Guest Column: Transgender people need non-trans advocates

By : Steve Yacovelli
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Steven Yacovelli

Steve Yacovelli

One of the things I do for work and am pretty darn passionate about is teaching diversity and inclusion. Whether it’s helping corporate folks understand the different “internal dimensions” of diversity (such as age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or race) and “external dimensions” of diversity (like education, salary, work experience, appearance, and marital status that can change more frequently); I really enjoy helping people see the differences and similarities in each of us. Exploring topics like “stereotyping,” “bias behavior, “ “inclusive communication,” and “silent collusion” in the workplace gives me a sense of purpose and I feel I’m making a small difference toward the greater good of embracing and understanding others not like ourselves. Many businesses understand that solid diversity and inclusion policies are not just the right thing to do but make great business sense, and my role as a corporate educator is to bring that message to the company’s peeps in a memorable and meaningful way.

I’ve had the pleasure of presenting topics related to diversity and inclusion at several conferences both locally and on the national level over the past several years. Some topics were general in nature and could really fit into the broader theme of diversity and inclusion (like “inclusive communication”) while others were more targeted toward a certain areas within the dimensions of diversity (such as “public speaking for the LGBT advocate”).
Earlier this year I submitted several topics to present at a national conference I’ve spoken at over the past few years. The conference is focused on LGBT issues in the workplace, and consists of many Fortune 500 companies and their efforts to leverage LGBT Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to help facilitate change from within the business and beyond. It’s a fantastic organization and one I’m very happy to be affiliated with, so when I submitted one of my topics focused on how a colleague and I have worked with companies to effectively roll out “Gender Identity and Gender Expression” training (both self-paced, on-line training as well as instructor-led, face-to-face programs) on the corporate level.

I was sure the timeliness of the topic coupled with our experience as learning and development professionals would provide great information for other companies to use. Surely we’d be given the chance to share what we learned and how things could be more effective for other organizations teaching this topic.

Alas, this session was not accepted, but for reasons that I found pretty surprising. The written feedback from the reviewers was shared with me on why we were denied, and this quote from one reviewer summarizes it best:

… neither [speakers] are listed as from the trans community—I would suggest that a transgender voice would be important to include …”.

So basically we were denied because we—the gay guy and the straight woman—weren’t “from the trans community.”
At first I could see their point: how are you to advocate and share your expertise if you aren’t from that community? But then I started thinking about this statement and it screamed “bias:” “How dare a straight woman and a gay man speak on behalf of the trans community? What could they possibly know about the trans experience?” … was suddenly what I interpreted as the meaning of the feedback. And that got me both mad and disappointed as the same time.

Bias is defined as “a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair,” and it really seems to be at play in this situation. My colleague and I have spent the past few years working with trans community members as well as diversity experts to create our training program. We researched best practices for companies to incorporate trans-friendly policies into their corporate anti-discrimination documents, and captured healthy approaches leaders can take to support employees who transition.

As I shared some of these key learnings with my “LGB friends” I found this huge gap in understanding and it justified and encouraged my desire to help others understand the trans community and dispel misconceptions of our “T” brothers and sisters, both within the LGBT community and beyond. I also came to understand where companies lack supporting trans employees, and how the work my colleague and I were doing could really make a difference.

So what’s fundamentally wrong with my perception of the reviewers’ perspective is that they were arguing you can’t advocate on behalf of a particular group if you’re not a member of said group. I call “shenanigans:” Some of the loudest and most clearly heard advocates for—insert social injustice category here—are those who aren’t necessarily from that demographic. Whites speaking on behalf of blacks in the 1960, men calling for gender quality, and of course our straight allies speaking on behalf of LGBT equality; you can find so many specific examples of where who was/is not from the discriminated-against-group shared his or her perspective and it made a difference.

For some people it takes someone that looks like me but has a differing opinion than my own to voice and challenge my way of thinking for change to take root. For every Elton John there’s a Ben Cohen, and it’s through a collective chorus of equality versus the single soloist that helps turn perspectives and cause change.

The reviewer’s bias against me and my colleague because we weren’t part of the trans community is hurtful and short-sighted, and undermines the very thing we’re trying to achieve: helping others understand and appreciate us for who we are. Biases are powerful blinders: it can make us see the “good” in people even when they’re bad, and the “bad” in people even when they’re good. While we all have bias, to move forward on all equality and to spread the concepts of respecting and appreciating diversity and inclusion we need to hold our own biases—and each others’—in check.

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