Workplace consultant Vanessa Sheridan tackles the last frontier of equality on the job - transgender equality.
She is also a transgender woman. Some folks might find this unusual, but Sheridan does not.
"I'm a normal person with a different gender identity," she said. "You can be happy and well adjusted and transgender. The trouble with the way we're portrayed in the media is that we're either prostitutes or punch lines."
Sheridan, 61, is clearly neither. With a warm smile and flashes of charm frequently shining through her proper demeanor, she matter-of-factly lays out what she does for a living -- helping employers update their nondiscrimination policies and create welcoming environments for their transgender workers.
She doesn't tell people it's the right thing to do, but rather ties it to the company's bottom line, pointing out that a workplace with tension, fear and bias isn't a productive one.
"I say, you have the right to think anything you like," she said. "We are here to focus on behavior in the workplace. You cannot discriminate based on gender identity or gender expression, and your employer is committed to enforcing this policy."
Despite her determination, Sheridan is no proselytizing firebrand.
"I try to come across as nonthreatening," she said. "When you put a human face on the issue, you start to remove the fear. Once they have the information, all of a sudden the fear goes away and they say, 'Oh, well, these are just human beings, I can deal with that.'"
On a recent Friday at Best Buy headquarters in Richfield, Sheridan was part of a panel advising representatives of 11 prominent area employers, including Land O' Lakes, Thomson Reuters and Blue Cross Blue Shield, on how to address transgender issues in the workplace and adapt health-care coverage.
"The session, which included vivid, real-life situations along with pointed and educational dialogue, was a way for attendees to sharpen their LGBT cultural competency skills," said Best Buy spokesperson Susan Busch.
Sheridan, who didn't come out herself until she was in her mid-30s, advises human resource and diversity managers on everything from bathroom policy -- "it usually works out best if transgender workers use the restroom designated for the gender they are presenting as" -- to adding hormone-treatment coverage to health-care plans.
Her first challenge is often getting her audience to understand what transgender does and does not mean.
The basics: "Transgender" is an umbrella term for a varying spectrum of people who don't fit the societal norm of male or female. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things; transgender people may be straight, gay or bi. Some are transsexual, meaning that they have had or would like to have sexual reassignment surgery, but most do not, for reasons ranging from not wanting to change their bodies, to not being able to afford it, to surgery being medically inadvisable. Some cross-dress, some do not. Some may "present" as female or male at different times. Many hide who they are for fear of losing their families, friends or jobs.
Transgender people are twice as likely as the general population to be unemployed, four times as likely to live below the poverty level, and more than 90 percent report experiencing discrimination on the job, according to a recent survey of 2,450 transgender Americans conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
But notable strides have been made in the past decade. In 2000, only three Fortune 500 companies included gender identity in their employee nondiscrimination policies. Today, more than 150 do. President Obama appointed a transgender woman, former test pilot Amanda Simpson, as an adviser to the Commerce Department. And there are lobbyists on Capitol Hill working for transgender rights, "which would have been unheard of 10 years ago," Sheridan said.
Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Human Rights Campaign's Workplace Project, said that five years ago, basic coverage for transgender health care "barely existed, but today we have at least 85 businesses nationwide that provide it."
Public persona, private life
Sheridan has spent the past several years collecting impressive credentials. Two of her three books have been nominated for Lambda literary awards, including her most recent, "The Complete Guide to Transgender in the Workplace," published in 2009. She also wrote a spirituality book titled "Crossing Over: Liberating the Transgendered Christian." The awards are given each year to works that explore LGBT themes.
Most recently, she was the first transgender person to be named to the board of the Stonewall Library, Archives & Museum, had an article published in Diversity Business magazine, and is being featured in a traveling corporate exhibit on transgender called "Transitions."
After growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home in 1950s North Carolina, Sheridan calls herself a "recovering Southern Baptist." She knew she was different as early as age 3, but kept it to herself, playing on boys' sports teams in school. She did experiment with trying on her two younger sisters' clothes, "which is almost universal for men who transgender to women," she said. "I found it thrilling and terrifying at the same time."
In the 1970s, before she came out, Sheridan played lead guitar and sang in a rock band. She still writes music, and was recently hired to score an indie film. She has lived in the Twin Cities more than 30 years.
For all her transgender advocacy and workplace assertiveness, Sheridan leads a life in which she keeps much private, including her legal, male name. She said she is in a long-term romantic relationship, but does not identify with whom. Nor does she name the church she attends, because she does so as a man. However, she doesn't see herself as having two identities.
"I don't become another human being, I'm just accessing more of myself," she said. "Quite a few people in my life know, and I've never lost a friend over it."
Quite a few transgender people wind up in the engineering field, Sheridan said, and many are very creative, a selling point she uses with employers.
"Of course they are -- the view from the margins is always more interesting than from the center," she said.
With the kind of work Sheridan and other transgender activists are doing, those margins are inching closer to the middle all the time. As they do, more transgender people will come out at work and be who they are, she said: "It takes a lot of psychological energy to keep that kind of a secret."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046