Conversations are key to breaking binary barriers for identity

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Kevin Perry thought he had a strong understanding of LGBT issues and relations. The global process manager at Google had volunteered in an LGBT resource group, and even helped to launch an ally program for friends of the LGBT community.

But it wasn’t until Perry met Marnie Florin that he realized despite all of his experience with LGBT issues — both personal and professional — he still didn’t have a true understanding of gender identity.

Florin identifies as transgender, gender neutral, non-binary, and prefers to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. For Perry, the vocabulary adjustment proved to be a challenge — and a valuable learning experience.

“I realized that as someone even in that LGBT umbrella, there was a lot that I still had to learn about the transgender experience,” Perry said on the latest episode of One World Identity’s State of Identity podcast, where the two told their stories.

Together, Florin and Perry created the Transgender @ Google training session, a program that has since expanded beyond the search giant to other Fortune 500 companies. They’ve even led sessions at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Despite both of their backgrounds in finance, the success of the Transgender @ Google program doesn’t hinge on any algorithms or advanced training methods. They say it really just boils down to having a conversation, learning from people who are different from you, and hearing about their experiences.

“I view what we do as really just providing some sort of space for dialogue — a space for people to have conversations,” Perry said. “The same model could work for any sort of diversity group.”

For Florin, the lack of understanding of transgender issues became apparent in college at Columbia, when they came out as gender neutral, non-binary. Most of their peers didn’t even know what the word transgender meant, let alone grasp the concept of gender neutral.

“They had a lot of questions,” Florin said. “They just didn’t understand.”

And so Florin set out to answer those questions, putting together a “trans 101” class at Columbia. After an enthusiastic response, the class caught on, and as of today it is still offered at the university every year.

And though he is a member of the LGBT community, Perry had something in common with Florin’s peers at Columbia — he didn’t truly, fully understand things from their perspective. When they first met, he too struggled with modifying his verbiage to respect the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

They can laugh about it now, but it was an understanding achieved only after the two listened and learned from each other, with just a simple, open-minded conversation.

For more, hear Florin and Perry talk with One World Identity’s Cameron D’Ambrosi on this week’s State of Identity podcast, and subscribe to the show on iTunes.