By Clare McGrane
Washington was among the first states to legalize gay marriage, and it is one of only 17 states to include transgender and gender non-conforming people in anti-discrimination laws.
But many people still face discrimination in the workplace in Washington and across the country based on their gender identity. Advocates from the Seattle-based Ingersoll Gender Center hosted a discussion with union leaders and other local authorities to find ways to combat this discrimination. The meeting involved workers and administrators from trade unions, state labor organizations, and employers like the University of Washington.
Mayor Ed Murray, who opened the meeting with a brief speech, said that Washingtonians were lucky to have the present legal protections. But he emphasized that those laws cannot guarantee transsexual and gender non-conforming people will receive equal treatment.
“We have a lot to do in the culture,” Murray said. “It’s not the top of the mountain. We’ve got some more climbing to do before we can truly see how beautiful it can be.”
In 2013, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that almost half of transgender workers have faced discrimination in hiring, pay or promotions. Transgender individuals also face unemployment rates double that of the general population, even though they are more likely to have a college degree.
Marsha Botzer, founder of Ingersoll Gender Center, said that support from her union and co-workers were essential to her transition. “When I announced it, my union mates were there for me,” she said. Botzer said without support from those at her work place, she would have never have started Ingersoll and become a leading advocate for transgender rights.
Her experience makes Botzer eager to engage with union leaders and other employers. She said she wants to create forums, like this meeting, for people to connect and work together to solve discrimination issues. “The floor is truly open,” she said.
Heather Villanueva, an Ingersoll board member, encouraged employers to be aware of possible sensitivities surrounding gender identities. “Is it really necessary to ask about gender markers?” she asked, citing gender on job applications. “If they are necessary, are they inclusive?” According to Villanueva, asking questions like these can go a long way in creating an open and accepting culture at work.
She also said some questions are better unasked, like personal questions about an individual’s sex life or medical details. “Don’t ask any questions you wouldn’t ask anyone else at a water cooler,” she said.
Language can be another issue in the work place. The number and variety of pronouns associated with different gender identities can be overwhelming, something Botzer spoke to. “Let’s not worry so much about language,” she said, advising people to have a conversation with transgender or gender non-conforming individuals, and ask them what they would prefer to be called.
Villanueva said this type of conversation could be common practice, independent of gender identity. “Make this part of your institution’s culture,” she said. Ingersoll employees begin every meeting by introducing themselves and their preferred pronoun, she said, to make sure everyone feels safe and respected.
Another big issue in workplaces is gender neutral bathrooms. “If there’s one place that just scares people to pieces, especially in this country,” Botzer said, “it’s got to be the bathroom.”
Botzer added that organizers of conferences she attends request gender-neutral bathrooms at their hotels. She said that many hotels were hesitant to do so at first, foreseeing backlash from other customers, but when they received none they accepted the change.
“Once we get past whatever the fear is, that it’s crazy or its dangerous, that its sexual or perverted, then we can have a discussion,” Botzer said. “When someone goes in the bathroom, they just want to pee.”
Murray said that implementing gender neutral bathrooms is being discussed in the city government. He hopes they will become a part of city buildings soon, and spread throughout the city.
Despite the myriad concerns and struggles that surround gender identities, global culture and language is adapting, according to Botzer. She referred to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, which recently ruled that “being transgender, gender non-conforming, or gender variant is a diversity, not a pathology.” This is a huge step in the cultural acceptance of transgender people.
“What we’re doing will change lives, guaranteed,” Botzer said. “Even if you just bring a word of comfort into the workplace, it will change lives. And it will save lives. It happens all the time.”