Why employees resist welcoming trans co-workers

Since the advent of work, humans have struggled with workplace conflict. Particularly since Donald Trump’s election, American HR professionals have dealt with the repercussions of a polarized political climate.

“It can feel so tempting and so gratifying to write people off as backwards and hateful,” said Ben Greene, an author and activist speaking to a Society for Human Resource Management audience. Still, Greene told the audience, “One of my key life philosophies is to always leave room for people to surprise you.”

“Even my uncle and QAnon have started calling me ‘Ben’ and using he/him pronouns,” he added.

An overarching theme in Greene’s talk is that the critical issue of trans identity at work has grown more complicated. 

For example, while not always providing great representation, trans people have increasingly been centered in media (see: from Laverne Cox and “Pose,” to Kim Petras and 2024’s “Monkey Man”). 

“In the last five years, likely all of us have seen a transgender, LGBTQ+ person on a TV show, in a movie, in advertising, in our workplaces, in our lives. It feels like it’s everywhere,” Greene said. It can be overwhelming, he added, for workers who feel like the world has left them behind. 

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“Nobody wants to feel that way,” he said.

Notably, Gen Zers identify as queer at higher rates than older generations. Per Gallup, more than 1 in 5 Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ+. Greene also mentioned this, bringing up the point that “more people are not actually becoming LGBTQ+” — it’s just that many queer people “didn’t have the safety or language to describe their identities and come out,” and a significant amount of LGBTQ+ individuals died during the AIDS epidemic, he said. 

Altogether, this means visibility for trans people has increased, but education has not, Greene said.

Here are four points of resistance the SHRM speaker highlighted that HR professionals can address at work.

1. Address faith-based resistance

Greene emphasized the importance of civility in his talk — a big theme of the conference — while also noting faith-based resistance to LGBTQ+ people at work.

“They might say things like, ‘My religion says I cannot support this identity,’ or just this broader sense of, ‘This is not the way the world was created.’ I think we’ve all got a fairly good understanding of where that comes from,” he said. 

Creating a culture of respect was a big theme throughout the talk, including using people’s pronouns correctly to foster that kind of environment. Sometimes, Greene said, it’s a matter of just explaining how the singular they/them works — and asking that worker how they would feel if someone used the wrong pronouns for them.

2. Fight misinformation and disinformation

Radicalization, born from misinformation, is another issue facing the LGBTQ+ community — with veritable threats to worker well-being, Greene said. Often, radicalization comes from someone being told and believing that a “core piece” of their identity is threatened by a certain group. 

Examples Greene gave were “You will not be a good mother if you don’t protect your children from this group,” or even “Gay people will have their rights taken away if transgender people continue to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community.” 

“Radicalization is a very sneaky pipeline that brings up things like the ‘woke mind virus’ and the ‘transgender agenda.’” He also noted organizations, including Gays Against Groomers and Moms for Liberty, that espouse the belief that trans people are dangerous. 

Greene also explained that the radicalization “passes a certain threshold” when people, such as members of Gays Against Groomers, end up “activating in a pretty violent way.” He added, “I have gotten many a threat from Moms for Liberty, to my personal email. These are groups who are taking pretty active steps against the trans community.”

3. Address shame around saying the wrong thing

An LGBTQ+ person looks serious in an office setting

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Zackary Drucker and Alyza Enriquez / The Gender Spectrum Collection


Shame was another theme throughout the session. Speaking from his own experience, Greene said he never sees more than 50% men at his talks. “I have rarely seen more than 20% men in an event that I do. The reality is it is women, nonbinary and trans people who show up to learn about LGBTQ+ inclusion so frequently,” he said. “‘There is that sense of: If I engage with this, does that make me gay? Does that threaten my identity?’”

Toxic masculinity and the patriarchy are to blame. This even takes more subtle forms, such as workers believing that “facts are more important than feelings” or “real men don’t dress that way,” Greene said.

Sometimes, it’s not a matter of the patriarchy; it’s the fear of getting canceled.

“When I got into public speaking. I was expecting to find hecklers and hate everywhere that I went. But instead I found that everywhere I went, I got apologies from almost anybody who was asking me a question. ‘I’m sorry if this is too personal’ [or] ‘I’m sorry if I can’t ask this’ [or] ‘I’m sorry if I asked the wrong thing’ [or] ‘I’m going to get canceled. Everyone’s going to be mad at me,’” Greene recalled. “People are terrified that they’re going to say the wrong thing.”

Greene encouraged HR professionals to create the kind of space where genuine people aren’t worried about saying the wrong thing or getting “canceled.”

4. Address shame around past mistakes

Besides shame fueled by toxic masculinity, some people — straight and queer alike — are experiencing a more acute and subjective shame.

“I hear from people saying, ‘Well, if this is what makes somebody trans, than I should have transitioned 20 years ago,” Greene said. He invited the audience to imagine what it may be like to spend several decades “putting yourself into a box that doesn’t fit” because that felt like the only option. “And then an 11-year-old says, ‘I’d like to opt out because that box isn’t very comfortable.’ That’s a lot of pain.”

He likened it to the frustration around student loan forgiveness; “In America, we have this very big sense of ‘if I went through it, so should you.’”

Often, too, some people pushing back against trans inclusion at work also have a queer or trans child who is a personal source of confusion. In his experience, Greene said, these naysayers have to acknowledge “the struggles that their child will face” and how that makes them feel.

But by cutting to the root of this kinds of resistance, HR can more successfully create an environment of trans inclusion. It will be difficult and messy, but, Greene said, “People have the ability to change. They won’t always do it, but they can.”