Gender identity is a polarizing topic. But, why? Why do we care so much about whether other people see themselves as male, female, or non-binary?
We don’t punish people who are fashionistas in high school but dress more athletic in university by denying them of their basic human rights. Nor do we ostracize athletes who suddenly realize that they were really born to be actors, musicians, and/or entrepreneurs. So, why are transgender people alienated and, in some cases, blatantly abused by strangers? Because they’ve realized who they were at birth is not who they are 10, 20 or 30 years later? I’m pretty sure every human being undergoes an identity transformation at some point in their lives.
Most of us don’t look or dress the same way we did when we were younger. Plastic surgery has been “normal” for decades. And plenty of people change their names to better reflect their true self-identity. So, why do transgender people get treated any differently than the rest of us? Why is it so hard to draw parallels between one’s personal identity transformations and the gender identity transformations others go through?
And why in the world are transgender people being forced to fight to retain or recover their rights as people? When it comes to transgender individuals, why do we often have a different set of standards?
These are some of the questions that I recently asked my colleague Dirk Paschal, a transgender rights advocate and father of a transgender son. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation…
Laura: You’ve been a huge advocate for transgender rights for the past several years within your community and within Zebra. Why is this issue so important to you?
Dirk: My son came out to my wife and me as transgender a year or so before I joined Zebra Technologies. Until then, we were mostly unaware of what this word even meant. (Transgender people are people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth.) Over time my family acquired a general understanding of what it means to be transgender, but most people never do.
The negative experiences suffered by transgender people became clear to us as we watched our son be bullied, harassed, discriminated against, and even physically assaulted because he came out and transitioned his outward appearance to match his true gender. Schools and teachers, employers, and even medical professionals and institutions were woefully unprepared to handle transgender individuals’ needs and protect them from harm. He just didn’t fit in their binary constraints. As a parent I feared for his safety, his health, his mental state, and worried these would be his life experiences forever.
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to be hired into Zebra. One of my first instincts was to determine if Zebra was the kind of inclusive workplace where my son would feel safe, accepted, and able to work as his authentic self. Initially, I was unsure if he would be fully accepted and supported because, like all of us, transgender people need more than a welcoming workplace culture to feel like they’re treated as equal. They need the same healthcare coverage as everyone else, and they need to be protected from discrimination stemming from colleagues’ personal biases. That means corporate policies that sponsor equity and offer protection against discrimination must be enacted and enforced before we can say a culture is truly inclusive of transgender people (and all people). So, working with Zebra’s leaders to ensure our company culture fosters a truly inclusive and equitable experience for transgender people has been my personal mission. I’d like to believe many likeminded Zebras and I have made some worthwhile progress.
Laura: In your experience, what most often prevents transgender people from being accepted for who they are by their families, friends, colleagues, and the public in general?
Dirk: I think it is human nature to gravitate toward those who are most like us (our tribe). It can be uncomfortable to interact with those whose physical appearance, interests, experiences, or behaviors are different than our own. But for many people it is too easy to reflexively reject “others,” whether they are of a different nationality, heritage, culture, language, gender, age group, ideology, appearance, or whatever. My personal belief is that this is likely an ingrained, protective instinct that most animals have retained in the primal areas of their brains. But I believe humans also have the capacity for higher level comprehension, to overcome fear and ignorance through education and new experiences, to learn and grow in their understanding of the world around them. There is a meaningful and important difference between a guarded first impression and thoughtful, keen observation and processing.
Laura: How can allies combat the misinformation that’s flooding social media – and even in-person social gatherings – to help foster public acceptance of transgender people?
Dirk: The first step to being an ally is to learn more, to educate yourself. Then use your voice and actions to be a visible ally and advocate. Be an active upstander instead of a passive bystander. Stand up to oppression, discrimination, ignorance, prejudice, harassment, misinformation, and extremism wherever and whenever you encounter it. Use your vote to help reverse policies that limit human rights; let government decision-makers know that you don’t support legislation that puts restrictions in place for certain people. I personally use social media and other forums regularly to educate, to advocate, and to actively promote and provide a safe and welcoming environment as an ally to all marginalized communities within the LGBTQ+ umbrella and beyond.
November marks Transgender Awareness Month, a time when transgender people and their allies take action to bring attention to their community. They educate the public about who transgender people are, share stories and experiences, and advance advocacy around the issues of prejudice, discrimination, and violence that affect the transgender community. ZEAL, our Zebra Equality Alliance employee resource group, dedicates its November “Coffee Chat” each year to the T (Transgender) in LGBTQ+. Now is an ideal time to begin using your voice in support of others whose voices are being suppressed. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an annual observance on November 20 that honors the memory of the transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence that year. While there has been incredible progress made in recent years in the fight for transgender rights, recorded instances of transphobic violence and discrimination are higher now than ever!
Laura: What should companies be doing to ensure transgender employees are fully supported at work and in their lives?
Dirk: First of all, diversity is a strength, not a threat. Broadening any group to include people with differences makes that entity fundamentally stronger, more intelligent, more creative, more accepting, more empathetic, more agile, and more valuable. It makes for better work teams and improves results. Zebra has taken good first steps in this area, being recognized as a top workplace for LGBTQ+ individuals by the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.
I read a few years ago that 30% of transgender people in the U.S. reported being fired, denied a promotion, or some other form of workplace mistreatment due to their gender identity or expression. Unfortunately, that trend seems to remain unchanged today given the feedback received in a recent Williams Institute study. Moreover, 29% of transgender people live in poverty (likely as a direct result of workplace hostility and discrimination). Companies must adopt basic trans-inclusive policies, develop diversity training that includes trans-specific content, provide gender-neutral bathrooms and encourage trans employees to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. They must also remove gender-based dress codes (Zebra’s policy is “Dress for your Day”), honor the names and pronouns that each person uses themselves, and support any transgender persons going through gender transitions in the ways they may need individually (medically, emotionally, and socially).
Companies need inclusive workplaces and equitable policies and practices to attract and retain top talent, to protect their brand, to reduce turnover and absenteeism, to improve engagement and productivity, and even to prevent litigation or loss of business. The burden, however, is on each of the company leaders to model these policies consistently in words and action, or the benefits are not achieved. Leaders must “walk the talk.”
Laura: I know equity is the ultimate goal, really for the whole human race. But what milestones do you set to measure progress in your advocacy efforts? What must happen for you to say, “Transgender people are finally being treated fairly. They’re finally being accepted for who they are.”?
Dirk The last estimate I saw was that 47 million people globally identify as transgender. Most people think they have never met a transgender person. But the odds say otherwise. An estimated six tenths of one percent of the population is transgender, so it is not implausible to believe that 60 people here at Zebra are transgender. Most trans people are not out at work. So, whether you realize it or not, you likely know someone who is transgender. I want all my colleagues to be able to be their true and authentic selves, especially at work where we spend so much of our time and dedicate so many of our efforts together. To do otherwise is to handicap your own success.
Ultimately, I set the bar high. Ideally, I want all 60 of those transgender employees at Zebra to be just as comfortable at work as the other 10,000 Zebra employees, just as safe, just as accepted, with the same opportunities, rights, privileges, and legal protections. I want each of us to feel we belong -- within our families, schools, places of worship, workplaces, communities, and ultimately within life itself. And I want the same for everyone everywhere.
Laura: What do you want people to understand about members of the transgender community? (To put it another way, what does the public/media often get wrong? Or what do we not know that we should?)
Dirk: Trans people are just people, with the same hopes, dreams, needs, and capabilities as you and me. They are parents, siblings, and children. They are your neighbors, friends, and coworkers. They are not to be feared, ridiculed, used as a joke, or tokenized. Trans people are just now becoming more visible.
So, if we believe what the media has traditionally portrayed, we believe in misrepresentations of reality. This is true about media representations of most marginalized people, who are not often able to drive changes. Yet trans people, like many LGBTQ+ individuals, are routinely stereotyped negatively in the media in a way that even other minority groups are not. Partially due to this, transgender individuals face obstacles in life that are nearly insurmountable without our help.
Many people equate transgender with being homosexual or with the antiquated term “cross-dressing,” but neither is necessarily true. Gender identity comes from our brain. Sexual orientation comes from our heart. Neither gender identity nor sexual orientation are dependent upon our physical biology or anatomy. Likewise, our personal expression of gender can be anywhere on the spectrum from fully masculine to androgynous (of indeterminate sex), to fully feminine. As examples of how mixed gender expression already is in our society, is a woman trying to be a man if she wears slacks instead of a skirt or is a man trying to be a woman if he wears a kilt or a pink shirt? Of course not. And we know this instinctively. Yet, when it comes to transgender individuals, we often have a different set of standards. It’s neither appropriate nor productive to become preoccupied with the gender expression, anatomy, or the sex life of any individual, transgender or otherwise.
Laura: When you petitioned for changes within Zebra to codify policies and benefits that protect transgender employees from discrimination, did you find that there was a particular message that resonated most strongly with decision-makers?
Dirk: In our hearts and souls, all of us want fairness. For many people, something might not matter unless it affects them personally. What I think was missing was a reason that compelled Zebra to take action on this matter. Over time, the “business case” caught up to the “human case” and it became personal for our leadership. One of Zebra’s core values is Integrity: "We do the right thing no matter what.” That’s what Zebra did with its transgender support policies and benefits, what Zebra will continue to do for all employees, and what other companies should do as well. The message simply is that every person in every organization or society deserves the same rights and benefits and bears the same responsibilities. That’s the right thing to do.
Laura: Appreciating that global companies must comply with local laws, and the political climate surrounding transgender rights is fraught right now, what can be done to still ensure transgender employees are safe to be their authentic selves at work?
Dirk: In eleven countries, homosexuality is or could be punishable by death. Sixty-nine countries or jurisdictions criminalize consensual same-sex relationships. Fourteen countries even criminalize the gender expression of transgender people. Many other countries that have LGBTQ rights may still be intolerant and have laws against certain acts or behaviors. Acceptance of transgender individuals lags even further behind the acceptance of gay and lesbian people. For global companies, this legal map is truly a maze of hazards. We must remember, however, that for the individuals who live and work under any of these jurisdictions, it is far worse. No company will ever be sentenced to death.
We must all individually and collectively ensure that no one is made to feel “less than,” treated poorer than others, set apart, or left behind. I believe this is our moral obligation as citizens of the world. So, I strongly encourage each of you to use your humanity, your privilege, your voice, and the power of your actions to do everything possible, to right all wrongs, to extend a hand up to all who need it (including our transgender employees). Carry their cause if you can and deliver us all to a better place. The life of someone you know may depend upon it.