You're Transgender? You're Fired!

In much of the country, you can be fired just for being transgender. After Joanne Herman transitioned in 2002 to live as a woman, she became an active spokesperson for transgender awareness and understanding. Read more about Herman's personal experience and other transgender people's workplace challenges here.

After almost half a century living as a male, Joanne Herman transitioned in 2002 to live as a female in order to resolve a gender incongruity she had felt for as long as she remembers. She has since been an active spokeswoman for transgender awareness and understanding. Joanne is one of the first openly transgender alumnae of Dartmouth College, and a graduate of the last all-male class. Dartmouth's president awarded her a Class of 1975 diploma in her new name in 2006. In 1975, when her name was Jeff, Joanne married Barbara Wermeyer. After Joanne underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 2003, Barbara helped Joanne get established in her new life, while Joanne helped Barbara battle a rare form of cancer known as carcinoid. She was widowed from Barbara in 2006 after 30 years of marriage. Joanne is currently financial controller at New England Foundation for the Arts and lives in Boston with her fiancée.

The following is an excerpt from Herman's book "Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not," published by AuthorHouse.

In much of the country you can be fired just for being transgender. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, only 37 percent of Americans live in areas that explicitly ban discrimination based on gender identity and expression. For others, legal proceedings may be the only way you can establish your rights. This means that revealing your transgender status could have the same result as that experienced by Sarah Blanchette and Diane Schroer.

Blanchette was a computer programmer for Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. In March 2004, she informed her supervisors that she would return from a two-week vacation presenting herself as female. Saint Anselm College then fired her, stating in a letter, "As you know, you recently disclosed to senior college administration your transsexual status. Upon consideration, you are immediately relieved of your duties…" The Boston-based LGBT advocacy and legal group GLAD filed a lawsuit against Saint Anselm in May 2005, reaching a settlement in December 2006.

Schroer was an Airborne Ranger, a qualified Special Forces officer, who completed more than 450 parachute jumps, received numerous decorations including the Defense Superior Service Medal, and was handpicked to head up a classified national security operation. Shortly after retiring as a colonel after 25 years of distinguished service in the U.S. Army, she accepted a job as a terrorism research analyst at the Library of Congress. Her employer-to-be thought it had found the perfect candidate. But when Schroer told her future supervisor that she was in the process of a gender transition to female, the job offer rescinded. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued, and in September 2008 a federal judge ruled that the Library of Congress had discriminated against Schroer. If you are transgender and believe that your industry, employer or trade will not accept a transgender person, you might decide to leave your current position before disclosing your transgender status. But after disclosure, you will likely run into another problem: It can be very difficult to find new employment as an out transgender person, especially if your presentation does not rigidly conform to the gender binary (male/female). You may end up settling for employment considerably below your capabilities for the sake of having a job. Or you may not find a job at all.

Experiencing Everyday Discrimination

As a trans person, you may also face discrimination in your mundane life in areas such as housing, credit and public accommodation. If your presentation does not rigidly conform to the gender binary, you may be harassed if you attempt to use either the men's or the ladies' bathroom. Self-deputized gender police (and sometimes, the actual law enforcement kind) stand ready to protect these sacred spaces. The bathroom situation is further worsened by opponents of transgender rights, who have increasingly claimed that transgender nondiscrimination legislation enables sexual predators to dress as women and enter women's bathrooms and locker room facilities. This is highly misleading because the legislation does not alter existing criminal laws against people who commit crimes in bathrooms and locker rooms. Furthermore, there has been no reported increase in criminal activity in restrooms or locker rooms in states or municipalities that have transgender nondiscrimination protections in place. Finally, women's groups and those focused on eliminating sexual assault reject the idea that transgender people present any heightened risk to the safety of women and children. They decry the specious characterization of transgender people as predators as diverting attention from the real issues of concern around women's and children's safety.

Regardless of how you present, you may face discrimination just because administrators or employees know you are transgender. GLAD has successfully challenged a situation in which a transgender middle-school student was disciplined for wearing gender-appropriate clothing, and another in which a loan applicant was told to go home and come back dressed in clothing that matched the gender on her ID. Discrimination pops up in all kinds of places, including your tax return. Since you must have the authorization of mental health professionals to have sex-reassignment surgery, and because you must pay the full cost of the surgery given that it is generally not covered by insurance, Rhiannon O'Donnabhain deducted the costs of her sex-reassignment surgery on her 2001 return, believing they surely qualify as medically necessary. Upon audit, the IRS denied her deduction, deeming it cosmetic. GLAD went to trial in U.S. Tax Court in 2007 on her behalf and won the case. Sex reassignment surgeries now qualify as deductible medical expenses, decided in O'Donnabhain v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

Growing Corporate Acceptance

Scoring 100 percent each year on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index (CEI) is rapidly becoming essential for major employers. In 2006, HRC raised the bar to require transgender parity in at least one of five wellness benefits, and the results were exciting. Of the 446 companies in the survey, 303 offered at least one of the specified benefits for their transgender employees, and a staggering 67 offered all five. More impressively, 28 percent of the employers provided health benefits for trans-related surgical procedures.

The percentage of employers whose Equal Employment Opportunity policy includes gender identity or expression has grown impressively from 5 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2009. Yet HRC looked more carefully in 2009 at the responses concerning transgender benefits and found, sadly, that only 12 percent of employers surveyed actually provide benefits for transgender surgical procedures. Because the CEI requires employers to offer only one of its five specified transgender health benefits in order to satisfy the criteria—and because the American Psychiatric Association's manual "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" diagnoses unfairly favor reparative therapy over transition—employers overwhelmingly choose to offer only mental health benefits.

HRC has responded in a big way. It has announced that the 2012 CEI will require that at least one insurance option available to all employees is a contract where:

  • Transgender exclusions are removed or substantially modified to ensure coverage for transgender-specific treatment either directly in the contract or in clinical guidelines referenced by the contract
  • The WPATH Standards of Care are used to determine what treatment will be considered medically necessary and not cosmetic

HRC says that some companies are surprised to find that their health insurance coverage excludes gender-identity-related treatments. The language is often in the master policy because it is the standard offering from the insurance company. Once employers learn this, HRC says it is often only a matter of demanding that their insurers remove the exclusion.

Excerpted with permission from "Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not," published by AuthorHouse. © Joanne Herman. All rights reserved.

To see this article as it originally appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of DiversityInc magazine, click here.

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