3 ways to support trans colleagues coming out at work

May 29, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC
Protesters block the street in front of the Supreme Court as it hears arguments on whether gay and transgender people are covered by a federal law barring employment discrimination on the basis of sex on Oct. 8, 2019.
Caroline Brehman—CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

When I transitioned—while with a prior employer—I was met with support, but, sadly, also discrimination. For each person that encouraged me to be myself, I was misgendered by another. Every time I was applauded for my “bravery,” I was met with another insurance hurdle to jump over. 

The support was important, and appreciated, but oftentimes it didn’t feel like enough to surmount the negativity.

Building a career is hard enough; no one should have to feel uncomfortable bringing their whole self to work as well. Trans people may take a different path to their gender than others, but that doesn’t make their experience, what they bring to the table, or, frankly, who they are any less valid.

So how can you support trans and nonbinary individuals as they come out at work and navigate the workplace?

At a macro level, you can influence policy with your vote. The Supreme Court delivered a major victory to transgender employees last year. Since then, however, there has been a backlash of anti-trans legislation at the state level, which is creating barriers to accessing care, especially for trans youth.

At a micro level, you can work to create a more positive workplace. There are many opportunities for organizations to build a more inclusive experience for trans individuals.

One of those is to directly and proactively create a more hospitable environment. I once thought the most effective way to be supported was to make yourself easy to support. I thought wrong. Everyone should be supported in the manner they need. No one should ever have to endure difficulties or package themselves in a specific way to receive support from others.

A 2015 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that 77% of trans workers took active steps to avoid mistreatment at work. This included hiding their gender identity, delaying their gender transition, refraining from asking their employers to use their correct pronouns, or quitting their jobs.

Sponsorship, allyship, and support from company leaders and colleagues is crucial. The word “support” should apply to physical, mental, and emotional well-being—caring for the whole person, giving them a safe space to share their experiences and feel like they truly belong within an organization.

Support should also extend to company insurance policies. The cost of gender-affirming care is extremely high and oftentimes only partially offset by some insurance plans. Organizations can take proactive steps to supplement their insurance plans either via company-level programs or direct negotiation with insurance carriers.

Further, as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care (the document that governs what is “medically necessary” for gender-affirming care) evolves, companies should make a conscientious effort to avoid following antiquated guidelines.

For example, some insurance companies still require that an individual live in a gender role that is congruent with their gender identity for 24 months before accessing care. As you can imagine, not only is this difficult, but in many instances, it can be dangerous. Being restricted from accessing the care one may need to feel congruent with their gender can trigger suicidal tendencies, according to a report by the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute.                                                                

Another way to support trans colleagues is to respect the dictum: “Nothing about us without us.”

I heard this saying on a call a few weeks back and fell in love with it. Trans individuals should be included in any policy-making decisions or conversations that relate to them in the workplace. If a trans person is unavailable to provide input, companies should consult external resources.

I’m part of PwC’s Gender Diversity Working Group, which we endearingly call the “TransFam.” The TransFam has been leading the charge to enhance our internal transgender support guidelines and update our internal intranet so PwC’s resources are more readily accessible.

Further, we help serve as a resource group for the trans and gender nonconforming people within the firm. Our group has been growing weekly, so there is clearly a need for this type of network within organizations.

Lastly, organizations should endeavor to treat trans workers like anybody else—with humanity.

Trans folks ask that you treat us the way you want to be treated. Use the right pronouns—and if you don’t know, ask. If you make a mistake, apologize, and be mindful for the future. Be a vocal advocate.

Every person has a basic need to feel like they belong. That sense of belonging isn’t where everyone feels the same—it is where everyone can be their whole self and valued for being different.

I am fortunate to feel like I belong at PwC—that I have colleagues who accept me for me, and advocates who champion my work and my success every day. But I am by no means the typical story.

There is still so much work to be done to get society to a place where all transgender folks are treated with fairness and humanity. Each of us has a role to play in helping to create a more equitable future. It is my hope that for colleagues who follow me, their transition journey is markedly different from mine—and I believe that it will be.

Rosalie Valdez-Vitale is a director in PwC’s Asset and Wealth Management practice.

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