Alasdair James Scott, Senior Consultant at PDT Global, shares insight into the cross-roads many of the transgender community are facing, now more than ever, along with useful tips on how to pick up the momentum towards empathy.
In the same month as Transgender Day of Visibility, my local film institute hosts its annual celebration of queer film and on-screen representation. A normally in-person affair, the Flare Film Festival fell foul of these pandemic times and was converted to a digital format; gone were the screens filled with avid queer cinema goers and here instead were dodgy internet connections and snuggling under duvets on the couch. What remained, however, were poignant stories told through compassionate and heartfelt film-making. One in particular caught my attention, Colors of Tobi, the story of a teenager struggling with their gender identity and their caring mother, set against the backdrop of an increasingly conservative Hungary, where trans rights are constantly challenged.
Now, it was the mother’s response to the entire situation that had me welling up; empathy when her child was experiencing so much anguish, support by attending pride marches, humility when she mistakenly used the former name of her child and love, unashamed, uncompromising and authentic love. Four traits in one woman that made such an insurmountable difference to the confidence, self-esteem, sense of validation and respect felt in their trans son. To my mind this is a choice, perhaps not a conscious one, but certainly at the crossroads between love & understanding and hate & shame, Tobi’s mother, some may assume against all odds, took the former path and it was beautiful to see.
On this trans day of visibility I want you to ask yourself a very easy but incredibly vital question; when it comes to our transgender brothers and sisters do I choose love & understanding or hate & shame? Be honest, when you stop sanitizing your response or adjusting it so that it feels socially acceptable, is it the answer that you expect or feel proud of? Would you even admit it? Or is it something you’re actually pretty comfortable with? To my mind empathy, support, humility and love have been missing from the debate around transgender identity for too long (heck even calling it a debate reeks of insensitivity and belittles vibrant human experiences into cheap shots/talking points) as experiences of hate and fear rise.
This year is also a cross-roads for many of our transgender friends, family, colleagues or strangers on the street. Only one week ago we saw a US first when Dr. Rachel Levine became the only openly transgender official to ever be confirmed by the Senate, becoming Assistant Health Secretary. The optimistic amongst us would see turning points such as this as key examples of increasing acceptance of transgender people in the US, a significant victory in the tumultuous fight for equality in the country.
However, this progress has a sour taste amid the backdrop to ban or restrict access to treatment for young American transgender people; this month Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have stated that 2021 has seen the highest number of anti-transgender bills in history, 82 in comparison to 2020’s 79. Wonderfully, 55 major US corporations have spoken out in opposition of such anti-transgender legislation; the likes of Google, Pfizer, Amazon and Nike voicing strong objections to the limitation of the freedoms and rights of many of their employees. These signs of support are welcome but I can’t help but wonder whether they’re pretty performative – how many of these organizations (and a number their people) are struggling to find their empathy? May I suggest a place to look? 2016.
In 2016 Total Jobs and Sparkle, a UK based transgender charity, found that over half (52%) of transgender people didn’t reveal their gender identity at work. After their 2021 survey, the number is sitting at 65%. Coming out at work is an incredibly difficult and personal decision, one dependent on a sense of acceptance and comfort in their surroundings – this uptick may be pointing to a lack of perceived psychological safety within their organizations. No wonder given that the same study also found that since 2016 32% (almost a third) of transgender people said that they experienced discrimination or abuse at work. Below are examples of what those people have experienced – it goes far beyond mixing up pronouns or bathrooms!
- Transgender existence being debated by others: From governmental debates to breakfast TV phone-ins, the lives and even the bodies of transgender people are intellectualized and discussed as if it were along the lines of particle physics or what to have for breakfast. This is trivializing and offensive.
- Increased risk of unemployment and lack of access to opportunities: According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, transgender employees were 3x more likely than their cisgender colleagues to experience unemployment, whilst 29% lived in poverty.
- Lack of provisions for healthcare and surgery costs: 33% of transgender people report prioritizing provisions such as trans inclusive healthcare programs when considering which organizations to join.
- Being deadnamed by colleagues: Calling someone by their birth name after they changed their name, usually but not always when they have socially transitioned.
- Being ostracized or socially excluded by colleagues: According to EY, 40% of all employees admit to feeling isolated or ostracized at work, whilst 2021’s TotalJob’s survey found that 24% of trans employees had been socially excluded in the workplace.
It appears that in 2016 there may have been more empathy, more understanding or perhaps just less heat emboldening the most discriminatory amongst us to speak up and act out. Back then, for many people, being trans was glamourized as something “Hollywood” being played on reality shows or an orangey Netflix series (you know the ones). It was conceptual, safe and easy to champion and support as it didn’t really affect us. Since then, many more of us may have had transgender people become part of our everyday lives or become more aware of the discourse.
We have to ask ourselves, have we really moved towards empathy and understanding, compassion and support? Is accepting and including trans people amongst our top priorities, or is the reality of “them” actually quite difficult?
Even if we’ve only ever done one of the above examples of bias, at one time (even inadvertently), what is the cumulative effect of everyone doing the same? How minimized, invalidated, unsafe, traumatized, exhausted, hurt and frustrated do your transgender colleague(s) feel? What will it take for you to turn this around, to show support and to be a little bit like Tobi’s mother?
Below are some recommendations on how to pick up what too many of us left behind in 2016, to take the path at the crossroads towards empathy, so we don’t have to have the same conversation again in another five years.
- Educate yourself on key issues: Empathy starts with informing yourself on the realities of people who you have little experience of. Read articles, access notable commentators on social media, search for seminal publications to know more. The information is there, you just need to access it.
- Watch your language: in your verbal and written communication, be mindful of its gendered nature and seek out opportunities to use gender neutral versions of traditionally binary or gendered sayings.
- Be honest about where you are: Leaning into unfamiliar identities is a process that takes time and being honest with yourself and others about where you are is crucial so that you can effectively build trust. Not doing this can lead to performative support – where you say the right things but do not have the tools or intent to offer more sustained help.
- Look at your policies: Are you an organization where transgender people will want to work, or want to stay? Think about the provisions and policies you have in place and whether they actively anticipate transgender people – is paid leave available for transitioning, for example?
- Train your people: Mandate awareness raising training to ensure better understanding of the issues facing transgender people and the vital importance of creating and sustaining an inclusive working environment.
- Total Jobs 2021, Trans employee experiences survey: Understanding the trans community in the workplace, Total Jobs, viewed March 2021, https://www.totaljobs.com/advice/trans-employee-experiences-survey-2021-research-conducted-by-totaljobs#1-train-your-staff
- Wyatt, R. 2021, 2021 becomes record year for anti-transgender legislation, Human Rights Campaign, viewed March 2021, https://www.hrc.org/press-releases/breaking-2021-becomes-record-year-for-anti-transgender-legislation
- James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality
- Twaronite, K 2019, Five findings on the importance of belonging, EY, viewed January 2021, https://www.ey.com/en_us/diversity-inclusiveness/ey-belonging-barometer-workplace-study
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