August 5, 2021

These transgender people shifted genders during COVID and are bracing for a return to the office

For Jess Mayer, it was the mirrors. Any time she saw her reflection, she didn’t recognize the person. And she resented herself.

“It just got so overwhelming that I had to reprioritize my own personal health,” Mayer, 34, says. So she did something about it. While working from home during the COVID-19 health crisis, Mayer came out as transgender. “Not being in the office, and being able to take the time at home to find, discover … and evolve yourself, I think it’s a unique opportunity to begin that transition,” she says. But then she needed to tell her managers and team.

“They were very welcoming and happy for me,” says Mayer, who adds that she initially felt some trepidation. “I really think that I had kind of an unusual experience compared to a lot of people.” Those who experimented with gender identity behind masks and screens during the pandemic may soon be returning to the workplace as the rollout of vaccines ramps up and businesses reopen.

But will workplaces be ready to provide a tolerant, safe environment for employees who now identify differently? “I would hope so,” says Sasha Buchert, senior attorney with Lambda Legal, a national organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. “There’s been a lot of work in the last few years to work with companies to create inclusive workplaces,” she explains, adding, “I’m cautiously optimistic that companies and organizations will be ready for folks coming back that have transitioned during the pandemic.” In recent years, businesses have generally emerged as champions of transgender equity amid a rash of federal policies and state laws aimed at eroding their civil rights, advocates say.

“We’re battling a full-frontal assault on transgender equality in this country,” says Deena Fidas, chief programs and partnerships officer for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, which helps companies be more supportive of LGBTQ employees. But “the business community has become one of the most vocal defenders of trans inclusion and equality.” Among Fortune 500 companies, 9 in 10 have gender identity protections and 7 in 10 have health coverage that includes transgender people, Fidas says.

But policies on paper don’t always mean transgender employees will feel comfortable and welcomed. No explicit statewide laws exist in 27 states that protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination, according to Freedom for All Americans.

“How those LGBTQ-inclusive policies translate to a daily culture is an area that businesses continue to work with us on,” Fidas says. “We’re not in a place where we can say with authority every major workplace has established a culture of true belonging for transgender people.”