By Elayne Wylie, Gender Justice League
Transgender people in Washington State are facing the biggest battle our community has seen in a long time. While there are protections for transgender people to use public accommodations already on the books, and despite the fact that the state Human Rights Commission has offered up rules clarifications on those protections, both lawmakers and extreme right-wing groups in the state are seeking to roll back protections for transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms in Washington State. The newly-launched Washington SAFE Alliance (Safety & Access For Everyone) seeks to educate lawmakers and state residents alike in why those protections exist in the first place, and how everyone can be safe.
What does that mean for workplace equality? How do current provisions in state law, as well as federal law, affect the rights and freedoms of transgender people?
As the media has offered up numerous times in 2015, the decision to transition and live authentically in the gender of one’s true self is not an easy process. Nevertheless, more than 700,000 people in the United States identify as transgender, and a new generation of young people have access to new channels for learning, new language and new understanding about themselves, and are coming out at younger and younger ages. Workers in Seattle, Washington are among those in 200 cities and 17 states in the U.S. that enjoy specific protections for transgender people. So why do many transgender people in this region complain that they were fired, passed over for promotion or opportunity at work, or simply unable to find equitable work at their experience level?
However, there exists a lack of institutional structure, both at the federal level and at state and municipal levels, that contributes significantly to the disparity in employment equality for transgender people. This void also undermines the social structural inequalities that LGBTQ people have faced. This is evident in the 2015 finalization of a 3-year rules clarification process for the 2006 Anderson-Murray Anti-Discrimination law for Washington State.
In short, transgender people should be protected by law and by practice from prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory actions from coworkers and employers, but they are often not. A staggering 90% of transgender people report, in a 2008 nationwide survey by the National Center for Trans Equality, experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job, or felt forced to take actions to hide their identity from coworkers to avoid negative behaviors from others. Nearly half of all transgender people report being fired, not hired or denied a promotion due to them identifying as openly trans. And specific protections in Washington State often fall far short of extending any real protection for workers.
The Human Rights Commission publishes the corporate equality index, which charts companies on the Fortune 1000 on the depth and breadth of their non-discrimination policies, as well as pro-employee measures and inclusive benefits. To receive a 100 score, companies must annually demonstrate a commitment to and the implementation of seven major criteria, some of which is of specific relevance to transgender workers. A frequent problem, however, is how many companies choose to put a queer veneer on their diversity efforts without providing realistic and practical methodologies in-house to diversity solutions that actually work. Such corporate healthcare policies contain enough inclusive language to garner a good score on the Index, but fall short in meeting transgender people where they are at, often leaving employees paying hefty fees for essential but non-covered services, or forcing them to pay up front and be reimbursed. This often leaves those employees on the outside of a glass door, able to see inside, but unable to gain access. Some employees are often terminated for their status as a transgender person, despite the company’s Index score, and even public outcry against such actions aren’t a guarantee that those people have legal recourse, or even to be rehired.
More importantly for small and medium-sized companies in Washington, human resources employees are facing the same questions as their bigger corporate counterparts, but likely without the resources to devote to solving those issues. How do we train our employees to understand key concepts that relate to both transgender employees and transgender customers? Do we have structures in place to address a new hire who is transgender, or to accommodate an existing employee as they choose to transition?
Another key breakdown is how businesses and organizations view cultural competency training with regard to the transgender community. Despite the legal and fiscal ramifications of how transgender employees and customers are engaged with in the workplace, training on these issues is typically given so little regard that training and consulting is often requested without a line item in the budget, and thus is regarded as a low priority. Employees receive, on average, two hours of instruction in a group setting, with little or no follow-up measures, skill building, or accountability for the knowledge received.
Gender Justice League, one organization that provides workplace competency training, fields questions from both individuals and organizations about workplace best practices regarding employees and customers, and has been adapting existing educational modules for use in providing in-depth workplace training, with a provision for long-term workplace competency. Many calls that come in seek to schedule trainers for one to two hours at most, with no follow-up or more in-depth work.
The stakes have never been higher. Despite state laws being on the books for more than nine years, recent proposals from conservative, anti-transgender organizations are spurring lawmakers to revisit critical protections for transgender people. The Washington SAFE Alliance offers hope and accurate information to prevent those protections from being removed. Public accommodations, essentially all of the spaces outside our front door, are under attack. By recognizing now the dangers in rolling back those protections, we may be able to make a difference for not only the transgender people in our community, but for everyone in the state.