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How to be an ally to transitioning and transgender people

June 14, 2021 - 637 views

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How to be an ally to transitioning and transgender people

After my son transitioned, I learned the best actions we can take to support transgender individuals and their loved ones, both in and out of the workplace.

When my son transitioned, society wasn’t talking as widely as it is now about gender issues. The TV show Transparent was just hitting its stride. We didn’t have an LGBTQ ally group at Cognizant, and such groups were few and far between in the corporate world.  Time magazine thought it was newsworthy when President Obama used the word “transgender” in his 2015 State of the Union address.

Now, though, there’s a lot of discussion about gender dysphoria — a clinical term describing a person who feels a “marked incongruence” between the gender they are assigned at birth and that which they experience and/or express. A Google search for “gender dysphoria” now returns over eight million results.

Yet information doesn’t always lead to understanding. To mark LGBTQ+ Pride Month, here are some of my family’s experiences (I have my son’s permission to do so) and insights on how to be allies for family members, friends and colleagues who either are transitioning or who have transgender family members.

We’re all human first

When he graduated from college, Cade told us he planned to transition. I was not completely shocked because we had seen evidence of what we now know was gender dysphoria as far back as his elementary school days. As he grew older, so did his deep discomfort with his assigned gender.

When he entered college, Cade chose gender-inclusive housing and worked with therapists to understand who he was. It was a difficult time, culminating in a middle-of-the-night phone call that he was in danger of harming himself. As my husband and I drove through the darkness to reach Cade, I worried I would lose my child. I didn’t care what gender he experienced, only that he be alright.

That’s a key point: the family member, friend or colleague who transitions is still the person you’ve always known. In the family, they share the same memories; in the workplace, they still have the skills and expertise for which they were hired.

Being an ally to transgender individuals

The actions below can help us all be an ally to transgender individuals, as well as friends, family and coworkers who are supporting a loved one through a transition.

  • Listen more than you talk. To announce his transition, Cade sent family members a long email explaining his decision, with hyperlinks to various articles and research. All of our family, including Cade’s 80-plus year-old grandparents, opened and read each of those links. Shortly after, during a family vacation, Cade’s grandfather hugged him, told him he loved him and asked, “What can I do to help you through this?” That is the best question. Ask it — and then listen and do what you can to act on what you hear.
  • Be open. We were fortunate that our family was accepting of Cade’s decision. In contrast, Cade has many transgender friends who are no longer welcome in their own homes. Transgender youth experience homelessness at disproportionate rates.

    If you are managing transgender interns or transgender colleagues, be aware of and sensitive to the fact they may not have much contact with their families. Groups like Cognizant’s Embrace for LGBTQ+ Associates & Allies are an important source of support. The Embrace team often partners with our clients who have similar groups, providing a network of allies a transgender person may plug into.

  • Look beyond your friend or colleague to educate yourself. Questioning a transgender person or their family members about transition procedures and medications is generally off limits unless you’re invited to do so. Not only is this common courtesy, but transition experiences also vary greatly, so a single transgender person is providing just one perspective.

    Note also that employers are very limited in the types of medical questions they may ask. The internet has great resources on gender dysphoria from social and clinical perspectives, such as the Cleveland Clinic’s research into the physical brain structures that may signal dysphoria.

  • Learn the language. I occasionally would attend work gatherings at which people wondered aloud about someone’s gender or referred to “trannys” or asked, “Why can’t they just be gay then?” Since not many people knew about Cade, such comments made me uncomfortable about saying anything in response, and in most cases, the comments went unchallenged.

    But we all need to say something when someone uses a derogatory term, whether it’s intentional or not. In some cases, this can be an opportunity to educate others who simply don’t know the right terminology. For example, it’s incorrect to say someone is “transgendered;” transgender is an adjective, not a noun or verb. A wealth of information is available that defines terms and explains accepted usage.

  • Use the transgender person’s name and preferred pronouns. This is a matter of respect and connection. If you knew the person before their transition, you may slip up. Just correct yourself and move on. Supervisors should make sure colleagues use the correct name and pronouns even when the transgender teammate is not present. Ask in advance how to handle situations in which clients knew the person before they transitioned. Know that these simple efforts are important signals of acceptance that many transgender people do not receive from their parents and other family members.
  • Offer support to parents, siblings and other family members, too. Cade’s transition was a scary, emotional time. My husband and I worried about his safety in common situations, such as using a public restroom, and how he would be treated beyond our accepting family circle. We felt a lot but just stuffed away our emotions to focus on him.

    If I could revisit that time to do one thing differently, it would be to seek out more allies who understood what we as parents were going through. Today, I turn to Cognizant’s Embrace affinity group. If your child is transitioning, reach out to those circles. To be an ally, ask parents what support you can offer. That question is better than saying nothing. I prefer people to acknowledge our reality.

Before his transition, Cade was often chippy and distant, as if he had a large boulder on his shoulder. Since his transition, that boulder has rolled off. He is now living in the body he was meant to have. He has his master’s degree in social work and works with underprivileged youth in the Philadelphia area, many of whom have suffered trauma from violence in their homes and community.

“Joyful” is now the best adjective for Cade. It also describes my feeling, knowing I have my child back.

Terri Scheer

Terri Scheer is an AVP on Cognizant’s Global Marketing team. In her role, Terri leads Cognizant’s Global Events team, focused...

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