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About Transgenders coming out at work

in SOUTH AFRICA, 06/09/2010

Christine Ehlers the transwoman who took her employer to court for dismissing her for transi-tioning at work, has won her case!

The court has ruled that she be reinstated as the first measure in a typical situation where there has been an unfair dismissal. The company has some time to appeal against this but the ruling of the judge made it very clear that dismissing someone on the grounds of their Gender identity or sexual orientation is illegal.

As advocacy manager at Gender Dynamix, an organisation that deals with Transgender rights, dismissed transgender individuals often land at the other side of my desk. The initial euphoria they experience when learning that there is a place in society for people who need to change their gender is suddenly dashed by the reality of the workings of the gender machine.

“Just like that, he marched into our bathroom wearing a dress. He has been working with us for years. Now suddenly we have to believe that he is a woman.” Said one of the colleagues of one another transgender women approached me for help recently. She worked in the highly masculine environment of mining and the dismissal came swiftly. Later the dismissal could come at a high price for a company who is trading in a country with laws that protect minorities.

Transgender people have an innate sense of gender identity that is different from the gender (male of female) assigned to them at birth. Many of them will only come to the realisation that they cannot go on with their lives if there is not some amount of adjustment to their bodies to bring them in alignment. This turning point could happen at any point of a life, most often it is apparent in childhood.

The transgender woman at the other side of my desk though, has come to this point late in her life and is now at war with the testosterone still coursing through her veins. She has to have regular painful laser therapy to rid herself of the hair on her face. She has to go on the painful stigmatised journey that all transgender people have to embark on to come into their true selves. The responses of colleagues though are often very unsympathetic.
And yes then there is the space outside of her self - the rest of the world. She is confronted with her body as it relates to the rest of the world, her male body being the only thing she has to negotiate her safety and it is telling a story that feels like a lie to her.

The first step to changing one’s gender is to have psychological assessment by a medical professional who deals with gender issues. The assessment is about establishing the person’s stability mostly and not to establish a true gender. Let’s face it, when one starts to sort male and female attributes into separate bins there will be a lot of confusion about who owns what exclusively. In the end it will essentially boil down to what you look like, that makes people read one’s gender. Even though pink and dress and lipstick and stockings mean woman, putting those things on a male bodied person will automatically make people grapple for an identity on the margins. It means gay, insane or criminal!

And essentially those are the three things people believe of transgender people. All of them could be true but never has it been about any of those dismissed transgender women on the other side of my desk.

All of them have just been a nice lady trapped in a guy’s body who had no time left to waste in an identity that was not working for them. When they got the green light from their mental health professional they are expected to start negotiating their new identity within their communities.

This is where it becomes tricky when companies do not have human resource managers who understand the rights of employees relating to transitioning gender in the workplace. The woman who was fired from her job at the mining company was remunerated a sizable amount in the end, something that enabled her to have her Gender Reassignment surgery and time to secure a new future. The case was a true victory for transgender rights.

In this case the transwoman decided not to take the issue to the media but Christine Ehlers who won the more recent case, was angry enough to tell the world of her ordeal, something that has caused a lot of embarrassment for the employer in the end.

Most companies have gender policies that deal with the equal rights of women but it fails to deal with the complexities of gender when it comes to sexual minorities.

Gender DynamiX assist companies to design policies that deal with the extra layers and advise on how it will impact on employers and employees when transgender people express their intentions of change.

Change is hard for most people and even more so in the competitive field of employment. However this kind of change is no different than any other adjustment people have to make. When people are informed and their buy in is framed as something that will benefit themselves and the group it works out more often than not.
People expressed variant gender roles in history long before there was the gender altering technology we have today. In the proverbial old days people changed their gender by permission of their communities. It should be no different today.

With cases where the companies did not facilitate, regulate or assist their transgender employees, dodgy dismissals took place. Employers executed dismissals with very little legal recourse. Their defence in court seems to contain and assumption that the judge should surely agree that this insanity of a man wearing a dress to work deserves a dismissal.

In both these cases the judges served as good gender advocates, reminding the company that labour laws require certain minimum standards and that stretching gender norms might be hard to deal with for people, but that we do not live in the dark ages where mob rule and mob discomfort constitutes the automatic right to destroy a life.

I try to tell people that a transgender woman brought a dress to work not a gun and that she just wanted to use your toilet for what it’s meant for not to take your rights away.
 

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