BIG IDEA: Is your workplace flying the rainbow flag?

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May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia. Actually, we should call it the International Day Against Homophobia,Transphobia and Biphobia, says Deirdre Pike, senior social planner at the Social Planning and Research Council and co-chair of the Hamilton Positive Space Collaborative. . “I’d add lesbophobia, too, but that reminds me of what I was called in school,” she jokes. 

It’s not like organizations in Hamilton need an international day to start thinking about whether they’re doing a good job of creating a “positive space”—one that is welcoming and inclusive of clients, customers and employees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning. (You thought LGBTQ was a mouthful? Try LGBTTTIQQ, says Deirdre. Luckily, Rainbow Health Ontario has a great glossary.)  But why not make the days leading up to May 17 more meaningful? Rainbow Health Ontario

For Cole Gately, a trans man and community educator, it’s important that trans issues are front and centre. “They’re usually mentioned last,” he says. “They’re different from the issues and priorities of the gay rights movement.”

Cole starts with the basics. “Sex and gender are connected but aren’t the same thing,” he says. “Sex is biological, while gender is psychological.” For most people, sex and gender align properly at birth, but that’s not the case for trans people, who feel their body doesn’t match their internal gender identity. 

Transitioning from male to female or female to male can be very difficult. “Many trans people experience increased unemployment and homelessness,” says Cole. “The healthcare system can be awful.”

The workplace has its challenges, too. And while the Ontario Human Rights Code now protects people from harassment and discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression, proactive employers can do a lot to fully support trans employees. “It’s not so much about acceptance as solidarity,” says Cole. 

It requires both a mental shift and practical changes. “Employers need to change the world around the employee, rather than trying to change the employee to fit what already exists,” says Cole. Do away with gender-specific bathrooms instead of forcing a trans man or woman to use the ‘family washroom.’ Be open to discussions about gender in the workplace, but don’t mythologize or exoticize your trans employees. Offer trans-specific training—facilitated by skilled leaders from the trans community—rather than relying on trans employees to educate and challenge stereotypes among co-workers themselves. Include an explicit employment equity statement on job ads that encourages trans people to apply. 

The Positive Space Collaborative is assembling a checklist that organizations can use to assess whether their workplace is a positive space, says Deirdre. For example, do your HR forms offer a ‘trans’ box for trans employees to check off? Are there visual cues that it’s a positive space, such as use of the inverted rainbow triangle? Does your HR manual use inclusive language (‘partner’ rather than ‘husband’ or ‘wife’)? Do you mark days such as May 17? Do your employees reflect a rainbow of sexual orientations and gender expressions or do they all pretty much identify as straight? Have you offered positive space training to employees at all levels of the organization?

Employers can find resources and support for implementing these and other changes by connecting with the Hamilton Positive Space Collaborative. Hamilton Positive Space Collaborative Members include HCCI, Good Shepherd, Hamilton Police Services, The Well, Hamilton’s Advisory Committee on LGBTQ issues, Hamilton Health Sciences, McMaster, the YWCA and the public school board. The Social Planning and Research Council provides staff support. There are also excellent resources on PFLAG Canada’s website PFLAG Canada”.

A number of organizations across the city have special events planned for May 17, says Deirdre. If you’re looking for ideas, send her an email to be added to the Positive Space Collaborative’s e-list. “We’re always looking for new members,” she says. “Our goal is to make Hamilton the best place for LGBTQ people to live, work and play.”

As published in the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion Diversity Matters May 2013 e-newsletter.

Image Source: Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion

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