New Ruling to Have Far-reaching Implications for Transsexuals at Work
[UNITED KINGDOM] - Consider your reaction to the following scenario. A male colleague pulls you aside in a tea break and tells you that from next month, he expects to be treated as a woman. He will undergo medical procedure, start wearing dresses and make-up and change his name.
This is a situation you could find yourself in as more transsexual people than ever before are coming forward in the workplace.
Although there are no definitive figures, the Department for Education and Employment estimates that more than 5,000 people have undergone or are undergoing gender reassignment. But this number is set to rise following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last July, says Dianah Worman, equal opportunities adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. "The ruling found the [British] government had violated the privacy of a transsexual person, Christine Goodwin, by not letting her change the gender on her birth certificate. As a result, the government has to change the law to allow other transsexual people to alter their birth certificates to show their preferred gender."
This is a major breakthrough for people who have what is, after all, a recognised medical condition in which they experience a deep conflict between their physical sex and their mental gender. Indeed, before this ruling, some felt it futile even to bother going through surgery to switchto their mental gender.
"I've always felt that unless I'd be legally recognised as male, there is no point in altering my body to live in the outside world as a man," says Chris Dibben, a 35-year-old office administrator. "That's been very sad for me. I have felt that I'm quite literally living a lie. But since this landmark case, it look as if this problem will be overcome."
Another reason that more transsexuals are standing up and being counted in the workplace is that the ECHR ruling will increase employers' support for them. Gary Bowker, employment lawyer for HR consultancy William Mercer, explains: "Transsexuals are already protected in law by the sex discrimination regulations. But many employers are unaware of this. Now that transsexuals are getting far greater - and more publicised - rights, employers will be forced to wake up to the issue."
Christine Timbrell is chairwoman of the charity Gender Trust, which educates employers about transsexualism at work. She has already witnessed a rise in queries about how to develop management guidelines around treatment of transsexual people. Within HR circles, there is even talk of creating specific legislation so that employers know exactly what is expected of them.
It's not only the gender switch itself - known as being 'in transition' - that employers need to start thinking about how to handle," she says. "The recent rulings will also, for the first time, allow transsexual people to protect their privacy."
"At the moment, if I take a new job, I have to disclose my original gender on a number of issues including pension schemes and insurance for a company car. But in the future, when birth certificates can be changed, employers won't have the right to ask if someone once had a different gender."
Companies need to act fast because discrimination is rife. Only half of transsexuals are allowed to use toilets appropriate to their new gender and more than a third experience harassment during transition,' says a recent report, Employment Discrimination and Transsexual People, by the Gender Identity Research and Education Society. A significant number are subjected to verbal and physical abuse during and after transition, and some areencouraged or asked to resign. "Discrimination in the workplace against transsexual people is where discrimination against black, Asian and disabled people was in the past:" says Dr Stephen Whittle, author of the report.
Sarah Bloom, 48, knows this all too well. "When I was 44, I decided I couldn't be physically male any longer and told family, friends and work that I'd be living full time as a woman, which would ultimately include the operation," she says. "The prejudice at work was immediate everything from overt threats that I would lose my job if I went ahead, to more covert prejudice such as endless disciplinaries around my behaviour. I hadn't had any disciplinaries in all my previous 22 years at the company. Many colleagues refused to call me my new name or said it dripping with sarcasm. I realise it's difficult suddenly to call someone something different. In the end, I felt I had no choice but to leave."
Andrea Brown, a 48-year-old civil servant who transitioned in summer 1999, suffered similar experiences. "I was given the cold-shoulder by many colleagues, particularly the women, who said that if I used the female toilets, they'd walk out in protest. Meanwhile, my bosses made overt attempts to humiliate me - including a decision that all my male colleagues should dress up as women one day for charity. I almost had a nervous breakdown through lack of self-confidence and lack of concentration and had to take quite a bit of time off work. I'm still recovering, although thankfully I've managed to get transferred to a new office with supportive colleagues and management."
Transphobia, she believes, comes from ignorance of the fact that transsexualism is a recognised medical condition. "People associate transsexuality with sexual perversion just as they used to associate homosexuality with paedophilia in the past."
Michael Acton, a psychologist who works in the area of transsexualism at Gateway Clinics in Hove, agrees. "Switching gender is not within our 'life script' that we're given as developing children and adults. So people don't know how to deal with it - and they can't ignore it because it's so visible and also requires a change in our behaviour, if only from changing from saying 'he' to 'her'. In their home lives, people can avoid the issue of transsexualism if they want to, but at work where you don't get to choosewho you spend time with, there is no choice."
Transsexualism can also remind us that we tend to treat people differently according to their gender, which isn't something that most people like to think they do, he adds.
Not all transsexuals have had bad experiences at work. Robyn Lee, a 55-year-old bursar at a public school, started her transition in 1999. "I had originally intended to take early retirement prior to surgery, but when I told the headmaster my plan to switch gender, he was incredibly supportive and my transition was as trouble-free as it could possibly have been," she says.
A timetable was drawn up to inform staff through to governors, in full consultation with her, and her bosses helped to educate colleagues by explaining exactly what was happening. Practicalities were also. addressed promptly. Indeed, name badges, lockers, work clothing all need to be changed, as well as the issue of toilet facilities.
"I received rounds of applause, good luck cards before my transition and on my first day of wearing a dress at the school, I couldn't have more supported," says Lee.
Other employers are just as progressive, such as the banks HSBC, Abbey National, the avionics Group BAE Systems, the Department Health and retailer Marks & Spencer.
Mark Watson is employment policy developer at Marks & Spencer says: "When I started here a couple of years ago, I got a call from a personal manager in the store saying he'd just been approached by an employee who wanted to transition at work. He didn't know what to do. That's how it came about that one of my first projects in my new job was come up with some management guidelines. These have been used several times as there have been quite a few more cases since."
Some co-workers have displayed negative responses, he admits. But education about the condition, as well as guidance in how to best handle it, has worked well in persuading staff not only to accept it, but to go out of their way to make a transsexuals' transition at work as pleasant as possible. Watson says that it winds up being a learning curve everyone in the office - one that ultimately enriches them all.