You can grow your practice by serving trans clients.
There are an estimated 180,000 trans Canadians. Trans people come from all classes and walks of life. They live in big cities and small. They have aspirations both grand and mundane, and they deserve financial advice from professionals who will treat them with understanding and respect.
Politics and popular culture are recognizing the systemic barriers the trans community faces. In Ontario, for instance, people who are trans or gender-diverse are now specifically protected from discrimination due to their gender identity and expression. A similar bill is poised to pass nationally after many years of effort, which would directly impact federally regulated businesses like the financial sector.
Trans people are currently gaining rights and acceptance in a way reminiscent of the struggles of gays and lesbians about 15 years ago, says Gavin Clark, a wealth advisor at BMO Wealth Management in Toronto, and an active volunteer in the LGBT community.
“They’re starting to be respected and recognized, and to get gainful employment and join society instead of being marginalized,” he says.
Much of the financial advice trans people need is the same as your other clients, notes Steven Mock, director of the RBC Retirement Research Centre at the University of Waterloo. “A client is a client,” he says. “But there are definitely unique issues and challenges that trans people are living with, and it’s fair to at least have those on your radar.”
Mock has done two studies with LGBT people. In one, seven of the 400 participants were trans. In the other, he conducted focus groups with trans people who were aged 60 and older. He cautions that his sample is too small to represent trans people as a group, but his findings suggest opportunities for helping clients plan.
The trans study participants “were not planning quite as much, or felt a little more insecure about their retirement prospects,” he says. They weren’t as sure about when they’d be able to retire. They had made RRSP contributions, but the amounts were slightly lower than other study participants. The trans people in his study were also less likely to have wills or financial and health directives.
This anecdotal evidence fits broadly with the everyday social and economic discrimination trans people face. The Trans PULSE project—a landmark study of Ontario’s trans community in 2011—found only 37% of trans people were employed full time. Trans people commonly reported being turned down for jobs or fired because of their gender expression.
And even if they had jobs, median income was $15,000 a year—regardless of education or experience. Dr. Sara Davis Buechner, an international concert pianist trained at Julliard, has told Parliament that, after she came out in 1998, top-tier teaching jobs vanished and she was turned down for housing.
But not all trans people experience such discrimination. Community members and advocates are hopeful about their widening empowerment and acceptance.
“Some individuals transition later in their lives, after successful careers,” notes Clark, who’s known some lawyers to take this path. Canadian trans judges, politicians, songwriters, authors and professionals have also come out.
Open your practice
Being a successful advisor for trans clients takes a welcoming practice staffed with people who understand the community.
“An advisor’s role is creating an environment where the client feels comfortable, safe, and is able to openly and honestly discuss their goals and plans with their advisor,” says Stuart Gray, director of financial planning support at RBC in Toronto.
An inclusive environment encompasses not just physical space, but also online and phone services, says Steven Little, manager of education and training at The 519 community centre in Toronto. The advisor offering a service has a responsibility to accommodate any person trying to access the service, not the other way around, he adds.
Clark recommends getting in touch with your firm’s Employee Resource Group or LGBT committee. These internal committees are made up of employees from all backgrounds who can offer resources and support. If your firm doesn’t have one of these groups, community support centres like The 519 or Rainbow Health Ontario have plenty of tips, do’s and don’ts, and other information online.
At the office, trans clients face the prospect of being misgendered by frontline staff, says Little. The solution could be as simple as training staff to avoid greeting people with gender-specific titles like “sir” or “ma’am.”
Instead, when meeting a prospect for the first time, take your cues from them about how they’d like to be addressed.
Here, one of the biggest hurdles are intake forms with only two gender options. Ideally, forms would have a blank space where a client could write in the gender they identify with, whether that be male, female, trans woman, trans man or something else. (“Trans” itself is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of gender identities, notes Little.)
If someone leaves the gendered parts of a form blank, says Devon MacFarlane, director of Rainbow Health Ontario, a program of Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto, ask, “How can I respectfully address you?”
Regulations also mean financial advisors are obligated to use a client’s legal name to transact business, says Gray. “What an advisor can do is bridge the gap between the client and the regulatory environment,” he says. “Refer to the client in the pronouns they choose, and use their chosen name.” Note the client’s everyday name in the file, and make sure all staff know to address them with it. Explain to the client that unfortunately, their legal names will still appear on transactions, at least for now.
Already in Ontario, the government says it will allow a third gender option—“X”—on driver’s licences, and other identification is under review. Federally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government is exploring gender-neutral options on all documents. Keep abreast of the latest changes in your province and offer to discuss the process with clients.
And don’t forget about making your office space inclusive: bathrooms should be gender-neutral, and you can stock brochures and posters that highlight diversity and normalize the trans experience (see “Create a welcoming practice,” page 25).
For clients and prospects who prefer to call you, realize that “people who are gender diverse or trans may also get mis-gendered on the phone,” Little says. In some cases, trans clients called their financial institutions for routine customer service, and were shut out of their accounts because they didn’t sound like a stereotypical man or woman.
Understanding clients’ needs
You may already be serving trans clients without realizing it, says Mock. Your client could have transitioned before you started advising them, or may not be comfortable telling you they’re trans.
“Sometimes you disclose, and sometimes you don’t,” Mock explains. “Those are decisions made based on how receptive [someone] thinks the people around them are going to be, or they prefer not to disclose for personal reasons.”
But trans clients should be out to their advisors “so they can get the best advice and make informed decisions,” says Gray.
To encourage clients to talk about themselves, RBC advisors lay out conversation cards with phrases like “Family,” “Health” and “Mind and Spirit.” There are prompting questions on the back, but seeing the cards, with their diverse photos and open-ended categories, gets clients to open up about things they wouldn’t otherwise tell their advisor, says Gray.
He says the “Mind and Spirit” card could encourage clients to tell advisors they’re trans, and what that means to them. Or the “Family” card could prompt a client to talk about their relationship with their relatives.
“It gets away from the traditional approach of talking to a client, which is pulling out a piece of paper or a questionnaire and going through a tick-a-box exercise. It allows us to be more empathetic,” he says, “and then we can discuss the financial and planning implications.”
There’s a misconception that all trans people want transition-related surgery.
“Everyone’s pathway is unique,” says Devon MacFarlane, director of Rainbow Health Ontario, a program of Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto. Some trans people may take hormones. Others may seek a social transition, such as a legal name change, or change their gender presentation.
Create a welcoming practice
- Listen to your client’s experiences, acknowledge transphobia and show empathy
- Educate yourself and your staff through diversity training
- Display inclusive posters, symbols and brochures
- Recognize that the trans community is diverse
- Use someone’s legal name if they go by a different one
- Assume all trans people want transition-related surgery
- Ask about someone’s body
Source: The 519
He suggests simply asking, “Generally, what are you saving for?” If a client says they’re saving for surgery, don’t ask about specific procedures unless they volunteer that information. Just ask, “Can you give me an estimate of what those costs might be?”
As of 2016, all 10 provinces, but none of the territories, cover the cost of at least one transition-related surgery. A host of secondary surgeries, which governments consider elective, aren’t covered and can cost thousands. For instance, chest reconstruction surgeries for trans men can cost $2,000 to $10,000, says MacFarlane. Facial feminization surgeries can cost at least $5,000 per surgery and $15,000 for several, and electrolysis with laser hair removal can also cost $2,000 to $7,000.
These procedures aren’t covered by private insurers, says Wendy Hope, vice-president of external relations at the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association.
Adding expense, patients must often travel for their care. For instance, the only Canadian clinic specializing in transition-related surgery is in Montreal. Some provinces require people to travel to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto for referrals to specialists. (Ontario itself now allows nurse practitioners and family doctors to make referrals.)
Stays at recovery facilities can cost $2,000 a week, and recuperation times for some surgeries can be a month or more, MacFarlane says. “If somebody isn’t employed where they have enough sick days or vacation banked, or if somebody is self-employed, then they’d also be looking at how they would pay for their recovery time,” he says.
If your client has existing private or workplace policies, sit down together to find out what’s covered. CLHIA’s Hope says short-term disability should help pay the bills during time off for surgery and recovery.
Some employers have been reviewing how well their insurance supports trans workers, says Little. Proactive companies have guides for transitioning at work, and advocate for their employees with insurers when coverage may fall short.
Remind clients to update insurers once their names or genders have been legally changed, so insurers can administer their file properly.
“If there is an existing policy, an individual would not need to re-apply after [transition-related] surgery,” says Hope, who adds that it won’t have an effect on their premiums or eligibility.
Regardless, your client could be waiting a while for surgery. In spring 2016, CAMH had a 1,500-person waitlist, estimated at two years. Faced with such a delay, some patients go abroad. Others use the time to save.
Trans clients “have an immediate goal that is tangible,” says Clark. “My experience has been that once they get started on a savings plan, they’re really diligent about it.”
Just like any other near-term goals, Clark and Gray recommend conservative investments.
“You don’t want to be in a position where the client can’t get surgery because the markets have corrected,” says Gray. He would consider a highly conservative portfolio that includes a high-interest savings account and money-market funds.
An advisor could also look into personal or home equity lines of credit, says Gray, and help clients understand how that would fit into their overall financial plans. For instance, is it better to take out a low-interest loan and continue contributing an RRSP, or should a client withdraw from the RRSP to pay for transition costs, even if it means a penalty?
And, recognize that it’s hard for trans clients saving for transition to think about longer-term financial goals, says Mock. “Some people are like, ‘I’m trying to live my life now, and that’s a big enough job, let alone what is my life going to look like 20 or 30 years into the future,’ ” he says.
Help clients look ahead. For instance, if they plan on living in a retirement home in their later years, connect them with LGBT-friendly ones in your area. If your client lives in an area lacking services, discuss whether, down the road, they’ll need to move somewhere they’ll be better supported, says Gray.
Move past gender
- Start emails with “Hello” or “Dear” and drop unnecessary titles like Mr. or Ms.
- Ask people how they’d like to be addressed, and pay attention to how others address them.
- If your client prefers, use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them” and “their,” or “ze” and “hir(s).”
- Avoid gender-specific titles until you’ve confirmed how your client wants to be addressed, or substitute the gender-neutral Mx.
- Use “trans,” not “transgender,” “transgendered,” “transgenderist,” or “transvestite.”
- Say “transition-related surgery,” not “sex reassignment surgery” or “sex change surgery.”
- Mistakes are natural; apologize and move on.
Source: The 519
For estate planning, ask how well the family gets along, as that will impact personal care, financial directives and wills. Mock has heard horror stories of how people’s gender identities were not respected by their families upon death.
“Even naming a corporate trustee or executor for your estate doesn’t mean that your wishes, particularly around burial, are going to be honoured,” says Gray.
He adds: “The family makes decisions oftentimes before the executor is even aware the individual has passed away.” For the advisor, that means encouraging clients to be open with their families about their wishes. If clients are concerned, advisors can suggest they pre-arrange their funerals.
Get ahead of the trend
Though Ontario passed its anti-discrimination protections in 2012, Little says the effects are being seen now. Should the federal bill pass in 2017, he expects the financial industry to see changes like new forms and policies in the next two to three years.
“Where organizations fail to be ahead of the game and proactive, they will end up having to be responsive and reactive to human rights processes, which can be a big distraction and a big cost to an organization,” he says.
Position yourself for success by connecting with the trans community in your area now. Get listed in LGBT business directories, such as the Pink Pages, says MacFarlane, or buy ad space in newspapers for the queer community. Advisors could also sponsor events like queer film festivals. Your ads and brochures could list transition-related costs as one of the many savings goals you can help with.
Advisors should also think of ways to be relevant to trans people with lower incomes. “Offer group sessions or do pro-bono work that’s about, ‘Here’s what financial advice is all about, and here’s how it can help you,’ ” MacFarlane suggests.
These events, and other volunteer work, can connect you with local leaders. “They’re in tune with the community,” notes Clark. “If they see they’re really being supported, then they’re going to support the advisor doing that work.”
Be an ally
Be a knowledgeable resource and empowered advocate for your trans clients.
Pride at Work has resources and seminars for supporting trans, lesbian and gay people in the workplace.
What do provincial health plans cover? A map from the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health.
The 519 has workshops about understanding the trans experience in Canada.
The Trans Health Information Program has information on HR best practices.
by Jessica Bruno, Toronto-based financial writer