.
Transphobia is often rooted in misunderstanding and fear of the unknown, Susset notes, adding that gays and lesbians were considered mentally ill half a century ago.
“Our understanding of gender identity is probably where it was 30 years ago. It is not well-known and often surrounds a lot of stereotypes and misinformation,” says Edmonton-based Dr. Kristopher Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and associate director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services.
Dr. Wells points out the trans community is among those at greatest risk for violence and discrimination. However, he notes the community is also becoming more aware of the human rights obligation for employers to provide an inclusive work environment that is free from discrimination.
In many workplaces across Canada, the road towards embracing transgendered co-workers remains long and arduous. Of the 433 trans Ontarians that Trans PULSE enlisted for its study on workplace acceptance, only 21 per cent indicated “always” when asked whether or not their colleagues were accepting of their transition.
Dr. Nicola Brown, staff psychologist at the gender identity clinic based out of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says she has seen many disenfranchised transgendered workers come through her doors. Factors, such as whether or not one is employed or has a job offer in place, and access to a social or union-based support network need to be considered prior to coming out.
One also has to be prepared to deal with adverse reaction — even derision — from colleagues. Brown cites a transgendered worker she knows, who was the butt of a joke circulated over email at her workplace.
The public’s reaction towards someone who has undergone a gender transition may be something the individual concerned is not prepared to face. Elliott’s hard landing following her transition was so daunting that she asked her doctor to prescribe her a week off from work.
“I was wallpaper. The conversations went on around me and about me. I was suddenly out of the conversation, nobody really wanted to talk to me, whereas before, I had just been one of the group,” Elliott says. She describes the huge array of emotions demonstrated by her co-workers, which ranged from distaste to wonder. “It wasn’t because they wanted to ignore me; it was because they didn’t know what to say.”
While coming out on the job is, in many ways, a personal victory, it is also a precursor to many obstacles that must first be surmounted before the fruits of that victory can be savoured.
Wells thinks education is the most powerful weapon employers have in their arsenal to discourage discrimination and ostracism, which can create a hostile work environment. “Part of the challenge is that many places have not developed process or policy to support transgender employees,” Wells argues, citing the need for a professional to provide some education around sexual orientation and gender identity.
Susset, who hosts such sessions as part of her work with CPATH, has been recruited by employers to prepare staff members on how to deal with transgender-related issues at work. She notes that most employers do address sexual orientation issues in their policies.
Having the support of the company or a union, if applicable, is vital to smoothing the transition for everyone in the workplace. Susset recounts an incident in which an employer refused to conduct any training or provide information in relation to a worker who had recently undergone sexual transition. The employer “basically gathered all the employees and said, ‘If you don’t say the right thing with this person, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble,’ which resulted in nobody talking to her,” she cites by way of example.
Ken Stuart, the national representative and Pride liaison with the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) in Winnipeg, advises employers to hold information sessions as soon as a trans employee has gone public to avoid potential problems. The CAW union, of which Elliott is a member, has published an unofficial Trans 101 guide. The booklet cites washroom use as the most common and recurring problem in the workplace for those going through gender reassignment.
“I know sometimes employees have complained to a supervisor. Other folks have told us some people try to peek through the open space between the [stall] door or get yelled at,” staff psychologist Dr. Brown reveals.
“Employers need to understand that they are obliged to permit an individual to use the washroom of her gender identity. It is not okay to send her up three flights of stairs and through back alleys to some never-used-by-anybody-else-since-the-beginning-of-time washroom,” findlay quips, adding that whether or not surgery has taken place is irrelevant.
Alternatively, a transgendered worker may opt for a gender-neutral, private washroom, although that choice lies with the employee. “Some people have been told to use the disabled bathroom, but they say that’s stigmatization too because they are not disabled,” Mechefske says. “They just want to be able to comfortably use a female bathroom.”
However, Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer for Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a pro-life organization in Toronto, has expressed concerns that this can jeopardize the safety of women. “It would make women feel uncomfortable and perhaps, even endanger them. Washrooms should be places where women feel safe and not find someone there that they don’t expect,” Douglas contends.
She adds that a gender-neutral washroom could also give rise to dangerous situations, such as sexual assault or harassment. “There will be an increased legal opportunity for sexual predators and peeping toms who pretend to be transgendered to enter female bathrooms,” a CLC statement contends.
Douglas thinks that an individual who is biologically male should continue using the gents, even though he might feel otherwise. “I don’t think they should impose this on other people,” she adds.
As well, using the right name or proper pronoun is another area spiked with landmines. Susset illustrates that a co-worker might say, ‘Go see Julie, he’ll help you with that problem.’ An occasional slip-up will likely be deemed as an honest mistake, but prolonged use of the wrong pronoun can appear snide and chip away at the overall well-being of the employee concerned.
Mechefske is of the mind that the evolving demographics of the trans community could signal a shift toward policy change in workplaces. “I do think people coming out as transgender is on the increase, and I do think transgenderism itself is on the increase,” she opines. “Whereas once upon a time, they might have remained a cross-dresser or not even done that — just suffered with some sort of anguish they couldn’t define.”
From a productivity perspective, a worker afflicted with personal problems can negatively influence morale, staff retention and the company’s bottom line. Companies that offer an inclusive environment will not only attract employees, but also keep them onboard, Dr. Wells suggests.
One area where the door can be shut on trans people, often without legal ramifications, are jobs in sectors reserved for women only. British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal heard a case involving a male-to-female transsexual, who responded to an advertisement from the Vancouver Rape Relief Society seeking volunteers to be trained as peer counsellors for rape victims. The clinic denied the applicant midway through training after it found out that she had undergone a sexual reassignment, as men are not allowed in such facilities.
After a series of legal proceedings, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia concluded in 2005 the applicant had not proven discrimination and the clinic “was entitled to exercise an internal preference in the group served, to prefer to train women who had never been treated as anything but female.”
Findlay explains the courts have exempted certain organizations that have been created to provide services targeted at women from certain human rights obligations. “In the past, it has been the case that some women-only spaces have asserted the right to exclude women who, as they say, weren’t born women,” findlay says. “So there are a small number of employers who can legally get away with saying to trans people, ‘You’re not welcome here.’”
Considering the various sensitive issues surrounding transgendered employees, what can be done to make the experience less traumatic from a workplace relations perspective? “Those challenges can be addressed through awareness,” says Ron Puccini, senior manager of diversity at TD Bank Group’s corporate human resources department in Toronto. “The other aspect is respecting their right to privacy and confidentiality.”
While communication with existing staff to facilitate a smooth transition is key, a certain level of discretion can be exercised by informing people on a need-to-know basis, Dr. Brown suggests. For example, new hires do not need to know that a certain employee had just undergone a sex change.
The challenge, however, is that no two scenarios involving trans workers are the same, Puccini observes. He notes that the bank has put in place general guidelines on how to deal with such situations should they arise.
Another option is to enlist consultants in trans relations to meet with staff while the transitioning employee is away. This was what Elliott’s boss did when she was recovering from the surgery.
Susset notes that some of these information sessions she conducted have aided in normalizing workplace relations and paved the way to a smoother transition.
For Dr. Brown, being candid on the part of the affected worker also helps, as a culture of respect is often built on understanding. A worker’s willingness to share his or her story can build that bridge of empathy.
Elliott remembers with crystal clarity her first day back on the job following the transformation.
“The biggest breakthrough for me were the pilots, whom I don’t see, but I talk to everyday. They started calling me ‘ma’am,’” she muses. “All they have got to go on is my voice, and they are calling me by the right gender. That was a huge boost to my confidence. So I would go home and I would count how many ‘ma’ams’ I got and how many ‘sirs’ I got from the pilots I was talking to during the day.”
These days, she is considered “just one of the girls” at work. Elliott shares her experience with the trans community to help prepare those who in
tend to embark on the same journey for what is to come.
“I would tell them that it is going to be difficult, to not expect miracles in that first week, you really have to wait up to two years before you can look back from where you were to where you are.”
While the process before going through transition may be arduous, Elliott says the road “will be equally, if not more difficult after your transition — until other people accept you, until you get more comfortable in your own skin.”
Sabrina Nanji is editorial assistant of canadian occupational health and safety news.
Small Steps, Big Strides
While the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has developed policy statements and guidelines that cover many human rights issues, those related to gender identity remain largely unresolved in procedures and law, the OHRC’s Policy on Discrimination and Harassment Because of Gender Identity notes.
However, that changed when Ontario passed the Toby Act this past June and the Ontario Human Rights Code was amended to include gender identity and expression. Manitoba followed suit in the same month.
The two provinces are the latest to jump on the bandwagon. The Northwest Territories blazed the trail by becoming the first jurisdiction in Canada to include gender identity as part of its human rights mandate in 2002.
A Culture of Respect
For many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) employees, the effort workers invest in hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity can take a toll on their productivity and emotional and physical health, notes information from the Ottawa-based HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector.
Employers who want to invest in an inclusive and supportive workplace can adopt the following measures:
- Implement policies and procedures to support diversity, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment;
- Put in place and uphold zero tolerance for inappropriate comments, jokes and/or behaviour;
- Extend employment and pension benefits (if applicable) to same-sex couples;
- Use an inclusive and non gender-specific term like ‘partners’ when inviting spouses to social activities, and,
- Arrange for sensitivity training for all staff.
For employees going through gender transition, open communication is key. In larger organizations, switching departments may help both staff and the transitioning employee adjust. If relevant, discussions on how workplace uniform or dress code will be handled should be conducted. An official name change in human resources and administrative records is also required once the employee has completed the transition.
Image: Illustration Source – Bruno Budrovic