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Op-ed: HRC Report Shows Trans Equality Starts at the Water Cooler

Op-ed: HRC Report Shows Trans Equality Starts at the Water Cooler

In a year of unprecedented visibility of transgender Americans, a major — and perhaps surprising to some — institutional player is making headlines today for supporting this part of our community: corporate America.

Today’s release of  the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's 2015 Corporate Equality Index shows just how far major U.S. employees have come. More than 415 companies profiled in this year’s report now offer employees at least one health care plan that’s transgender-inclusive. That’s up 22 percent from 2012. At Fortune 500 companies, nearly one-third now offer such a plan — up from zero in 2002 when the first CEI was published.

Two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies — employing more than 15 million workers — prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. And more than 290 major employers have adopted supportive guidelines for workers who are transitioning.

Despite this progress, we still have enormous work to do. Transgender workers in the U.S. have double the rate of unemployment overall and face widespread mistreatment at work, according to the groundbreaking report “Injustice at Every Turn” by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force. Those numbers soar for transgender people of color. The repercussions of this discrimination can be devastating and leave far too many vulnerable to violence.

While HRC Foundation’s CEI has successfully encouraged corporations to provide critical protections and benefits to transgender workers, there’s clearly a long road ahead before the workplace is truly equal for these workers. We’ve heard far too many stories of people denied interviews simply because they are transgender or workers shunned by colleagues when they begin to transition. We must do more — and it could all start with a simple water cooler conversation about that last series you binge-watched.

Let me explain. I know a woman who works at a large manufacturing company in rural Ohio. When Orange Is the New Black first came out, she and some of her colleagues — all non-LGBT identified — were hooked. And in their conversations, they talked openly and often about how much they loved the show, which includes Laverne Cox’s breakthrough role as Sophia Burset.

Fast-forward many months later to a meeting led by their human resources team. In today’s economy, many feared layoffs. But this was other news. HR was announcing that a staff member would be transitioning and eventually returning to work as her authentic self. They had a transition plan in place and wanted to ensure folks understood the policies.

Now, many years of deliberation played into that employee’s decision to transition. But imagine being her and overhearing your colleagues say how much they love Sophia Burset. Imagine the positive difference that could have made in choosing to come out to her colleagues. In that moment, the climate her coworkers created was just as powerful as the policies on paper.

Thanks to the incredible progress being made by another major institutional player — the media — we can all play a role in helping create these same conversations wherever we work.

It’s as simple as starting a conversation about Janet Mock’s best-selling book Redefining Realness or Amazon’s new hit Transparent. Or sharing on Facebook those viral videos featuring transgender youth and their parents — whether it’s the Southern Baptist mom speaking up for her transgender daughter or the transgender boy rapping at his summer camp.

Of course, this doesn’t let you off the hook from seeking out fair policies. Because often it’s allies who feel most equipped to have these conversations, especially in the absence of inclusive policies.

In fact, HRC Foundation’s CEI has been built by employees — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allied — who have paved the way to fair policies for their LGBT colleagues, often starting with these same kinds of conversations. They may have begun by talking about Ellen or Modern Family or The Fosters, but they went on to implement domestic partner benefits, inclusive family leave, and much more.

Today, I encourage you to start the conversation and then to keep it going. To look into your policies and ensure they’re rock-solid. Then close the loop by making sure your climate is one that’s truly inclusive.

It may sound a little simple. But often bridging the gap between putting a nondiscrimination policy on paper and making sure it's truly implemented is as easy as bringing that policy back to real life. That’s something we can all be a part of.

JEFF KREHELY is the vice president and chief foundation officer for the Human Rights Campaign.

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