WBAI, LAGBAC Host Chicago’s First CLE on “Transgender in the Workplace”

The Status of the Law & Leveraging The Power of Authenticity for Business Success

Determined to bring awareness to current barriers for transgender employees, WBAI President Corinne Cantwell Heggie collaborated with AllianceBernstein Vice President Franco La Marca (WBAI Diversity Co-Chair and LAGBAC Member) and LAGBAC President Moses Suarez to present Chicago’s first continuing legal education (CLE) on transgender issues in the workplace on June 20, 2019. The CLE focused on two key topics surrounding transgender employees, including the status of the law and  the importance of gender authenticity.  President Heggie’s opening remarks underscored these areas and asked the panel to address:  “What are the laws and how are they impacting the transgender population?  How do employers foster a workplace where their transgender employees can show up, deliver for themselves, their clients, and the business?”

The panel included two powerful speakers.  Attorney Jill Rose Quinn is a member of the National LGBT Bar Association and the Chicago LGBT Chamber of Commerce.  She is also the first openly transgender judicial candidate to run in Illinois.  Vanessa Sheridan is the author of Transgender in the Workplace: The Complete Guide to New Authenticity for Employers and Gender-Diverse Professionals.  She also works as a consultant to companies, a professional speaker, and transgender awareness trainer.  As part of their respective introductions, Ms. Quinn and Ms. Sheridan shared their personal and professional experiences each by identfying as a transgender person in the workplace.

Ms. Quinn’s legal presentation opened with a startling fact:  “In the last 30 days, four transgender women were brutally murdered in Chicago.”  She connected the relevancy of the tragedies to the topic of being transgender in the workplace.  Ms. Quinn surmised that if the women had felt accepted in their workplaces and were permitted to be their authentic selves, they may not have been as susceptible to the street crimes.  Ms. Quinn then provided an overview of state and federal laws, current trans rights, and what she believes to be on the horizon.  One federal law protecting transgender people from discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, specifically 42 U.S.C. § 1983:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State orTerritory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress ….

According to Ms. Quinn, only 18 states have banned transgender identity discrimination and Illinois is one of them. She then reviewed several cases pertaining to transgender discrimination. In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., funeral director Aimee Stephens, worked for R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home for six years when she decided to transition to a woman. The funeral home terminated Ms. Stephens only weeks after her announcement. Summary judgement was given to the employer on the District Court level.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the EEOC and Ms. Stephens holding that the funeral home was guilty of sex discrimination and unlawful termination. In the Fall of 2019, R.G. & G.R., Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC & Aimee Stephens, will be  reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, answering some important questions for trans rights.

Following the legal update, Ms. Sheridan discussed gender authenticity.  She defined it as:  the right of every individual to express their orientation or their identity without fear of cohesion to conform to gender stereotypes.

“A lot of times people will drive to work, and when they get to work, they pull into the parking lot, they open their car door to go into the office building to do their job and they can’t be their authentic self. This could be because either the company doesn’t encourage that or they don’t feel comfortable. So, those employees will leave 50% of themselves in the car. Think how much more productive we could be if we could bring 100% of ourselves into work everyday, instead of leaving 50% out in the parking lot.” – Vanessa Sheridan

The panel concluded by providing strategies for becoming an LGBTQ ally in the workplace:

  • Recognize your biases and work to change them
  • Create safe spaces in your organization by displaying LGBTQ symbols or signs
  • Refrain from asking personally invasive questions
  • Avoid assuming one’s orientation

Undertaking such initiatives can help employers ensure that all employees feel safe, supported, and protected.

The WBAI is proud of its role in this important and timely CLE.  This event was sponsored by AllianceBernstein and the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois.

Keeley Thayer is currently a 2L at DePaul University College of Law. She graduated from Elmhurst College with a degree in Intercultural Studies and Political Science. Keeley is originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, but plans to stay and practice in Chicago after graduation. She has a strong interest in litigation and would like to pursue a career as a trial attorney. Keeley stays involved as a member of the Chicago Bar Association and intern (and member) of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois.