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A Conversation With Carmen Campbell, GE’s Transgender Advocate for Europe

June 24, 2021 | by Emma Powell
They say it’s easy to stand with the crowd but it takes courage to stand alone. This Pride Month, the GE Aviation blog celebrates Carmen Campbell, the first person to ever transition at GE’s Grand Rapids, Michigan, site and now GE’s Transgender Advocate for Europe.

Campbell, originally from the US, is an advanced lead systems engineer based in the Cheltenham, UK Power Distribution & Controls business. She is passionate about using her experiences to help cultivate a safe and supportive workplace for her transgender colleagues.

What does a transgender advocate do?

This role sits within the transgender advocacy group, which is part of GE’s Pride Alliance. We run education sessions, work with GE to develop policies around transitioning, and provide support for transgender people within the business. The role is relatively fluid and it’s important to note that we are a resource for everyone at GE, transgender or not.

One of the areas I’m most proud of is the work we have done on the GE transition toolkit, which summarizes GE policies, provides helpful suggestions (like how to develop a communications plan), goes in to site specifics like bathroom usage, and lists who to contact for further support.

When I transitioned in Grand Rapids, this toolkit was owned by a GE business rather than by Corporate and multiple versions existed. Now, the toolkit exists in a single, definitive version and is hosted centrally so all the GE businesses can access it.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of coming out or transitioning in the workplace?

The best piece of advice I could give is to start small — find that one person who you can confide in and trust. For me, that was my line manager, her support was second to none. She helped me navigate all the HR processes and communicate my news to the wider local team and this ultimately gave me the confidence to start sharing my news with the wider global teams and our customers. I can’t speak on behalf of other businesses but, in terms of my experience at GE, I quickly learned that there was nothing to be afraid of. Everyone within GE is counseled on treating their colleagues with respect and decency.

What are your thoughts on Pride Month?

I think it depends on what you do with it. If you’re using Pride Month to focus the mind on outreach and education then I’m all for it, but I don’t agree with attempts to capitalize on its media worthiness if those businesses are not also taking an inwards look at their organization and what they could do better for their LGBTQAI+ community.

Generally, there needs to be more social responsibility and accountability across the board, and Pride Month can help shine a light on that need. That’s not to say there hasn’t been some progress but there’s still an awful lot to do to tackle inertia. A mindset change is required and, for that, we need to be having more transparent conversations with our colleagues, leaders and HR departments.

We’re lucky at GE to have a very active global Pride Alliance. I’ve been involved in the Alliance for many years and it does some great work raising the profile of GE’s LGBTQAI+ community throughout the year. Pride Month can be a powerful platform if used correctly but it is just once a year – whereas the Pride Alliance looks to inform, educate, raise awareness, and support its colleagues 365 days a year.

What has your experience of transitioning been like at GE?

As the first person to transition on the job at our Grand Rapids site, I would say HR and my manager were incredibly supportive - but there was also uncertainty. There was confusion from my colleagues about how they needed to act around me and what GE’s policies were. It doesn’t mean the experience was bad – it was just that the site had never had to deal with this before.

That being said, the business adapted very quickly. It switched my name and pronouns immediately and I have had some very positive experiences at Grand Rapids, Cheltenham and across the other global Systems sites.

GE Aviation supports its trans community and its policies reflect that, so I’m proud to work here. However, my advice to them would be not to rest on what they've achieved so far. Being a global business brings with it many complexities as the rights affecting LGBTQAI+ people can vary greatly by country and jurisdiction, but that doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t look to be have more transparent and consistent policies across their sites so that trans people are treated more equally across the board. From what I’ve heard GE is much better than a lot of its peers but it needs to build on the progress its made to become a true leader in this space.

You say your colleagues have been very supportive but what could we all do to become better allies?

In my experience people are very supportive but, equally, they are often non-vocal on the subject. We need to normalize LGBTQ+ by talking more transparently and engaging on the issues that are important to these different communities.

So if you witness people receiving negative comments for their gender presentation or appearance, for example, call it out. People will only begin to change if they’re held accountable for what they say or do.

In a way, Pride Month should be a cause for self-reflection. How could we all do better? How do we personally contribute to a better society? And how do we use our upcoming return to the office in this post-pandemic world to make some positive changes to our way of working?

What do you think about the progress that's been made with transgender rights?

There has been some progress in the last 20 years, most notably the step change in legal representation. Gender reassignment became a protected characteristic under the UK’s Equality Act 2005, for example, and it was stipulated that people should be treated in accordance with their acquired gender.

However, I do think we’ve casually been sliding backwards since then. Certain groups, individuals and media outlets have been chipping away at the trans community, trying to roll back the trans rights that we’ve fought so hard for. Indifference can also be an issue.

LGBTQAI+ people are a minority. But celebrations like Pride Month can provide a welcome opportunity for our allies to show their support, observe, listen, and be educated – and its only by engaging the majority that we can truly begin to make a difference. Otherwise we’re just screaming into a void.

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