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A Fortune 500 company faces backlash for supporting its transgender employees. Its CEO has a message: ‘Good luck using somebody else’s product’

Jessica Darke recently relocated to Connecticut from Arizona, where gender-affirming care has been restricted for minors and transgender athletes are barred from competing in some school sports. As a trans woman, Darke feared for her safety, well-being, and future access to necessary health care. So she opted to uproot herself, and her employer’s relocation benefits helped her absorb the costs of a 2,500-mile move to the opposite corner of the country.

It wasn’t the first time Darke found support from her employer. Darke is a senior product manager for security research and development at Intuit, the Fortune 500 financial software company behind TurboTax, Mint, QuickBooks, Credit Karma, and Mailchimp. She came out as a trans woman about ten years ago, one of the first to do so at the company, which employs more than 17,300 people in the U.S. Since coming out, Darke has become a co-chair of the global pride employee resource group; she also helped form the company’s Trans Advisory Board to represent approximately 120 employees at Intuit who are trans, nonbinary, or have trans-identifying family members.

“Since I came out, I have felt nothing but support from our HR and our benefits and our people’s team,” Darke said. “But that support has only grown and the community that is supporting people like me and the families like ours, in this company is real.”

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A conservative push to curb trans rights and access to health care is threatening trans people across the country, inflicting stress that Darke calls “unbearable.” While many efforts have targeted trans youth, a bill in Florida has impacted trans adults’ access to care. Other bills that would do the same have been introduced in Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. These treatments, which include hormone treatments and gender-confirmation surgeries, are supported by major medical associations such as the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.

Several Fortune 500 companies have publicly expressed support for their trans employees in the past–and some now offer to pay travel costs for employees who need to go out-of-state to avoid bans on gender-affirming care. (Many have put similar plans in place for employees who need abortions.) But despite the imminent impact on employees and their families, many companies have stayed out of the public conversation about the new anti-trans legislation. Fortune reached out to Amazon, Target, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, and Intuit, all of which have previously committed to covering gender-affirming care.

Target, which has been criticized by the LGBTQ community for retreating in the face of right-wing backlash, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Microsoft declined to comment. Morgan Stanley said it did not want to comment on an issue that relates to pending legislation. Amazon responded with general statements about the company’s dedication to offering benefits that fit employees’ needs but declined to elaborate on trans-specific benefits.

Intuit, on the other hand, had lots to share and discussed the company’s approach at length.

With initiatives ranging from covering vital health care costs to engaging with national trans rights advocacy groups, Intuit has emerged as a leading example of how companies can support trans employees. Its employees say that leadership’s engagement, willingness to listen, and proactive partnerships with activism groups help them feel secure at work at a time when they feel under public attack.

The CEO embraces the Trans Summit

Darke and other Intuit employees emphasized that the leadership team at Intuit has made an intentional effort to listen to the trans community at the company.

It all started when the company hosted its first Trans Summit. About a year after Tanner Arnold, a program manager for QuickBooks payroll, came out at Intuit, he started talking with other trans coworkers about the challenges in transitioning at work, from name changes in the company’s systems to health care coverage. When the company’s then-head of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Scott Beth, heard about these issues, he suggested the company hold a summit.

The first Trans Summit hosted nearly 150 people in January 2020. Darke and Arnold were among a handful of employees who led the event and became what is now known as the Trans Advisory Board.

Sasan Goodarzi, president and chief executive officer of Intuit Inc., smiles during a Bloomberg Television interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. Intuit — the software giant behind TurboTax — said Monday it’s buying Credit Karma for about $7.1 billion in cash and stock. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After the summit, Beth facilitated a meeting with the Trans Advisory Board and top executives, including CEO Sasan Goodarzi, so that the trans employees could reiterate some of the challenges they were facing. “Our instruction was to let loose, tell them everything that’s been difficult. And so we did,” Arnold said. “And they just took notes. They didn’t try to show how that wasn’t true, or they didn’t try to say ‘but, but, but.’ They just listened.”

What was more surprising, Arnold said, was that the company followed through on making some changes, even as the world was being upended around them by COVID-19. By June of 2020, new benefits for trans and LGBTQ employees had been expanded, including coverage of the gender-affirming care that some states are now attempting to ban.

The meeting after the Trans Summit was the beginning of a formal back-and-forth between the Trans Advisory Board and human resources that has evolved into a mutual trust to work through issues as they arise. Leadership’s ongoing attention to the matter has relieved the trans community of the burden of taking the initiative to raise issues.

“The coolest thing is, we don’t have to have regular conversations anymore because it’s just part of the thought process to go into anything now,” Arnold said, noting that product teams have come to the Trans Advisory Board in the past to ask how they could make language in their products more gender inclusive. “When it comes to trans issues, they’re coming to us.”

Arnold and Darke say that the company’s motivation to help comes from the top.

CEO Goodarzi has remained involved in the Trans Summit (now known as the Trans+ Summit), which current chief DEI officer Humera Shahid says is the only one of its kind held by a big tech company. For the 2023 summit, Goodzari tuned in remotely for a fireside chat with his adult child Aryana Goodarzi, who uses they/she pronouns and identifies as gay; the two discussed Aryana’s coming out journey together.

Sasan Goodarzi told the audience that Intuit, like many other corporations that celebrate Pride month and recognize LGBTQ+ customers and employees, receives a lot of backlash for its stance on inclusivity. In fact, he said, he receives emails directly from angry people who threaten to take their business elsewhere. But he doesn’t back down.

“I respond to every customer, letting them know that this is who we are, this is what we stand for,” he said at the summit. “And perhaps you should change who you are. Good luck using somebody else’s product.”

Finding partners and advocates

In 2022, Intuit donated $500,000 to the National Center of Transgender Equality, an advocacy group working to change policy and society to advance trans equality. Intuit is also a member of America Competes, a coalition of 40 businesses making the case that the anti-LGBTQ laws being passed around the country are bad for businesses.

Protecting employees from the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation, however, is not as simple as donating to an advocacy group. Some bills introduced in state legislatures aim to ban gender-affirming care for people up to age 26. Others threaten to ban insurance companies from covering such procedures for people of any age. As the bills continue to expand beyond bans for trans youth, companies with national or remote workforces will have to address how this impacts employees and their families.

Shahid said that Intuit is not making any sweeping policy changes in response to the legislation. The insurance that Intuit provides its employees is a national plan that might cover travel costs for care if a service is not provided in a certain state. Shahid said in cases where the employee still needs support in getting access to care, Intuit will assess the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Still, the partnerships with advocacy groups are meaningful to Darke and Arnold. They both praised GenderCool, a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to educate and advance trans rights through youth storytelling.

Intuit has invited the organization and its youth “champions” to speak at the first two Trans Summit events. Intuit also piloted GenderCool’s reverse mentorship program, where company executives spend time with trans youth over the course of a month. The program is designed to help company leaders learn from young people to better understand the increasingly gender-fluid Gen Z entering the workforce.

GenderCool cofounder Gearah Goldstein considers Intuit a leader in corporate support for trans employees. “Intuit is part of a core group that early on in our organization’s founding was interested in engaging with us to lift up trans voices in their own companies, but they also went out of their way to help us,” she said.

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The anti-LGBTQ laws are putting companies in a difficult position that could soon force action beyond partnering with these groups or issuing public statements.

Christy Mallory, the legal director at UCLA’s William Institute researching gender policy law, said that this moment compares to the difficulty companies faced before gay marriage was legal. She said that Intuit’s strategy to make decisions on an individual basis rather than instituting a company-wide policy can be costly, and the anti-LGBTQ push overall can make recruiting difficult.

“Imagine a straight, cisgender couple with a transgender child. It’s going to be hard to get those parents to come work in Florida,” Mallory said. “So the implications are actually really broad when you kind of think about all the different ways that employees interact with their companies.”

Darke and Arnold recognize that it has not been all perfect at Intuit, but they have trust in the company to deal with issues as best as they can when they arise.

In the face of numerous attacks, they feel there could always be more to do to fight back. When another piece of legislation passes or a governor issues an executive order, Darke finds herself racing to check Intuit’s Slack channel for trans employees and their families to see who might live in that state, reminding them to reach out to HR to talk through options. It is her way of feeling like she is doing something.

“I don’t know what can be done, other than to keep doing what we’re doing. So, would I love to see more? Yes. Do I know what it looks like? No,” Darke said. “So I just want us to keep fighting, and keep doing what’s right by our people, making sure other people know that we are a safe place to come to. That’s the thing that I can ask.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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