From left: Sam Slate, Jayla Wilkerson and Danielle Skidmore.

Panelists at Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit discuss transitioning in the workplace, not letting gains slip away

Nashwa Bawab | Contributing Writer
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For many transgender people, transitioning usually entails a major life change with tough decisions and adversity. The decision to transition is already a daunting one, but imagine having to make that choice in view of your coworkers and bosses.

That was the idea behind a panel at the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit presented recently in Irving by the North Texas Commission. The panel, called “Transitioning in the Workplace,” featured transgender professionals discussing their stories of transitioning while on the job.

“I like to joke that I’m responsible for several new sections in our employee manual,” said Danielle Skidmore, a civil engineer who ran for Austin’s city council last year, eliciting laughter from the packed room. “One of them was, ‘Huh, we probably need a policy on transgender people.’”

When she transitioned, Skidmore was vice president of an engineering consulting firm that she helped build. While telling all 50 of her coworkers about this new chapter of her life was already a formidable obstacle, she also had to send out hundreds of emails to clients and hope for the best.

Skidmore said she knew she was going to get pushback, but she didn’t realize how many more people would be welcoming of her outward change. “I got proved wrong over and over and over again,” she said.

Attorney Jayla Wilkerson said she was also surprised by the positive reception to her transition. “It was a huge undertaking — obviously, it is for everybody — but I was working under a Republican appointed by our state governor,” she said.

Wilkerson said she was already living most of her life presenting as a female, with work being one of the few places she presented as male. She was waiting to change that part of her life through a slow, careful and well-planned transition that would bring as little disruption to her work life as possible.

“I would end one job presenting as a male and start another job presenting as a female. Seems seamless, right?” she said. “Well, then the election happened, and I was very, very afraid I was going to lose my opportunity to change my legal documents. I took my HR lady to lunch, and I said, ‘Hi, I have an issue that I want to talk to you about.’”

For Wilkerson, transitioning meant changing her name. And that meant changing her Social Security documentation. And that meant changing work documents — a lot of nuts-and-bolts people might not realize come with the territory of transitioning.

But when that was done, Wilkerson decided to leave for vacation presenting as male and come back as herself.

“When I came back from vacation, there were a bunch of gifts in my office, flowers. They had already changed my name plate outside my office door,” she said. “It was beyond supportive, and they continued to be supportive and loving throughout my time there.”

While Wilkerson and Skidmore both had large hurdles to jump over as the first trans people in their respective workplaces, Sam Slate, an employee at Dell, was able to transition at a company with an already-established policy.

“[The human resources manager] came back with an 80-page document that was the transitioning-at-Dell handbook, and it was extremely helpful in a lot of ways,” Slate said.

He described how the workbook went through a lot of the systems, emails he needed to send and the legalities of maneuvering through the workplace — things he wouldn’t have thought about without it.

“I appreciated not having to be the first through that process from a policy perspective, and I also appreciated the fact that Dell’s nondiscrimination policy afforded me more protections than the city of Austin, the state of Texas or the United States of America.”

Slate said that while more changes in the workplace are still needed, there has definitely been progress.

Another panel that afternoon was called “LGBTQ — Is Progress Being Made for Intentional Inclusion?” Speakers included Equality Texas Vice Chair Steven Atkinson, former Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman, and Joel Burns, the first openly-gay person elected to political office in Tarrant County. They said change is happening, and it is being spearheaded by LGBTQ workers vying for inclusivity in their fields.

Both panels ended on a similar note: Inclusion of LGBTQ workers needs to be intentional or regress is bound to happen.

Wilkerson, Skidmore and Slate told the audience to be a friend to LGBT coworkers and establish normalcy as a way to achieve progress.

“For me, I wasn’t changing. My experience was I finally got to be my full expression of myself,” Slate said. “Everyone else had to transition around me; everyone else had to recognize and use new pronouns; everyone else had to reconfigure me into how I fit into their perspective of the world.

“If you feel yourself maybe being imposed upon because you’re being asked to perceive someone differently, know that that juxtaposition is superimposed, so the more you can just make things feel normal, the more I certainly welcome that,” he added.