For Jess Mayer, it was the mirrors.Any time she saw her reflection, she didn’t recognize the person. And she resented herself.
“It just got so overwhelming that I had to reprioritize my own personal health,” Mayer, 34, says.
So she did something about it. While working from home during the COVID-19 health crisis, Mayer came out as transgender.
“Not being in the office, and being able to take the time at home to find, discover … and evolve yourself, I think it’s a unique opportunity to begin that transition,” she says.
But then she needed to tell her managers and team.
“They were very welcoming and happy for me,” says Mayer, who adds that she initially felt some trepidation. “I really think that I had kind of an unusual experience compared to a lot of people.”
Those who experimented with gender identity behind masks and screens during the pandemic may soon be returning to the workplace as the rollout of vaccines ramps up and businesses reopen.
But will workplaces be ready to provide a tolerant, safe environment for employees who now identify differently?
“I would hope so,” says Sasha Buchert, senior attorney with Lambda Legal, a national organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. “There’s been a lot of work in the last few years to work with companies to create inclusive workplaces,” she explains, adding, “I’m cautiously optimistic that companies and organizations will be ready for folks coming back that have transitioned during the pandemic.”
In recent years, businesses have generally emerged as champions of transgender equity amid a rash of federal policies and state laws aimed at eroding their civil rights, advocates say.
“We’re battling a full-frontal assault on transgender equality in this country,” says Deena Fidas, chief programs and partnerships officer for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, which helps companies be more supportive of LGBTQ employees. But “the business community has become one of the most vocal defenders of trans inclusion and equality.”
Among Fortune 500 companies, 9 in 10 have gender identity protections and 7 in 10 have health coverage that includes transgender people, Fidas says.
But policies on paper don’t always mean transgender employees will feel comfortable and welcomed. No explicit statewide laws exist in 27 states that protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination, according to Freedom for All Americans.
“How those LGBTQ-inclusive policies translate to a daily culture is an area that businesses continue to work with us on,” Fidas says. “We’re not in a place where we can say with authority every major workplace has established a culture of true belonging for transgender people.”
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‘Not something I did lightly’
Mayer’s employer, Ernst & Young, lets her work anywhere in North America as long as it’s within an hour or two of a major airport. During the pandemic, she moved from Washington, D.C., to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to be closer to friends who have been supportive.
She was aware during her transition that Ernst & Young had inclusive policies. Still, shifting her gender identity was “not something I did lightly.”
When she told her senior manager and division partner about her gender transition, they were encouraging. Mayer’s team was accepting as well.
The experience was nothing like the horror stories she’d heard from friends, some of whom lost their jobs for being trans. She hasn’t even had significant pronoun issues with colleagues.
“If you can remember someone’s new last name after a marriage,” she says, “you can remember someone’s pronouns.”
A LinkedIn survey found that 70% of job seekers feel it’s important that potential employers know their gender pronouns. Starting this month, LinkedIn members can note their preferred pronouns in their profiles.
Nico Craig, an 18-year-old DJ from Los Angeles, also transitioned during the pandemic.
He says his transness is connected to his DJing. “Being able to manipulate songs and music is what really sparked my interest,” Craig says, “because I feel like I haven’t had too much control in other points in my life.”
His uncle dying of COVID last year sparked his gender evolution, Craig says, because he wished his uncle could have seen him express his true self.
“COVID has brought out so much pain in people that it kind of made me feel even more inclined to begin my transition,” he says.
But beginning that journey during the pandemic has sparked conflicting emotions.
“Both in person and virtually it has felt surreal to socialize with others now that I am addressed the way I’ve wanted to be seen,” Craig says.
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The office may be the safer space
Long before the pandemic, Bank of America had a policy that allowed transitioning employees to work from home. And some staffers continued to make a gender shift as the majority of the bank’s workforce began to work remotely amid the COVID-19 crisis.
“We have definitely had people who leveraged the pandemic to kind of move their transition forward,” says Lauren Alleman, vice president, global transaction services product manager at Bank of America.
While some of those staffers told Alleman that it was a positive experience, some also spoke of downsides, such as not being able to connect as easily with a supportive social network, difficulties getting doctor appointments, and “not being able to do name changes because courts were closed,” Alleman says.
Advocates for transgender and nonbinary workers agree that transitioning while working remotely might have been more comfortable for some than for others.
“For some people, the physical structure of the office has presented challenges,” says Fidas. “If I want to show up as ‘I am transitioning’ — perhaps I’m growing my hair out, perhaps I’m taking on some vocal therapies – -access to restrooms and appropriate facilities is still a worry for too many transgender people. So for those who are employed who are able to work from home, there can be some alleviation of those particular stresses.”
But even those who feel more comfortable exploring their identity in private may have lingering concerns.
“The fundamental question of am I accepted in my workplace and do I belong is still going to be there,” says Fidas. “That doesn’t get mitigated by Zoom or a phone call.”
And others may have felt freer when they had an office to go to because the people they live with are not supportive of their transition.
“Work is where they went to actually be themselves,” says CV Viverto, Out & Equal’s associate director of global initiatives. “So their mental health is struggling. That’s the reality for lots of folks depending on where they live and depending on their support system.”
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Make it clear: bias won’t be tolerated
Not long ago, a truly accepting work culture might have been measured by an employee in a same-sex relationship being able to mention their partner without drawing a reaction.
“I would say the evolution of the litmus test right now is… can I express my gender authentically and fluidly to my colleagues?” Fidas says. “Can my pronouns be honored and respected in person, and across platforms in terms of email signatures and business cards?”
Companies should make clear, from their online hiring page, to their written policies, to their onboarding process, that gender identity will be respected and discrimination won’t be tolerated, advocates say.
“One paragraph would mean the world to a lot of people who’ve transitioned over the pandemic,” says Buchert with Lambda Legal. “That you have the right to be referred to with your proper name and pronouns and to use the restroom that goes with your gender identity. That’s the law. But for trans employees there’s a lot of insecurity …so having those clarifications is really helpful for folks and also for people who aren’t trans.”
Businesses should also make sure their health plans are equitable, covering gender-affirming surgeries and other procedures. And workplaces are increasingly detailing protocols to make sure an employee’s transition process is acknowledged and respected by their manager and colleagues — for instance, having the employee set a date for when their pronouns should be updated in company files.
In 2006, Bank of America added gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy. But in the last decade, the company has significantly bolstered a framework of programs and policies that support transgender and nonbinary employees.
Those include full health benefits for transgender related needs, such as voice therapy, facial surgery and counseling. Human resource specialists recognize transitioning as a critical life event, offering training to managers and giving support not only to transitioning employees but to staffers with transgender dependents or spouses.
The company’s internal systems use an employee’s preferred name, not their legal name. Bathrooms can be used according to a person’s gender identity. And Bank of America’s dress code is gender-neutral.
Other efforts to create a welcoming community include a buddy program and web-based forum where transgender and nonbinary staffers can connect, and transgender individuals helping to lead Bank of America’s employee resource group focused on LGBTQ inclusion.
“It’s not just one thing that creates the supportive network,” says Alleman, who is also the transgender representative for Bank of America’s LGBT+ executive council steering committee. “You really have to create this full robust set of activities to support your employees.”
Bank of America’s policies and initiatives focused on the transgender and nonbinary community have a very personal meaning for Alleman.
“I transitioned at Bank of America about ten years ago,” she says. “I’ve actually benefitted from these systems, this culture of support… Being empowered to be the best employee I can be and given the opportunity to advance is incredible.”
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Why support for trans employees matters
Other important steps can also ensure a welcoming workplace. Every staff member, not just those who are transitioning, can include their preferred pronouns in the signature line of their emails, advocates say. And they can also state their pronoun preferences when introducing themselves at meetings.
Such support can make the transition process easier.
Craig says he finds it affirming to DJ events for the transgender, queer and nonbinary communities, but he also feels that he has to adjust the expression of his transness according to who’s booking him.
As a Black, queer, non-binary and transgender individual, he says, “I have felt socially and ethically conflicted at times when engaging and networking with folks due to the intersecting of my identities. This has challenged how I can relate to and build relationships with others.”
Meanwhile, Mayer says she is now having a different reaction when she passes a mirror.
“I’m starting to see someone that I recognize,” she says.