Pro Bono Partnership Pundit: Treating Gender Diverse Individuals with Dignity and Respect Is Easy

May 17, 2016



In two weeks, Pride Month will commence. It was created to commemorate the June 1969 Stonewall Riots, which is considered a defining moment in commencement of the movement to protect the civil rights of people who are gender affirmed, gender diverse, and/or not heterosexual-only. As Susan Marine, Assistant Professor and Director of the Higher Education Graduate Program at Merrimack College, explains:

The Stonewall Riots, named for the New York City bar (the Stonewall Inn) where they originated, represented a key historical moment of resistance to police (and societal) mistreatment of LGBT people. When police raided the Greenwich Village bar for no reason . . ., aiming to “round up” and arrest the patrons, the patrons, along with hundreds of supporters, fought back, actively standing up to the brutality. Although the riots have frequently been attributed to gay men, it is now well documented that the resistance effort was largely led by Sylvia Rivera, a well-known transgender activist.

Much has transpired since 1969. Today, the vast majority of Americans believe lesbian and gay employees should have equal employment rights, and just last June the U.S. Supreme Court held that state laws barring same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. In the opening sentence of the Court’s decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons . . . to define and express their identity.”

Despite such a broad, sweeping statement, people whose gender identity or expression transgresses gender stereotypes still face rampant discrimination.

However, the tide has begun to swiftly turn over the past few years. A growing number of administrative agencies and courts are holding that discrimination against transgender individuals is illegal. The good news for employers and other organizations is that it is very easy to treat gender-affirmed and gender-diverse people – my preferred way to refer to transgender individuals – with dignity and respect.

No special policies and procedures are needed when an employer has an ethos of treating people with respect and dignity. Just a little common sense, some training, and the usual tools of the trade of the human resource professional are all that are needed.

On Wednesday, June 8, from 12:00 to 1:30, I will be presenting the new Pro Bono Partnership webinar Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in Today’s Workplaces, Schools, Shelters, and Other Environments. The webinar will provide an overview of the law relating to gender identity and sexual orientation (GISO) and an easy-to-follow roadmap for achieving compliant, welcoming environments.

Here are some of the key practical pointers I will be covering:

  • Avoid labeling people with terms such as “transgender.” As a standard business practice we don’t label employees as “black,” “disabled,” or “red-headed.”  So why call someone “transgender”?
  • The medical community and many in the legal community now recognize that “sex” isn’t binary. Like color, gender is a continuum.
  • If senior and middle managers model what is deemed acceptable behavior, other employees will follow suit. These managers need to ensure that others do not intentionally misgender an LGBT person.
  • An individual employee’s religious belief that LGBT people are “ungodly” does not trump an employer’s right and duty to provide a respectful workplace for all employees.
  • Medical information relating to a gender affirmation/transition is treated just like any other medical information.
  • All individuals should be allowed to dress and groom in a professional manner that is in accord with their gender identity.
  • All individuals should be allowed to use sex-segregated facilities, such as restrooms, in accordance with their gender identity. It’s the law and, contrary to the repeated claims of foes of LGBT rights, allowing gender-affirmed and gender-diverse people to “pee in peace” hasn’t presented any safety problems for other people.
  • Health insurance plans that exclude coverage for medically necessary gender-affirming medical procedures and/or for same-sex spouses (when coverage is provided for different-sex spouses) most likely violate the law.

As eloquently explained by Coretta Scott King in 1994, in the context of a proposed federal law to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation:

I believe that freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience.  As my husband Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  On another occasion he said, “I have worked too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern.  Justice is indivisible.”  Like Martin, I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.

Christine Michelle Duffy croppedChristine Michelle Duffy is a senior staff attorney with Pro Bono Partnership. Christine is editor-in-chief and contributing author of the critically acclaimed treatise Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Workplace: A Practical Guide, all royalties from which are being donated to the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).  Several portions of the book, including its two forewords, Unfinished Business (by retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long and National Center for Lesbian Rights Staff Attorney Asaf Orr) and With Fairness for All (by Delaware Governor Jack Markell), are available for free download at

Photo at top is courtesy Creative Commons