The Sex (Change) Talk

With midterm elections coming up, it’s impossible to escape the crescendo of campaign messages emitting from every possible media outlet. Still, one particular article caught my eye last weekend — a story in the New York Times about transgender candidates who are poised to win their elections.

Some candidates are downplaying their transgender identities in order to focus on the political issues at hand. Prejudice against transgender candidates isn’t completely gone, but their advocates hope their success is a sign that voters care more about the actual issues than gender stereotypes.

This reminds me of a story about a local high school near my hometown. The school principal had a sex change operation one summer without giving any notice to the school board, teachers, students or parents. The community was up in arms — how dare she make this decision without consulting the public? I’m sure some of these people were simply shocked and unsure how to respond to the principal’s actions. But there was another group of people who thought the sex change would directly affect her job performance and that she would be a negative influence on the students.

Most doctors and psychologists will tell you that sex-change patients get the operation because they are not comfortable with their bodies and that they feel much better and relieved after the operation.

Most likely, getting the operation would improve that person’s sense of well-being and thus her ability to do her job.

On the other hand, it’s probably true that the principal’s sex change could have had an effect on her students, just as transgender public officials could affect their constituents or transgender employees could affect their co-workers.

From a diversity executive’s standpoint, it is your job to make sure this is a positive influence. The dialogue surrounding gender identity often contains poisonous misinformation and bias. In an inclusive workplace, people need to be educated about the “dispassionate facts” concerning gender identity in order to foster an environment of understanding and openness.

In the case of these candidates, I’m glad to hear that voters seem to care more about the issues than prejudice and name-calling. However, I hope that if and when these candidates enter office, rather than downplay their gender identities, they use their positions as role models to educate and foster a culture of openness where gender and sexual orientation are no longer taboo.