CHICAGO – Josie Lynne Paul felt hopeful, and terrified, as she walked into an all-staff meeting to tell her co-workers what she'd known for years: that she was a transgender woman. And that she was ready to live as a woman full time.
A consultant gave a presentation on what it means to be transgender and in transition. Paul, a social worker, delivered a statement explaining that the pain of not being true to herself had grown too great to bear.
Most colleagues were kind, Paul recalled. But a handful voiced objections. They said they weren't comfortable or needed more time.
In the weeks that followed, Paul noticed subtle changes in her workplace relationships. She was left off an invitation to a birthday party. She showed up at the cafeteria where she'd often joined colleagues for meals to find no one there.
"Probably what hurt the most was that I had been left kind of alone," Paul said.
As transgender people come in from the social margins, they are increasingly coming out of the shadows at work. Employers are facing the challenge of guiding the transition not only of their transgender employees but also of co-workers and clients who must adapt.
Corporate America has recently made progress toward transgender-inclusive workplaces. Three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies have gender identity protections, according to the Human Rights Campaign's latest Corporate Equality Index, released in November, compared with just 3 percent when it started the report in 2002. Forty percent of employers have at least one plan that covers hormone replacement therapy; in 2002, it was zero.
But it's one thing to have policies. It's another to have a plan to address the nuances of a delicate journey many people struggle to understand.
"Just because the laws have changed doesn't mean everybody has changed," said Barbra McCoy Getz, a Chicago-area licensed clinical social worker who specializes in transgender clients. "You have to be prepared because you don't know what you're going to get."
Others have had a smoother time.
When Chloe, a copywriter at Leo Burnett, recently returned to work after a long break, her co-workers greeted her with a surprise party. It was her first time at the office since they'd learned of her transition.
"It felt like completion, the last part of a long journey," said Chloe, 32, who asked that her last name not be published to protect her family. She appreciated the party because she could see everyone at once and get on with her workday.
A native of Texas, which doesn't have gender identity protections, Chloe said she had been "terrified my whole life" of coming out. Even though she knew Illinois and Leo Burnett have inclusive policies, she worried that transitioning could damage her career or distract from the reputation she'd built.
But it "couldn't have gone better," she said.
Transgender people, who for years felt left behind as the gay rights movement marched ahead, have begun to glimpse an inclusive society.
Last year alone, the Pentagon announced it would repeal a ban on transgender troops serving in the military. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed a policy to forbid insurers from denying transgender patients transition-related health care.