Paralegal, actress and model Erika Ervin was executive director of the Los Angeles Association of Health Underwriters and was instrumental in proving that it costs less to pay for a gender transition than it does to pay for the therapy and other resources needed for someone who can't get the right treatment. (Photo by Josh Andrus)
Erika Ervin transitioned from male to female in 2004 and found herself out of steady work once her contract position at an insurance defense law firm ended.
But the paralegal had a motto: “If they won’t let you go up, go broad.”
That mindset got Ervin an education in law through UCLA’s extension programs — part-time, online certification programs — before becoming executive director of the Los Angeles Association of Health Underwriters, starting her modeling career and landing a recurring role on FX’s TV series “American Horror Story: Freak Show.”
“I told my manager that to get noticed we would have to think outside the box,” said Ervin, who at 6-foot-8 is hard to miss. “I don’t care what gender. I don’t care what type. I will be that person.”
Diversity and human resource practitioners have to make transgender workers feel welcome in the office, which experts say relies on the right communication and environment. Not only does it benefit someone who is transitioning but also the organization as a whole.
Ervin went on to audition to play giant-like male character “Johnny Long-in-the-Pants” in “American Horror Story” by dressing in men’s clothing, binding her breasts and slicking back her hair. When she got the part, showrunner Ryan Murphy changed the character to be a woman, allowing her to use her own modeling stage name, “Amazon Eve.”
“I thought I would never be able to do this,” Ervin said. “They wouldn’t listen to the executive director of the Los Angeles Association of Health Underwriters, but a 6-foot-8 bikini model with stripper heels goes viral.”
Ervin, like many others in her position, had to go through demeaning situations at work because of her gender transition. She even lost a job because the employer found out about her transgender identity.
“We’re very employable,” Ervin said. “HR loses out when someone can’t concentrate at work because they have to live not out, not authentic, not present.”
In April, former Olympian Bruce Jenner gave an interview on being transgender that set a new record for the most Tweeted-about primetime, nonsporting television event. The following month, Caitlyn Jenner debuted on the cover of Vanity Fair to mostly positive reactions.
But Jenner isn’t the first to make headlines. Actress and activist Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time in 2014 and appears in Netflix’s series “Orange is the New Black.” Vogue featured its first transgender model in its May issue. Ervin filmed one season of “American Horror Story” and hopes to return for another (Figure 1).
But fashion and TV aren’t alone in promoting transgender tolerance. In April, federal contractors began having to include transgender individuals in their equal opportunity employment decrees. Multiple court cases in the past five years have also gotten transgender issues onto the table.
When the Human Rights Campaign started rating companies based on their LGBT-friendly policies through its Corporate Equality Index in 2002, only 3 percent of the Fortune 500 had gender identity protection. Today, two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have implemented protections.
“Employers who weren’t in the conversation or thinking about this have realized they need to educate themselves and put policies and practices into place,” said Beck Bailey, deputy director of employee engagement with HRC’s Workplace Equality Program.
As much as the conversation has started around the watercooler, it’s still missing from the boardroom. Bailey said many companies are waiting until an employee decides to transition to initiate a policy or formal discussion of what it means to be a transgender-friendly workplace.
This is problematic, as many times the first hurdle for someone who is transgender is “Will it be safe for me to be upfront about my transition?” If a company doesn’t continually communicate its acceptance through policy and practices, employees might not feel safe to open up.
When an employee does approach a supervisor or HR, many leaders haven’t prepared themselves to have a comfortable conversation, which also sends an unwelcoming sign, even if it’s unintentional, Bailey said.
“If this is the first time you’re engaged on this issue, in a way it’s already late,” said Deena Fidas, HRC’s Workplace Equality Program director. “Start the conversation now if you haven’t already, in a proactive way, and not in a reaction to one person. That will mitigate the person’s sense of having to go at this alone.”
These conversations have limits, however.
Susan Fentin, a partner at Massachusetts law firm Skoler, Abbott and Presser, said she advises clients not to ask anything but rather let an employee volunteer the information. The dialogue should focus on what an employer can do to make transitioning worker more comfortable.
“That’s assuming that it’s a state or jurisdiction where transgender issues are not a cause for alarm,” Fentin said.
Although the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2012 that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also protects workers from unequal treatment based on gender identity, only 18 states have clear laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender people.
It therefore behooves organizations in the fight for diverse talent to provide transgender-friendly environments, even in states where they’re not legally obligated.
Fentin said conversations need to balance an individual’s confidentiality with what co-workers and supervisor need to know. Transitions sometimes include sex reassignment surgeries, which fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act’s protection. Employees don’t have to disclose the “why” to HR and their managers, just the “when.”
But employees using FMLA to avoid announcing reassignment surgery aren’t like employees using it to hide heart surgery; when they return, they might look very different. Fentin said good diversity practices, anti-harassment policies and employee education can ensure a transitioning employee feels comfortable returning to work.
“In different parts of the country, there are objections to certain ethnic backgrounds — it’s like anything else in that regard,” Fentin said. “If you insist employees respect all co-workers, that respect translates to a transgender individual.”
Telling the Transgender Story
When Laverne Cox spoke at the GLAAD Media Awards in 2014, she emphasized the importance of allowing individuals who are transgender to tell their own stories. But even though this practice works for some, transition can be a difficult time for someone to open up.
“Imagine if you have to be the first pregnant woman in the office,” HRC’s Fidas said. “You have to explain all of this; that your body is going to change. You have to handle inappropriate questions like, ‘How did you get pregnant?’ or ‘How is it you’re undergoing a gender transition?’”
Fidas said educator fatigue affects many employees pioneering transgender issues in their workplace. Not only are they facing life-changing circumstances, which can make them feel personally vulnerable but also they’re expected to allow others to probe them for information.
Some are open to it, but others want to transition without the added attention.
“I don’t want to be a hero, and I don’t want to be an advocate,” Ervin said. “I want to be me. Let me choose to wear the ‘I am an advocate’ brand across my forehead.”
Ervin said her transgender identity was the path, not the destination. She now identifies solely as a woman. Those in the middle of their transition might plan to move on to another position or area of a company afterward, in the hope that the change won’t draw attention. For this reason, employers must not disclose transgender identity to anyone without permission or require an employee to welcome questions from others.
Around the Watercooler
When a worker transitions openly, the rest of the workplace also has the power and responsibility to communicate properly throughout the process and promote a transgender-friendly environment.
Stan Sloan, CEO of social services organization Chicago House, said everyone from the executive suite to the cleaning staff has to be committed to establishing a transgender-friendly work environment.
“Compare it to bullying at schools,” Sloan said. “Just because someone’s not in your class doesn’t mean they can’t make your life hell on the playground.”
Ervin experienced this first-hand. Even though the state had anti-discrimination laws, it didn’t keep her co-workers and those outside the office from asking questions like “Have you had the big snip-snip yet?”
This is where anti-harassment policies become important, as does educating employees on what it entails and having consequences for violators.
Sloan said Chicago House, which opened the TransLife Center in 2013 to provide housing as well as employment, medical, legal and emergency services to transgender Chicagoans, has a three-strike policy. Every employee receives training on the code of conduct, and anyone who breaks it first gets a verbal warning, then written up and eventually terminated.
“Just because they’re educated doesn’t mean they’ll be friendly or tolerant,” Sloan said. “But even if they’re not, they know they don’t have permission to bully or harass someone. There’s a new level of accountability, so they can’t plead ignorance.”
Discrimination doesn’t just come in the form of blatant comments or questions. Using the wrong pronoun or name can also hurt a transitioning employee — even if it’s unintentional. Fidas said HRC mitigates this risk by opening meetings with quick introductions that include name and preferred pronoun.
“My name before I transitioned was Rebecca, and my name now is Beck,” HRC’s Bailey said. “If my colleagues continue in an ongoing way to call me Rebecca, it could be overt harassment.”
Another sign of potential harassment is when employees use the wrong pronoun behind an employee’s back.
An inclusionary and comfortable office is more than words, however. One of the biggest conflicts facing transgender employees is bathroom usage. Bailey said that companies should allow an employee who is transgender to use the bathroom that aligns with his or her gender identity. If coworkers have a problem with it, the best way to approach the issue is to talk to the individual as well as employees and get their thoughts as to what policy to instate.
During Ervin’s transition, one of her employers only allowed her to use a gender-neutral restroom, not the women’s room.
“It was painful for me,” Ervin said. “It automatically labels you as different. A transgender person shouldn’t have to wear a scarlet letter at the office.”
To Sloan, it’s not enough to keep transgender employees from feeling like the office’s Hester Prynne. At the TransLife Center, he wanted to make it clear that the workforce was proud of its diversity.
That meant starting all-staff education meetings and educating the Chicago House board so it was able to articulate and understand what transgender-friendly meant. The organization installed gender-neutral bathrooms and hired an openly transgender receptionist so that the first person a client sees is someone comfortable in her trans-identity. Sloan said acceptance is the first step, not the end point.
“Hopefully you go from simply tolerance to appreciation of somebody’s diversity,” Sloan said. “It’s a trans-positive work environment, rather than simply a trans-tolerant work environment.”