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The Power of Knowledge to Create Understanding

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

by Linda Herzer,


Transformation Journeys Worldwide

The Vermont town folks who gathered to pay last respects to my mother spoke in hushed tones. Having not seen me since I left for college 40 years ago, they kindly offered condolences and inquired, “What are you doing now?”

Because the woman we had gathered to memorialize used to warn me, “Don’t talk about what you do,” I was uncertain how news of my work would be received.

“I have a training and consulting firm that helps organizations work respectfully with transgender people.”

My response brought slow nods, sidelong glances and a change of topic. Apparently, it also merited explanation.

I overheard my aunt telling those sitting next to her, “Transgender people are men who want to wear dresses.” This misinformed pronouncement shocked me, especially coming when it did, in 2018, and from whom it did—my Connecticut aunt, the one I had always seen as cosmopolitan and knowledgeable about the world.

The Understanding Gap Is Enormous

But my aunt is not alone in her misunderstanding of gender diverse people. Twenty-one percent of Americans believe that being transgender is a mental disorder, despite the American Psychological Association’s (APA) and now the World Health Organization’s statements to the contrary. Likewise, 43% of Americans strongly believe there are only two gender identities, man and woman, despite the fact that the APA recognizes a wide range of gender identities.

Such misunderstandings and beliefs lead directly to workplace discrimination. From being outed by colleagues to being passed over for promotions, from being deadnamed and mis-pronouned to being told which bathroom to use, 30% of gender diverse employees report experiencing some form of workplace mistreatment. The levels of discrimination experienced by Black and Multiracial gender diverse employees was even higher.

The Business Impact of Creating Understanding

So what are the implications of these statistics—and my Aunt’s misperception —for your organization? In light of the Supreme Court’s June ruling that under Title VII, “sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity, the implications are clear; all employees need training on how to interact respectfully with gender diverse colleagues.

Even organizations who have provided employees with unconscious bias education need training specifically related to trans and non-binary people, for several reasons. Although gender diverse people have existed throughout all time and across all cultures, in the US and in many countries, transgender people have only gained consistent visibility within the last 10-20 years; for non-binary people it’s been only about 5 years. This reality, coupled with the fact that gender diverse people challenge our deeply-held, but unconscious cultural assumptions about gender, results in employees not even having the cognitive categories needed to understand trans and non-binary people—much less interact respectfully with them.

This was certainly true for me, eight years ago, when I first met gender diverse individuals. As an ordained minister, I had just come onto the staff of a church where about 10% of my congregants identified somewhere under the trans umbrella. I have to confess, I actually felt a bit uncomfortable around my trans parishioners because I simply didn’t understand them. Like most people, I had always thought that one’s anatomy determined one’s gender, so I had no way of comprehending people for whom this was not the case.

Through reading and research, I had to learn that all people have a gender identity, an internal knowing of their gender, but for some people, their gender identity does not match their anatomy. I had to learn that this is not a mental disorder; it is just another beautiful facet of our human diversity. I to learn what words and actions my trans and non-binary congregants found offensive so I could avoid them.

Understanding Each Other Improves Performance

During the past four years of working as a transgender inclusion trainer, what I’ve heard from chief diversity officers, HR leaders, directors of learning and development, and LGBTQ E/BRG leaders is that the things I had to learn are the things all employees need to learn. Otherwise, employees have discomfort similar to what I felt, which drags down team performance. Or they have misperceptions similar to my aunt’s, which leads them to say offensive things like, “What was your real name?”, “It’s not grammatically correct to use ‘they’ as your personal pronoun”, or “You look so pretty/handsome I would have never known you were trans.”

Prior to the SCOTUS decision, the lack of knowledge that led to workplace discrimination against gender diverse co-workers was cause for concern; now it is a federal offense. Companies can no longer afford to have employees who are uninformed about the disrespectful words and actions that constitute sexual harassment against trans and non-binary colleagues. That is why organizations with LMS platforms are investing in training that is conveniently accessible to their entire workforce and smaller companies are utilizing video or web-based training.

Regardless of their size, organizations are recognizing they need to train all their employees; and they need to do it now.

See the respectful interactions training we offer to meet your needs.


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