By the time Allie Shafer reached her mid-30s, she had transitioned socially as a transgender woman with one major exception: her workplace. Her company was located in Missouri, a state that to this day has no law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Around the same time, Shafer’s wife was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful, chronic, and debilitating inflammatory disorder. In addition to the cost of making a living, available treatments for rheumatoid arthritis were expensive — approximately $100,000 per year without insurance.
Under Missouri law, the threat of being stigmatized or even fired at work simply for being transgender was very real. Concerned that coming out would jeopardize the financial support she and her wife so badly needed, Shafer made a heartbreaking choice.
“I essentially lived two lives; one authentic and the other as an actress,” Shafer said during a lightning session at Nicsa’s recent Fearless Leadership Symposium. “The pain was excruciating. I cried almost every day, and when I wasn’t crying, I was lashing out. I found myself broken.”
On June 1, 2020 — the first day of Pride Month — Shafer took the brave step of coming out to her employer.
“It should have been one of the happiest times of my life, bringing my identities together, living one life, no longer having to tell lies,” she said. “It was unfortunately marred by several missteps on the part of my employer.”
Nothing seemed easy. Shafer had to fight to have her email address changed before her formal name change made its way through the court system. HR would not change her name and gender with the company’s health insurance provider until she had a new social security card, preventing her from seeking cancer testing.
Though her colleagues and clients supported her, Shafer received little help or guidance from the company.
How You Can Do Better
Today, Shafer’s mission is to make sure the next transgender person who decides to transition on the job has a far better experience. To become the best allies possible in your workplace, Shafer recommends the following:
- Create a playbook for employees who may transition on the job. “This should include guidance for changing an employee’s name, gender, and pronouns in all systems where a legal name or legal gender isn’t absolutely required,” Shafer said.
- Ensure that your benefits cover gender-affirming top and bottom surgeries and any other gender-affirming procedures, including as facial feminization surgery. “Just as I would want any woman to have coverage for a condition that causes excessive hair growth, this type of coverage should be offered to transgender women.”
- Show up for the trans community. “Attend protests, speak up at school board meetings, and contact your elected representatives to support state and federal protections for the LGBTQ+ community.”
- Learn proper vernacular. “Transgender is an adjective, not a noun,” she said. “I am not ‘a transgender.’ I am a ‘transgender woman.’ When referring to my past, please do not say things like, ‘When you were a man.’ I was never a man, even if that’s how I presented. I’ve always been a woman.”
- Normalize placing pronouns in your email signature, and introduce yourself with your pronouns. “Always ask people for their pronouns. If you make a mistake, apologizing may feel right to you, but it places the onus on us to then comfort you and accept your apology. Just correct yourself and move on.”
- Avoid phrases like “I would have never known you were transgender.” “Not every trans man is trying to exude masculinity; not every trans woman is trying to exude femininity,” Shafer said. “If you're trying to compliment us, you can just say that we look great. There's no reason to bring anything else in.”
- If your company has a dress code, make sure that nonbinary people are included — or better yet, ensure that your dress code is gender-neutral to be as inclusive as possible.
- If your company has a volunteer day, consider spending time with an LGBTQ+ organization. “This could be a drop-in center that provides teenagers with schoolwork help or young adults with temporary housing and basic life skills,” Shafer said. “There are also organizations that help our adult and senior populations. So many desperately need food, love, and security.”
- Make it known that you’re an ally and that your desk and office are safe spaces. “You can show this in numerous ways. Place a small pride flag at your desk, wear a pronoun pin, or wear a shirt that says something simple, like Love is Love.”
“I hope that by sharing just a little bit of my story and providing you with some ideas that you'll be motivated to make the world a kinder place for me and my wonderfully diverse community,” Shafer said.
For a full replay of this session, employees of registered firms can visit Nicsa’s 2022 Fearless Leadership Symposium website.
May contain forward-looking statements subject to various uncertainties. Personal views and observations of individuals contained herein are as of the date of the live event or written material and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nicsa or its member organizations. Nothing herein is intended to be or should be construed as legal advice. Contact your own counsel in order to obtain legal advice regarding these or any other matters. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a recommendation of best practices.