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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Paige Dula had crafted a meticulous plan at work for her gender transition.

She was going to shave her shaggy beard and grow out her hair. Then, she would start taking hormones, and, over a year later, finally begin presenting as a woman, at her IT job at the corporate headquarters for her Charlotte company.

But after a co-worker saw her outside the office, she was outed to the rest of the company six months early. On her first day wearing feminine clothes to her office, a group stared out the window as she walked back to her car.

"I was a wreck. I was a total mess. I didn't know what to do," Dula said. "And yet for all the stares and fear underlying that, it was still one of the most freeing days of my life."

After HR got complaints from some coworkers about her use of the women's bathroom, she had to take an elevator three stories and walk past the executives to reach the only gender-neutral facility in the building. One coworker walked in the opposite direction every time they were in the hallway together, and another called her "it" behind her back.

Dula believes she likely would have been fired, she said, had the company's corporate lawyer not had a transgender child themselves, she said.

Experiences like hers in 2008 underscore the challenges that transgender employees face in the workplace, where advocates say individuals who fall outside the traditional gender binary can be subject to heightened discrimination.

Those challenges were also the driving force behind a job fair hosted earlier this summer by Charlotte Pride and Bank of America.

The job fair, at Goodwill Opportunity Campus in west Charlotte, drew a crowd of 60 trans and gender-queer individuals and recruiters from about a dozen companies that market themselves as trans-inclusive - from American Airlines to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"Having the ability to come to work as your true self is already a huge advantage," said Jenny Gunn, a board member of Charlotte Trans Pride. "It's a safety issue, it's a health issue ... . The parties are fun, but any Pride's activism has to create opportunities like this."

The Williams Institute estimates that over 1 million transgender people are employed in offices across the country.

Yet 90% of them said they experienced harassment due to their gender identity or gender expression, according to a survey of tens of thousands of people conducted by the Center for Transgender Equality, while one-third say they have been fired.

In North Carolina, the unemployment rate for transgender individuals was double the rate for the entire population - in large part, advocates say, because of the discrimination and other barriers they may face while on the job.

President Donald Trump's administration has pushed for a rollback in protections for transgender individuals, including a ban on their service in the military and the revocation of a policy that allows students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity in public schools.

That has created some fresh wounds for the LGBTQ community across North Carolina, where the state legislature three years ago prohibited cities from barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation - in response to an effort in Charlotte to do exactly that.

Although a long-running legal battle on the law was recently settled, transgender employees in North Carolina can still be fired because of their gender identity - much like Dula almost had.

Some companies aren't waiting for laws to change: Many of the job fair attendees interviewed by The Charlotte Observer said they had experienced positive support from employers in Charlotte, from a local Starbucks to the Myers Park Country Club.

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But attendees coming from further away said the climate can be more hostile than in progressive Mecklenburg County. At least one job candidate believed they had been fired from a hospital in North Carolina because of their gender identity.

Another attendee, Lilith K., said she would never be open about her gender identity at her construction job in the suburbs. She identifies as a demigirl, or partially but not wholly a woman.

"It's constantly dehumanizing," said Lilith, who declined to provide her last name out of safety concerns. Her boss has repeatedly made trans-phobic comments about other people, and she fears she would be fired - not just uncomfortable - if she did come out.

Erin Barbee, of the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said that adopting trans-inclusive policies isn't just good for employees. It's also good business, she said.

"If there's an organization that shows they're inclusive, they're going to have a reach that the next guy is not going to get," she said. "If they say, 'Yes, we stand for trans rights,' they're going to get trans banking."

Barbee said that process can look different in corporate and small business settings. Larger companies may have more resources to ensure the entire institution - and its policies - becomes inclusive, but changing the culture may be easier with only a few employees. She said that change is ultimately what matters.

"You can say you're an inclusive organization, but that has to filter down to every single level," Barbee said. "Until that part is done, you haven't done all the work you need to do to be truly inclusive."

What makes for a trans-inclusive workplace?

Gunn said a trans-inclusive workplace is not only one that would allow someone to keep their job, but one that would provide more support: health coverage for medical procedures like gender reassignment surgery, an affinity or support group for LGBTQ individuals, gender-neutral bathrooms and sensitivity training for colleagues and supervisors.

Five large Charlotte-area employers surveyed by the Observer - Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Atrium Health, Novant Health and Lowe's - all said that they include job protections on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. (A sixth, Duke Energy, did not respond to a request for comment.)

But they differed on the other fronts, down to the details of their health plans: Some of them only cover gender reassignment surgery in their health plans while others also cover more specific processes like facial feminization. The same team at Bank of America that offers support for employees grieving a loss in the family also works with those who are about to transition.

That environment was a big selling point for Dula, who eventually left Rack Room for a contract position at Bank of America, where she worked her way up to become a vice president overseeing audit automation.

At first, she debated whether to be open in her new workplace. But she ended up joining the bank's support group for LGBTQ employees, and then attending a conference on being transgender at work, which she used to come out to her boss.

Now, she has appeared on panels with executives about the issue. And she's working to encourage everyone in the company to include their pronouns in their email signatures. This visibility, she said, is why and how she thinks Bank of America has taken such a strong stance on transgender inclusion.

"What helped them do that as a company is employees who are out and visible within the workplace," she said. "We're real now. We're not this hypothetical. They can put a face to this issue."

Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at www.charlotteobserver.com

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