Ep 14: Ascend Together for Trans Inclusion

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“Using the right pronouns is not about being nice, it’s about keeping people alive,” says @Dani Gomez-Ortega in our latest podcast episode. Dani, who is transgender and uses the pronouns she/her, talks to us about her own personal journey, and how we can equip our workplaces to be more inclusive. As Senior Manager of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at @Loblaw, she also gives us a primer on language to help us be better allies to the trans community.


Varun: We live in a world where every voice is unique, the Ascend Together podcast taps into these voices in open dialogues that cover personal and professional journeys, the power of human potential, and emerging trends and ideas within our communities. I’m your host, Varun Chandrasekar. And today we’re going to be speaking with Dani Gomez-Ortega, a diversity and inclusion leader with a passion for empowering others to create more inclusive spaces.

As a senior manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Loblaw Companies Limited, she leads initiatives that removes barriers to success for over 200,000 employees across Canada. Dani has had a number of leadership roles in community organizations like PrideHouseTO, Toronto PFLAG, and Out and Out Toronto.

Her contributions have been recognized through various awards, including the Bill 7 Award, Toronto Metropolitan University Student Leadership Award, and most recently, the Janice Waddell Collegiality Award. She also sits on the board of directors for Dignity Network Canada, an organization that advocates for the rights of 2SLGBTQ+ people globally.

Thanks for being on the show, Dani.

Dani: Thank you for having me, Varun. I really, really, really appreciate being here. And I know that this is a platform where you can reach a lot of people. Thank you so much for offering and inviting me here.

Varun: To start us off. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey?

Dani: Yeah. I came to Canada when I was 11 with my family, like many immigrant families, because things were just not good in Venezuela when I left. And when I got here, I experienced the things that a lot of new immigrant families experienced, poverty, not knowing English. My house was a single income household. And my dad was working a lot of minimum wage jobs for the whole family. It was tough. But as I was growing up, like because of these identities, I felt like, it also forced me to reside on different opportunities. I remember applying for jobs in the front, but because I wasn’t from here, I actually got jobs that were more in the background or folding towels and stuff like that because of my accent, because of the way I looked.

And that’s when it comes to my immigrant experience, that’s part of it. I also in my like journey to getting to know myself, I was deeply impacted by my visible disability as well. I have ADHD. And with that, I always struggle learning and I was a bit slow and it took me longer to copy things from the board and to do my homework. And that got me punished and people thought I just wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t interested. But I was really, really, really trying. For me, I think it’s important to acknowledge that diversity, equity and inclusion is deeply personal.

The reason why people choose this career is typically, because they themselves were excluded at some point in their life. And that applies to me too. I am an immigrant to Canada. I am from South America and I am a transgender woman. I also have an invisible disability. For a very, very long time, I struggled accepting different parts of myself and I struggled being accepted. And so when I chose this career, it was really about helping and ensuring that others didn’t feel as excluded as I did.

Varun: Wow. What an incredible journey. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your various identities as an immigrant, a trans person with an invisible disability. If I may ask how have these identities played into your life and your career experiences?

Dani: It honestly like being part of these communities that have been and continue to be excluded, it honestly feels like a small miracle being in this role. And I feel like a lot of people took chances on me, even though they learned that people like me perhaps didn’t deserve a chance. Because I get it, right? When we are young, we’re told like different is bad and be like everybody else. And if that person looks different than you, maybe they don’t belong where you belong. We all have those messages. It’s taken a lot of people almost like denying that part of themselves that tells them that messaging. And really like, give me a chance, even though I may not look like everybody else and may not sound like everybody else. And I may not officially fit in based on their experience, but they saw that is every chance.

I really do feel like this is a small miracle and it’s also good to acknowledge too, that just because I’m in this senior role in this organization doesn’t mean that things are now easy for other trans people and people with invisible disabilities and immigrants, things are still rough. It’s also important to acknowledge that representation does not equal justice or liberation. Things are still pretty rough out there. Even though like, it feels like I climbed a mountain. I know that there’s still so much work to be done, which for me is like a fuel to try harder to change the world so everybody else has the same chances that I did.

Varun: There’s so much work to be done. And it is your fuel to change the world. That is so inspiring. I love that. When did you start feeling you were being excluded in and excluded as a result of your identity?

Dani: I think for me, it started from when I was young. I think that the moment I started feeling excluded and just so people know, most people know they’re trans before the age of 12, about 80%. And that applied to me too. And so at the same time that I started feeling excluded, I almost had this awareness that I could help others not feel that. And so since the moment, I was young, I was helping teachers. And when I got to university and left high school was kind of like the first time where I was actually like, okay, being a little more visible. And that’s when I started slowly coming out and embracing the things that made me different. And it was really the time that I started seeking support. And once I got the support that I needed, for example, in the community, I was like, “Maybe I can also give support.”

It really was through that accepting myself that I thought maybe I could help others accept themselves and I could help others navigate the world. And so it was really that time that I started joining different organizations, first to seek support and then to provide support. And so my work in this space started in community. It started supporting LGBT people through the coming out process. And after that, I got the opportunities to highlight inclusion in sport. And so through university and after I think that’s where I got most of my experience in DEI. And I think that’s deeply impacted my approach to this work. Because I recognize that when it comes to DEI and I think an old understanding is that it’s only HR and it’s only done by HR people, but it’s actually done by everyone. Diversity, equity and inclusion can and should be done by everyone. Otherwise, it won’t have the impact that we wanted to have in our workplaces.

Varun: Thank you for highlighting that. It’s so important for people to know that diversity, equity and inclusion, isn’t just something that should be siloed to the HR function, but it’s something we all need to practice in our daily lives. Now I want to shift gears to dive a little bit deeper on the theme of our episode. Trans-inclusion. Why do we need to talk about trans-inclusion?

Dani: Trans-inclusion. I would say that it’s been a big focus on my work for the past while. And I would say that it’s been a focus because it has to be trans folk across Canada and across the world experience so much discrimination, so much discrimination. Many of them are being murdered every day across the world. They are fired from jobs, for being trans, even though on paper, the law’s supposed to protect them. I think, this is a community that is often not seen and many people across Canada may not even know that we exist. And so a big part for me is about number one, bringing visibility to this saying like, “We exist.” But also we need more understanding because we are dying and people are harming us, even though they don’t mean to. And so I think that there just needs to be increased visibility and I’m happy to bring that, especially knowing that I have platforms like this to bring that.

Varun: Thank you so much for sharing Dani. And so why is this conversation important when it comes to our workplaces?

Dani: Totally. And the reason the why is so important. Why should business talk about this? There’s so many reasons. The first one is like, as a business, my guess is that you want to reach customers of all genders and diversities. If let’s say you’re an organization that has national, like it has the national reach. That means that you want to reach all Canadians, not just cisgender Canadians. If you want to reach all Canadians, that includes trans-Canadians. That’s a really, really, really big one, a second reason why I think businesses should definitely pay attention to this topic is the prevalence. There’s a lot more of us out there than you might think. Research in the US shows that up to 12% of young people identify as transgender or non-binary.

That’s 12% of young people, so that’s not one or two or three people. That is thousands of people that could potentially be your customers. They are your employees, they are your colleagues. I think that’s a really, really, really big one as well. And I would say that, like, in terms of the why, like, if you don’t care about the business case for it, there’s like the people case, like people are transitioning every day in the workplace, in your businesses. It’s important to acknowledge that this is like, your business might be touching them at a really critical time in their life. And last one, at least it’s the law. It’s the law to be in tune with trans-inclusion. Because if you discriminate, even if you discriminate by accident, you may be financially liable. For example, like a few organizations in Canada have been fined money for constantly misgendering people after correcting others. It’s really, really important to know that like, if you’re not aware of this topic, it is a liability for your business and your business is bottom line.

Varun: I like the example of the microaggression you brought up at the end there – misgendering. What are some common challenges, the trans-community faces even in 2022?

Dani: Yeah. I’m really, really grateful. In Canada there’s been some really, really good research center on this and numbers to really back up our case and give us a better insight. The first one I would say that is documentation, documentation is a really big issue in our communities. Often our documentation does not match who we actually are. For example, my personal ID, it has my dead name. That’s the name that I was giving up birth that I no longer use. And so when I have to show my ID and where I look a little bit different, people think that I stole my ID or people don’t give me access to where I need to get access to, by showing my ID. And as you can imagine, that’s really uncomfortable and you might be thinking, “Well, why don’t you just change your ID?”

Think about changing your passport right now. It’s expensive, it’s cumbersome. And it is like an overwhelming process that not a lot of people had the access to. To documentation it’s a really, really, really big one. Another one is employment. A 2016 study from Ontario showed that the minimum income for Ontario transgender people was $15,000 a year. One five. That means that we’re not being hired even though 40% of us have degrees. We are fired for being trans, 32% of us felt that we have been rejected from a job because we were trans. And this is also a recruitment issue when it comes to the employment piece, 17% of us have turned down an offer because we felt a place wouldn’t be inclusive. And I have done that. I once turned down an offer because I knew that I wouldn’t be safe in that workplace.

It’s really preventing people from hiring the right people. There is a piece around healthcare. 40% of us with family doctors have been ridiculed, refused care, or subject to or dire discriminatory behavior. And when your employees get sick, where do you send them? To the doctor. When they are sick for a while, you tend send them to a doctor, to get a sick note. It’s important to be aware that a lot of us just can’t access a doctor. There’s a piece about safety in public, which is also really, really big. Because we experience so much violence, 70% of us… Actually, 70% of us have experienced harassment in the past five years, we are scared to be out in public. We are scared of being transit, we’re scared of being in stores and we might even avoid your business or your workplace.

Which is a really, really big issue for us like that fear that we’re constantly having. And to the point where even going to the washroom is an issue. I, for example, don’t know which washroom to go to, to the men’s washroom where I could experience violence or to the women’s washroom, where they could think that I am going to hurt them and they might call the police on me. That’s another big one. And it’s also important to acknowledge our relationship with the police, which is that about a quarter of us have been harassed by police in the past.

Like calling security on us, like you actually escalate the situation as opposed to helping it. And I would say like the last one at least is the interpersonal piece, because people don’t understand us, because people don’t know about us. Maybe 7% of us tell us that… Like 97% of us have heard that we’re not normal. We’ve been made fun of. And it’s also important to acknowledge that it’s not just us, that experience harassment and bullying. It’s our families too. 78% of us had our families embarrassed or ridiculed because they loved us. And so like all of these pieces, like whether we acknowledge it or not, impact our experience in the workplace and our experience out in the world. And there are things that people can do to bring those numbers down.

Varun: There’s so many powerful points in there. That’s stat around ‘97% people have heard that trans-people aren’t normal’ just goes to show the extent of the stigma this community faces. The issues around documentation can be so invalidating of their identity. I mean, I can’t imagine what that’s like…

Dani: Yeah. And what people don’t realize is they think, “Oh, using the right pronoun is political correct.” No, like when I get mis-gendered, when people call me, sir, it physically and emotionally hurts me. It is deeply, deeply painful because the rest of the world is already… It feels like it’s turned against me. This is another thing on top of that. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, like this work, even though it may seem really small and insignificant, like it’s not about being politically correct. It’s not even about being nice. When our community experience so much harassment and violence and discrimination that many of us are dying. And so this work and being inclusive really is about keeping people alive. And so when you respect somebody’s pronoun and when you respect their name and when you’re kind to trans people, you’re not just being nice to them or you’re not just being politically correct. You’re literally keeping them alive because we experience so much challenges everywhere else in the world.

Varun: That’s a great reframe. It isn’t about being politically correct, but keeping people alive. Many of the challenges you highlighted healthcare, housing are all basic rights that are being denied because of how a person identifies. My next question is around whether our workplaces are equipped to handle people who are transitioning or have transitioned.

Dani: I think there’s a long way to go. And based on my many conversations that I have with many different workplaces, I would say the organizations want to do the right thing, but they just don’t know where to start. And they are almost like… And they’re so afraid of doing the wrong thing, that they just don’t do anything at all. And I think like that’s where like the big gap is. Some of the things that I’ve noticed is things like, people don’t want to talk about pronouns because they feel uncomfortable talking about it. Even though pronouns is really important to talk about. And so what I think organizations need to acknowledge is that, like, we need to have these conversations, even if they’re not perfect. And even if you don’t use the perfect terminology, we need to have them. Otherwise, you’re allowing more harm to happen every single day.

And so some of the things that… Like the good things that I’ve noticed, and some of the best practices that I’ve noticed from different organizations, and there’s lots doing the right thing, by the way. One of the things that I’ve noticed that’s really good, is having guidelines on how to support people when they transition. I found that really, really like beneficial for everyone. Again, it removes that discomfort of not knowing what to do when somebody comes out and wants to transition in the workplace, having like a set of guidelines and like a map on what to do and what to say really helps. I’ve also seen organizations that have trans inclusive benefits. They include medication and surgeries that we need to be ourselves.

Other organizations have listening sessions where they listen to trans and LGBT and non-binary employees, and about to give them spaces to just like voice their needs and listen to those needs. Pronouns have been put in the system for a lot of organizations, chose a name. Where I work at right now, and Loblaw, there’s many places where my legal name doesn’t show because there really doesn’t need to show. There’s a lot of really, really good practices that people are doing. It’s just that organizations need to get started somewhere and then follow through because other organizations are doing the right thing. It’s just about getting started, even if it feels uncomfortable.

Varun: I want to shift the conversation to taking action. What can we do about it? How can we be more inclusive towards the trans-community – as individuals, but also collectively?

Dani: I think as for organizations it’s important to find the pain points, which is why it’s important to do research and talk to trans, non-binary people find the pain points of where people are getting stuck and then address them. If it’s an org… If you’re a part of a business organization that has to check ID, are people aware that their IDs are like… Are your employees aware that IDs might not match the way somebody looks at that particular moment? Just like that awareness. Washrooms, do people feel safe using the washroom and if they don’t are there all-gender washrooms that they can choose. There’s like just finding the pain points is really important. Education, and this is where it’s for other organizational and individual educating your teams and also educating your family, educating your friends about this, read the articles, share the articles with them.

I think that’s really, really, really important. It’s also important to recognize that we often assume people’s pronouns and that’s why we often get it wrong. Try not to assume people’s pronouns, but invite them to share their pronoun with you, just so to make sure. And if you’re not sure, something I like to tell people is, if you’re not sure about somebody’s pronoun, use they, them. They, them is good for everyone. Use they, them. And again, I want to say that this is about like reducing harm, recognizing that getting somebody’s pronoun wrong hurts, keep listening, keep learning about the challenges. And one thing that I want to just highlight and something that I love from the community center, the 519 that they release is that they talk about standing beside, in front of, and behind trans people.

Stand beside them, let them know that they’re not alone. Stand in front of them, let them know that like, you won’t allow harm to happen to them. Or if they’re receiving harm, like defend them and also stand behind them, like boost them. Praise them, like really recognize that they’re in the little parts of their life they may being excluded. Just like give them every boost that you can. There’s tons and like, if everybody does their part, those numbers are going to go down. That 97% of trans-people that have heard that they’re not normal. Those numbers are going to go down and the discrimination numbers are going to go down, but it really has to happen if everybody takes a part in it.

Varun: One of the things that stood out for me was when you said, how we not only needed to stand behind, but also stand in front of the community. Could you tell us more about what allyship looks like? How can we be better allies to the trans-community?

Dani: Sure. And I’m extremely lucky that I have a lot of amazing allies in my life. I have plenty of examples, but a couple to share is when I need to go to the washroom, my friends know how unsafe I might feel. They actually offer, “Dani, do you want us to come to the washroom with you?” And they keep me company in the washroom, that’s standing beside, it’s really important. If somebody gets the pronoun wrong, I have a colleague who messages me and they said, “Dani, I noticed that person got your pronoun wrong. Do you want me to speak with them? Or do you want me to speak up in the meeting when it happened?” Checking in with me, I found it really, really helpful. I remember in my last workplace, we were advocating for trans-inclusive benefits.

And people across the organization, when I voiced that this is something that I needed, they all emailed HR and senior leaders saying, “Hey, one of our… A lot of our people need this. We need to do this as an organization.” Standing behind like giving my voice a boost. There’s just lots. And it’s all really about saying, like, I really think it starts with like, “What do you need? How can I support you? What do you need from me?” And doing that. And all this stuff is not expensive. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it can have a lifesaving impact, and it has had a lifesaving impact on me.

Varun: Great examples. How about we do a trans 101 for people that might not be aware? What are some things everyone should be knowing?

Dani: Sure. Yeah. Trans 101. I love it. Let’s do it. Gender identity is a good one to begin with. And especially the distinction between gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity is your internal sense of self and the way you identify us. For me, gender entity is woman, and then the way I express my gender is I am wearing feminine clothes right now and makeup and hair. I know you can’t see me, but you have to trust me on this one. And so the biggest difference between the two or like, what you need to acknowledge is that there’s, some people identify as women that are like me. They like to wear makeup and stuff. There’s people identify as woman who might wear men’s clothes and who might actually look like your typical guy. And so that’s why it’s so important to not assume because you can’t know somebody’s gender or gender identity just by looking at them.

Again that means that you can’t know somebody’s pronoun just by looking at them. And which is why it’s so important to ask somebody, “Hey, what is your pronoun?” And a lot of people are uncomfortable asking for somebody’s pronoun. Never ask, “What are you?” That’s not appropriate. You can ask, “Hey, like, I want to make sure that I respect you. What is your pronoun?” And typically people there go like, “Huh? Why are you asking me that?” Or they might go, “Thank you so much for asking me that.” And I can guarantee you that it’s going to make a really big difference to a lot of people around you, so that’s one. Gender identity versus gender expression, and the importance of not assuming. Transgender, you might know. I am transgender. I am a transgender woman. When I was born, the doctor looked at me and said, “That’s a boy.” But actually he got it wrong because I identify as a woman that’s trans and transgender.

Typically, we say transgender and everybody else or transgender people and normal people, the normal people, they have a name and they are called cisgender. Cisgender are people like my mom, when she was born, the doctor said, “That’s a girl.” And he got it right. Because as far as I know, she identifies as a woman. And so it’s really important to use the appropriate language because when you actually say trans and normal people, you’re actually saying that we’re not normal and actually we’re all normal. We just named differently. Again that’s trans and cis or trans and cisgender. Another really good term to understand is gender spectrum. When we talk about the gender spectrum, we got to talk about the gender binary. When I was growing up, I was taught about two genders, man and woman, two that’s the binary, right? Man and woman.

Later, we started understanding gender differently. We started understanding gender as a spectrum. There’s men on one side woman in the other. And then there’s people somewhere in the middle of that, those people might call themselves non-binary, gender variants, gender queer. And that’s people that identify as a mix of men and women and somewhere in between or as something completely different than man and woman. It’s really good to know, number one, that the way that we’re understanding gender right now, but also that people identify as things other than man and woman. A lot of conversations have been happening lately around two spirit, which I think are also important to acknowledge in this conversation, even though it doesn’t completely align. When we talk about two spirit, we have to talk about the history of colonialism in the land that is now Canada, before European explorers got here.

There existed many, many, many Indigenous peoples with individual cultures. And many also had a different understanding of gender than we do right now. Many of them had different gender identities of the one that we have right now that might be a mixture of gender identities, sexuality and spirituality. Many of the people that were gender diverse were assigned as knowledge keepers or healers in the culture of many Indigenous peoples. However, when Europeans got here, they started to suppress this community and prescribe their understanding of gender onto these peoples. In the 90s, Indigenous peoples got together and they coined the term two spirit to acknowledge that those different gender identities exist. And also to give it a name themselves that we understand. And so when we talk about two-spirit, we’re actually talking about an umbrella term, for many of those different gender identities that may exist in the culture of Indigenous peoples.

And this is the second last term that I’m going to talk to you about, is dead naming. The name that my parents gave me when I was born, that’s my dead name because it is part of an identity that is now dead to me. And it is deeply painful when I hear it. And so it’s important to acknowledge that when for trans people and non-binary people seeing our dead name is painful, hearing our dead name is painful, which is why you also should never ask what somebody’s dead name is unless you’re actually need it for legal reasons. And then the last thing that I’m going to talk about is intersectionality. Intersectionality, is a term coined in the 80s, 90s, and it came from the Black feminist movement. And it really tries to explain the fact that people with disabilities, racialized people to us LGBTQ+ people, we don’t live in bubbles. Our identities actually connect and intersect. For example, for me there’s an overlap. I am a woman. I am transgender. I am an immigrant. And when those identities overlap, things make it harder for people. Why does this matter in this conversation specifically, for example, if you’re trans and a woman, you’re a lot more likely to experience violence. However, if you’re trans and you’re a woman and you’re Black, you’re going to experience a lot more violence and in fact, when you see trans women being killed, they’re often black and racialized women. Again, when those identities overlap and things get a lot tougher for us, and it’s good to acknowledge that.

Varun: Thank you for breaking all of that down. There’s so much food for thought in what you said and there are these tendencies to paint these things as new fads, but none of this is really new, It’s only now that we’re starting to take notice of them.

Dani: Totally. And I think it’s also important to acknowledge, that we’ve always been around. It’s just that before we may not have had the language for it, or we may not have been safe being visible. There’s always conversations around like, “Oh, there’s more trans people now than ever.” No, there’s more trans people that are comfortable being themselves now than ever or there’s a lot more trans people being visible now than ever. We’ve always been around, just been in the dark for our own safety. And it’s also important to acknowledge that when it comes to like, even under the setting of gender, it varies per culture. We talked about Indigenous peoples in India, for example, they have a third gender. It’s really… Our way is not the only way. There’s many cultures that understand gender differently. And so that means that there’s no like one unique understanding of gender and it’s good. It’s important to be flexible with that.

Varun: We’re coming to the end of our episode, Dani, any final thoughts you want to leave our listeners with?

Dani: Two thoughts, this conversation is uncomfortable. Because I am challenging a lot of your own beliefs. And so conversations that you have with other people about just inclusion in general and race and ability and all that they would likely be uncomfortable. If you heard everything until now, thank you for hanging in there and pushing through the discomfort, know the discomfort, it’s good for you. It means that you are unlearning something. Thank you for that. And also, I just want to say, share the knowledge, if there’s any tidbits here that you’ve learned, share them with you families, with your friends, keep that knowledge going. And last one but not least I would say, be intentionally inclusive. Really try to put this work into practice because if you’re not putting this work into practice, you might be doing harm even if it’s by accident. Please, please, please, think about what you learned from here and how about you can apply it to your day to day job because you could be saving lives just by being kind.

Varun: Those are some great words to end the episode. When I think about this podcast, I realize that it’s not just for our listeners, but also like for me to learn so much from people like you. It’s been a real pleasure and I’m sure our audiences will take a ton away from this episode as well. Thanks for listening to today’s episode, make sure you follow us on LinkedIn at Ascend Canada to join and engage with our community. If you liked our episode today, please leave us a review and rating on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Thanks again for tuning in and have a great day.

This transcript is auto-generated. Please excuse any errors.