When Kris Dalrymple (pictured) decided to come out as transgender at work he was a bit worried about the reaction.

But those fears quickly disappeared after he sent out a company-wide email chronicling his journey to outwardly living as the person he feels like on the inside. “The second the email came out, it was just an outreach of love,” says Dalrymple, administrator for intake and conflicts at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Ottawa. “It was a life-changing day and my life at the firm hasn’t been quite the same since.”

Paving the way

At the law firm where he’s worked for more than 15 years life has only gotten better since he sent that email about four years ago. The firm has been on its own journey to ensure it supports transgender and non-binary employees in a myriad of ways. Most recently, it launched a new gender affirmation benefits offering for employees and their dependants.

Read: KPMG supporting workplace diversity, inclusivity with gender affirmation policy

While provincial and territorial governments across Canada generally cover the cost of gender-affirming surgery, other costs often aren’t covered by government-funded health plans. BLG is offering $10,000 per year to a maximum of $50,000 to employees and dependants for a range of gender affirmation costs not usually covered by public health systems, such as Adam’s apple or cheekbone reductions.

By the numbers

75,000 of Canadians aged 15 and older said they’re non-binary or transgender in 2018. This includes anyone whose reported sex assigned at birth differs from their current gender, including those who are non-binary.

44.8% of transgender people said they’ve seriously considered suicide, compared to 17.1% of Canadians that identify as cisgender.

35.7% of transgender people have used drugs or alcohol to cope with abuse or violence that occurred in their lifetime, compared to 10.9% of Canadians that identify as cisgender.

Source: Statistics Canada

The new offering is part of a bigger push that began at BLG a few years ago on the heels of so-called “bathroom bills” in the U.S., which aimed to prevent transgender people from using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity and sparked fierce backlash around the world.

Laleh Moshiri, national director of diversity and inclusion at the law firm, spearheads the firm’s efforts, starting with work on a transgender accommodation inclusivity policy in 2016. The firm supports transgender and non-binary staff in several ways — through official written policies and benefits offerings, the provision of gender-neutral washrooms, bringing in speakers and encouraging all staff to identify their preferred pronouns in their email signature.

Read: Using non-binary gender descriptors remains challenge for benefits, insurance industries

The introduction of the new benefits offering was one of the final pieces of the work the organization started in 2016,” says Moshiri. “It certainly doesn’t mean our work is done, but it’s an important piece of what we’re doing. I think that providing these benefits has a fundamental impact on the mental health of trans individuals.”

Dalrymple agrees, calling the new benefit offering fantastic. “We don’t question anyone who has diabetes [saying], ‘We’re not going to cover your insulin.’ I know it might seem like a bit of a stretch, but to someone who’s transgender, it’s not. If you’re not even comfortable in your own skin, this can lead to very high statistics with suicide and self-harm due to feeling that you don’t fit in and you’re not comfortable in your body. But simple things like surgery, . . . for many of us, it’s life changing — you finally feel like the person on the outside like you do on the inside.”

Supporting all staff

Michel Arsenault, clinical director of global operations, digital clinical services and career at LifeWorks Inc., agrees that having specific human resources policies and benefits offerings for transgender and non-binary employees can significantly help their mental well-being and ultimately boost their happiness and productivity at work. An inclusive and supportive company culture can also help employers attract and retain top talent, he adds.

Read: Pride Month: How employers can create a more inclusive work culture

More employers across Canada, including Manulife Financial Corp., Scotiabank and Sun Life Assurance Co., have added coverage for enhanced gender affirmation procedures to their benefits offerings in recent years. While some momentum is building, Arsenault says there’s still room for improvement. “As we start to see more employees come forward and wanting to live in their true gender, I think employers will be forced to look at that a little more closely.”

Like BLG, Canadian employers that are aiming to be more inclusive to transgender and non-binary employees have a range of options, like ensuring language in corporate documents is gender neutral and bringing in speakers to educate employees about a range of issues around gender and inclusivity.

Being an ally

In Dalrymple’s case, his colleague Moshiri has been an integral part of making him feel truly included and heard at work. She flew from Toronto to Ottawa the day he sent out his re-introduction email so he’d have extra emotional support on a scary day. The law firm also made sure his nameplate and name in internal systems was changed so it was a smooth transition.

But the road isn’t always so smooth, he acknowledges, suggesting employers be open to listening, learning and continually evolving their diversity, inclusion and equity efforts.

Read: Scotiabank offering enhanced gender affirmation coverage to employees

“Since I’ve come out at the office and let everyone know that I’m transgender, the firm started coming up with all of these policies and procedures. These things tell me that BLG
is pushing forward. They want to inform everyone, regardless of their gender, they’ll be welcome here. . . . I’ve definitely seen, in the last couple of years, that things have really been moving in the right direction.”

Melissa Dunne is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.