More companies covering transgender surgery

List expected to grow as HRC adds benefit to Corporate Equality Index

LISA LEFF | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — When Gina Duncan decided to undergo the medical treatment that would make her a woman, she had plenty to fear. The reactions of her children, her professional colleagues and friends. How her body would respond to hours on the operating table. If, at the end of it, she would look female enough so strangers wouldn’t gawk.

What the Orlando mortgage banker didn’t have to be anxious about was how she would pay for two of her surgeries. Her employer of 10 years, Wells Fargo, included breast augmentation and genital reconstruction as coverable expenses under its employee health plan. Duncan was told the San Francisco-based bank already had had 16 other employees transition to new genders and assigned a benefits specialist to walk her through the process.

“They had a template in place, and it was surprisingly supporting and mentally encouraging,” said Duncan, 55, who four years later still works for Wells Fargo. “So much of what I’d heard involved people who ended up losing their job, losing their family, losing their friends, becoming destitute.”

With little fanfare, more and more large corporations, including Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup and Walt Disney, have expanded their insurance coverage to meet the needs of transgender workers. The trend follows a concerted push by transgender rights advocates to get employers and insurers to see sex reassignment the way the American Medical Association does — as a medically indicated rather than an optional procedure.

“We understand people simply get appendicitis, and it is something our community deals with through insurance,” said Andre Wilson, who counsels companies on transgender issues as a senior consultant with San Francisco-based Jamison Green & Associates. “That’s what we need to understand about transsexualism. Not everybody will be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, and in fact, few people will be. But the people who are diagnosed with it really need treatment.”

Among the corporations providing transgender-inclusive health benefits are some leading Wall Street and Main Street brands.

American Express, Kraft Foods, AT&T, Yahoo!, Eastman Kodak, Sears, Morgan Stanley, Price Waterhouse, General Motors and State Farm are among 85 large businesses and law firms that cover the cost of at least one surgery, according to a 2010 survey by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group.

The number is expected to spike this year, when HRC adds availability of surgery-inclusive medical benefits for transgender employees or transgender dependents to the criteria in its annual corporate diversity report card.

To maintain the coveted 100 percent rating when the next Corporate Equality Index is published in the fall, companies will have to offer at least one insurance plan that covers at least $75,000 worth of surgery and other treatments recommended by a patient’s doctor.

“A lot of people are pretty surprised that alongside the cosmetic and experimental treatments that are excluded from mainstream plans, you can see very broad exclusions related to transgender care,” said Deena Fidas, associate director of HRC’s Workplace Project. “In raising the bar…we are addressing the root cause of the problem.”

Stephanie Battaglino, an assistant vice president at New York Life Insurance, has been working with a senior executive at her company to add transgender health benefits to the employee insurance plan. Battaglino, 52, started her transition five years ago, becoming the first New York Life employee to do so openly. To finance her surgeries, which were on a list of procedures not covered by insurance, she borrowed from her retirement account.

“I’ve often said to friends, ‘My transition at work went really, really smoothly, and if I had to do it again, the only thing I would change would be if I had my surgery covered,”’ she said. “To know it was covered and completely reimbursed would have cast everything in a much different light.”

New York Life has been open to the changes and expects to have the expanded coverage in place soon, Battaglino said. But that doesn’t mean the learning curve has been easy to negotiate.

The company initially was uncomfortable agreeing to $75,000 of allowable coverage, she said. But she said that concern was alleviated when it was explained that only two or three employees would likely need the benefits.

“The big misconception is we are going to go broke and all these transgender people are going to come out of the woodwork asking for gender reassignment surgery,” she said.

Some businesses see covering the cost of transgender surgery as not only an important human resources statement, but good business sense.

“Wells Fargo elected to offer this benefit to be competitive as an employer and also to support our comprehensive corporate commitment to diversity,” company spokesman Mary Eshet said.

Joanne Herman, the author of Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not, said both corporate America and insurers need to understand that genital surgery is not the be-all and end-all in making a person’s appearance match the way he or she feels inside.

For men becoming women, undergoing facial reconstruction may be even more important because it will affect how they are perceived and treated in public, Herman said. The same is true for female-to-male transsexuals and breast surgery. Yet standard insurance plans typically dismiss both as cosmetic, even though people with untreated Gender Identity Disorder are at high risk of suicide and those who get treatment become better workers.

“If you are transsexual, living as anything other than that is a very bleak experience. It’s amazing how much happier I am, how much more productive, social and involved I am as Joanne,” she said.

—  John Wright

DART board approves trans protections

Advocates pledge to keep working with board to improve wording in non-discrimination policy

John Wright  |  Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

DART board a standing
STANDING UP FOR EQUALITY | Spectators give the DART board a standing ovation on Tuesday, June 22, after the board voted unanimously to adopt a policy change extending nondiscrimination protections to its transgender workers. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

After removing a one-word amendment that would have gutted the proposal, Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Board of Directors voted unanimously Tuesday, June 22, to add transgender protections to the agency’s employment nondiscrimination policy.

The vote came after about 10 LGBT leaders addressed the DART board, with dozens more looking on from the audience in the local community’s largest turnout for a public meeting since Fort Worth City Council meetings held in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid last year.

LGBT speakers demanded that the DART board approve the new policy after removing the amendment, which consisted of the word “except” and was added a week earlier in an apparent attempt by some DART officials to dilute the proposed trans protections.

“A word is standing between us, and the word is ‘except,’” Stonewall Democrats of Dallas President Erin Moore told the DART board, adding that everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity. “All of these things also include you. Why not include us?”

Following the 30-minute public comment period, DART board member William Tsao of Dallas made a motion to approve the policy, minus the one-word amendment. “It is the intention of the DART board to make clear that its policy unequivocally prohibits any discrimination against persons based on their gender identity or gender expression,” Tsao said in making his motion, which was seconded by board member Faye Wilkins of Dallas.

The board’s unanimous vote in favor of Tsao’s motion drew a standing ovation from the audience. Two DART board members who voted against trans protections last week, Scott Carlson of Dallas and Mark Enoch of Rowlett, were absent from this week’s meeting.

DART board member Claude Williams of Dallas, an LGBT ally who’s accused the agency’s attorneys of duping the board into the amendment, said later he was “thrilled and overjoyed” with this week’s corrective vote. “It’s been a humungous effort,” Williams said.

Board member Loretta Ellerbe of Plano said she supported the addition of trans protections all along. “It was the right thing to do,” she said after the meeting.

Ray Noah, who proposed the one-word amendment last week, denied that he intended to gut the trans protections, saying he just thought the language of the policy was confusing.

“I didn’t think it was clear enough,” he said.

Noah acknowledged he told The Dallas Morning News he believes DART should retain the right to discriminate in some cases. Noah also denied opposing the addition of sexual orientation to DART’s nondiscrimination policy in 1995, despite clear evidence that he vocally did so.

Tuesday’s vote capped a months-long process that began in February when Dallas Voice reported on alleged discrimination by DART against a transgender bus driver. The proposal to add trans protections, spearheaded by officials at Resource Center Dallas, cleared one DART committee unanimously in April.

In late May, the DART board’s Committee of the Whole tabled the proposal to seek more information about the definition of gender identity, which they later said the agency’s attorneys were unable to provide.

Finally, following a 30-minute closed-door session on June 15, the board hastily amended the proposal to say the agency wouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, “except to the extent permitted by federal and/or Texas law.”

Because there are no state or federal protections for LGBT workers, legal experts said this amendment would have effectively gutted the trans protections — and rescinded the sexual orientation protections from 15 years ago.

Even after Tuesday’s removal of the word “except,” some said they still had concerns about the final language. Resource Center officials said they intend to work with DART on rewording the policy, in addition to discussing its implementation in the form of diversity training.

Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal in Dallas, said the language of the policy is not ideal but that the removal of the word “except” remedied his main concern.

“It now basically says unless federal or state law prohibits them from doing so —which they do not — their policy is not to discriminate because of any of the enumerated characteristics or identity traits,” Upton said. “Could you improve it? Yes, but it is still a win that was worth fighting for.” To watch video, go to http://tinyurl.com/2e384vm This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 25, 2010.

—  Dallasvoice