Interview: 10 Questions about Transgender Issues in the workplace with lawyer and activist Brooke Cartus

Activist/ comedian/ lawyer/ everyone's favorite, Brooke Cartus.
Activist/ comedian/ lawyer/ personal trainer/ writer/ everyone’s favorite, Brooke Cartus.

Brooke Cartus is one of my top five favorite comedians of all time. But there’s nothing funny about discrimination.


For the rest of this post I’ll leave the comedy to Brooke. She’ll also explain how workplaces and business owners can create an open and welcoming environment for its transgender employees, because she’s an expert on that, too. She designs and leads diversity training for businesses across the country. 

Did you know that it’s still legal in the U.S. to discriminate against someone because of their gender identity?

That’s part of the reason Brooke, also a personal trainer (seriously, she can do literally anything and be good at it), decided to study law at Ohio State.

“I went to law school because of the discrimination I saw in the workplace at my gym,” she says. “No one wanted me to train transgender individuals, especially my boss. I guess he saw it as a liability issue, or that’s how he painted it to me. But I knew better. I knew what hate looked like.”

Since graduating in 2015, the landscape of the trans community has definitely changed, she says. The general public has become more aware of the struggles of marginalized communities, particularly the trans community, which has its upsides — like the topic of this Q&A: more employers want to know how they can help promote equality — and its downsides, which you can guess with one bathroom headline.

“With the marriage equality victory came a conservative backlash against the subgroup in the LGBT movement that is the most powerless, that is the trans community,” Brooke says. “Bathroom bills, high rates of institutionalized violence and imprisonment. The trans community is under attack and the rest of the LGBT community should be rallying and fighting inequality for those who cannot fight for themselves.”


Why did you start working with the transgender community?

I started working with the transgender community when I was a personal trainer in Buffalo, NY. The relationship between the police force and the trans community was really raw – trans people were being attacked and beaten, and when police responded, they would detain the trans victim and NOT the attackers. It was really frustrating to see, and as a young lesbian in her twenties who knew NOTHING about the trans community, I was shocked. I had just come out, slapped an HRC sticker on my red Jetta, and thought that I was an activist. I had a lot to learn.

I helped produce and direct a film exposing the complicated relationship between the trans community and the police, and also started training trans folks in the gym. We all have body image issues, but training individuals who had to fear going into a locker room every time they saw me was really eye opening. I boxed with them and taught them basic self defense. Basic self-defense skills empowered my friends to stand up for themselves safely.

Where does one even start when talking to a professional organization about transgender issues?

It depends on the organization- but what usually really resonates with organizations is the importance of building an environment that is safe for their employees. Safer environments lead to more productive workplaces, and creating a safe space is kind of brilliant for an employer – you retain talent and also increase productivity. Trans individuals who don’t feel safe at work report higher levels of anxiety and stress, and that stress manifests in myriad ways that are detrimental to the company and the individual.

I had just come out, slapped an HRC sticker on my red Jetta, and thought that I was an activist. I had a lot to learn.

Is discrimination against a transgender employee illegal?

We all know that it is illegal to discriminate against an individual based on sex. But under current Supreme Court interpretation of federal law, gender identity does not fall under the “sex” category, therefore transgender individuals do not have federal protection. The EEOC and President Obama disagree with this interpretation, but gender identity is not a protected class under the law. Since 1993, there has been a bill in and out of committee in Congress to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in discrimination legislation.

State laws and city ordinances often try to pick up where federal legislation is mute. And many companies and organizations have policies including gender identity as a protected class. But laws like H.B. 2 in North Carolina try to limit the scope under which LGBT individuals can file suit based on discrimination. There are a million ways to limit protection, and state laws can often chip away at even basic civil rights protections.

What forms of subtle discrimination do transgender people often experience at work?

As a trans ally, I cannot speak to all the types of discrimination faced by trans employees. There are myriad implicit and explicit biases that seep into daily interactions that can make some employment environments exhausting for trans folks, from inappropriate questions to hostility and sometimes even violence.

Trans employees often face a double bind: If they come out as trans early in their employment process (interview, etc.), they may not even be offered employment. If they get hired and come out as trans, they may be isolated, treated as a pariah, and suffer consequences both socially and culturally at work that could lead to termination. However, if a trans employee stays in the closet and then is “outed”, fellow employees report feeling “betrayed” by their lack of honesty.

Frankly, it’s ridiculous. Trans panic has been used as a legal argument defending violence towards trans people just like gay panic was used in the ’80’s and ’90’s to explain violence toward gay men and women.

Since 1993, there has been a bill in and out of committee in Congress to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in discrimination legislation.

What are some common traps that workplaces that want to be inclusive fall into?

I think the most common mistake companies make is attempting to treat every case the same. Each trans person is an individual, and transitioning is a general term. There is no handbook for what it means to transition, and employers should be sensitive to those differences. The best thing to do is talk to the individual who is transitioning at the company to see how they want to handle the situation.

How can you train other employees around transgender sensitivity?

I work a lot with coaching individuals on how to be respectful in difficult and sensitive conversations around sexual orientation and gender identity. Basic protocol can be taught, but to really understand the struggle of the trans community, you can’t just learn what questions to not ask. I believe in talking with people about their experiences, understanding where they are coming from, before making judgments. If an employee has never interacted with a trans person who is out, they may spout some ignorance. But in working with them before and after these conversations, we can figure out the source of their issues and work on creating an environment that is conducive for both LGBT employees and allies.

What about if an employee or co-worker is transitioning? What are some basic principles for handling that?

I think too many people think that a trans person just wakes up one day, decides they are going to transition, and is “passing” as the gender they identify with in a few months. Transitioning is an arduous and sometimes lifelong process, and every trans person goes through this transition differently. Some take hormones, some have multiple surgeries, some don’t do any of these things. In fact, less than 10% of trans individuals opt to have genital surgery. There is no handbook for transitioning the “right” way, meaning an employer should be respectful of the individual. No one pulls a Caitlyn Jenner and just disappears from the spotlight for eight months and comes back as a different gender — you need a lot of money to do that.

I always guide employers to create a protocol that embodies open communication, while also being respectful. If the employee is working with clients, the employer should defer to the individual transitioning about informing clients of the name change they may undergo. 

This is where things can get challenging, because every workplace and individual is different. Trans folks have higher rates of unemployment, suicide, police interaction, and violence. To understand the struggle of the trans employee is to have an understanding of the trans community as a whole.

We just need to acknowledge bias and understand that educating ourselves and those around us is one of the best ways to make marked progress on the road to equality.

Why seek out an expert for diversity training?

Because this topic is not an easy one to discuss — employees often want to talk through sensitive situations and a neutral third party is crucial. Who wants to talk about your bias against the trans community with your boss? No one. I like to create an open environment where individuals can work through their bias, discover the source, and make progress toward creating an environment of mutual respect.

What other resources are available for businesses that want to create a more inclusive work space?

I always encourage businesses to get an idea of the legal landscape as it applies to discrimination protection for LGBT people. Besides reviewing in-house procedures and protocols, websites about legal protections can be really helpful.

Some helpful resources:’s list of general employment rights

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s enforcement protections for LGBT workers

What does a welcoming and safe work environment for a transgender person look like?

Every individual is different, but for many of the trans folks I have worked with on this issue, they want to be treated like everyone else at work. They want to be valued for their productivity, and walk into their job every day or night with a sense that their gender identity is not going to be in a spotlight for their entire shift.

Isn’t that what every employee wants? To be valued for their work output and not their race, class, gender, ethnicity, or religion?

I think we all have more in common than we care to admit, and the issues around trans discrimination have been played out in the courts in the past. We just need to acknowledge bias and understand that educating ourselves and those around us is one of the best ways to make marked progress on the road to equality.

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