March 31 marks Transgender Day of Visibility, established in 2009 to recognize and celebrate the contributions of the transgender community. For our community, visibility is essential to showcasing our full diversity and humanity. It is particularly important to celebrate transgender success to ensure that young transgender individuals can access all the resources that they need to thrive – including the joy and support that comes from seeing transgender role models living, succeeding, and making a positive impact on the world. Being openly and visibly trans can also have an important political impact: people who personally know transgender or nonbinary people are more likely to support protections against discrimination and other policies that support our right to live openly and freely.1
At a time when transgender issues play a divisive role in political discourse, positive examples of visibility are the best counterweights to the anti-trans messaging that we see so often – in U.S. state laws targeting queer youth, in the public mocking of a transgender athlete’s accomplishments, and in questions raised about what defines a woman in Senate confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee. The State Department has an influential platform on the world stage to elevate positive examples of the countless transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming individuals around the globe who accomplish amazing things. In one recent example, Secretary Antony Blinken and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden joined together to honor transgender activist Bhumika Shrestha as recipient of the International Women of Courage Award for her work in Nepal.
One of the most effective tools in the Department’s toolbox is to model best practices around transgender inclusion. The State Department has made some progress toward becoming an attractive employer for gender-diverse individuals and champion for workforce diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility for all. But despite increasing efforts to support gender-diverse personnel, in 2020, only 0.2 percent of Department employees described themselves as transgender,2 far below conservative estimates of the 0.6 percent of Americans who identify as transgender.3
The relatively small number of transgender employees in the Department may likely be a product of historic, systemic, discriminatory practices that made it nearly impossible for transgender and nonbinary employees to advance in their careers, or to even get hired in the first place. The progress over the last two decades, championed by the employee resource group “LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies,” or glifaa, has removed many historical barriers. Over the last decade and a half, glifaa and the Department have worked together to reduce overt discrimination against LGBTQI+ people in the security and medical clearance processes, banned trans-exclusive health insurance policies in 2014 which impacted federal employees and their dependents, and released trans-affirmative employee guidance in 2021.
Progress has also been made regarding personal identification documentation, required for employment at the State Department, and for safety in travel around the world. The Department revised its gender recognition policy regarding passports in 2010 to allow for changes to male and female passport gender markers, with certification from a physician. In June 2021, the Department updated that policy to allow passport applicants to self-select their gender, no longer requiring medical certification if an applicant’s self-selected gender does not match the gender on their other citizenship or identity documents. The Department is also working towards adding an X gender marker option for U.S. passport applicants.
Despite this progress, additional roadblocks remain that interfere with the Department’s ability to attract a fully gender-diverse workforce. Federal government health insurance policies still fail to compete in terms of transition-related coverage with those policies available in the private sector; bathrooms and showers at Department properties fail to include multi-occupancy, all-gender options for all who want or require them; privileges and immunities that host countries give to gender-diverse Department employees and their families, including transgender employees, are not always equal to those afforded to straight or cisgender; access and foreign visas for transgender and nonbinary employees and dependents is still piecemeal: transgender or gender non-conforming employees and dependents still face difficulty navigating health care options; and transgender Locally Engaged Staff (LES) face barriers to feeling safe, supported, and protected at work. There has been little top-down advocacy or education about basic issues like the importance of recognizing names and pronouns, which leaves transgender Department employees to advocate upward for themselves in order to achieve basic equity, without a high-level champion. In our experience, policy-making offices and non-transgender employees have failed to maintain strong enough sustained advocacy for these and other issues affecting transgender employees and their family members, leading to unnecessary compromises rather than greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Transgender contractors, face added pressures working under “at-will” contracts, which permit a company to terminate an employee “at any time, for any lawful reason”. These contractors are not included in legal protections that are typically afforded to Civil Service and Foreign Service personnel. Transgender contractors are also vulnerable to discriminatory treatment by their own companies. Contracting agencies typically do not have effective LGBTQI+ advocacy representatives within their organizations, and employees are unable to access Department resources if they face discrimination in the workplace, preventing them from working with Department Civil and Foreign Service personnel to raise common concerns. For the contractor seeking federal employment, we believe that the lack of positive representation in management and executive leadership and the long and complex hiring process make barriers to entry all the higher.
To date, there is no openly gender-diverse representation in the Department’s senior leadership. As it generally takes decades to progress to the Department’s senior ranks, it will likely take a full generation before transgender and nonbinary employees who begin their careers today advance to senior positions. This can be rectified first by ensuring that discrimination does not stand as a barrier to timely advancement for the transgender employees already in the Department; and second, by the appointment of qualified gender-diverse individuals to high-level, publicly visible positions, including the ambassador or assistant secretary levels. High-level appointments will harness the full power and promise of transgender visibility and show America and the world that we embrace the values at home that we advance around the globe.
About the Authors: Catriona Bullock serves as a Information Assurance Specialist at the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, Andrea Arredondo as a Producer at the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, and Austin Richey-Allen as the Visas Chief and Fraud Prevention Manager at U.S. Embassy Kathmandu.