One bank’s move to embrace transgender consumers

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Many financial institutions, in their roles as employers and corporate citizens, have taken stands in recent years on social issues, including fair treatment of transgender people. Now some are working to bring more transgender consumers into the financial mainstream — and one effort starts with the name etched on their debit cards.

Last week the $126.2 billion-asset BMO Harris Bank launched the True Name Mastercard option for its customers. True Name allows customers to use their preferred name, rather than their legal name, on debit and ATM cards — similar credit cards or other products may follow later. The cards are aimed at transgender and nonbinary people, whose gender identity is neither strictly male nor female.

Executives said they were motivated by research showing that people often experience discrimination and harassment when their gender presentation does not match their legal name on identity documents or payment cards.

“If there’s something that actually deters someone from coming into a branch, then that’s a problem for me as a bank,” said Paul Dilda, head of deposits, segments and customer acquisition at BMO Harris. “As consumer mindsets evolve and change, then you have to progress as well.”

BMO Harris is currently the only bank to offer the True Name card, but the move is part of a broader evolution in banks’ attitudes toward the transgender community. In recent years, financial institutions have established specialized mentoring programs, expanded employee benefits and taken to their state legislatures in support of transgender people.

Several banks — including Bank of America, TD Bank and Eastern Bank in Boston — have opposed so-called bathroom bills in their states. TD has established mentoring and leadership training for its transgender employees, in addition to other affinity groups.

Now such corporate values are beginning to shape products and services.

Superbia Credit Union in Michigan was established this year specifically to serve the LGBTQ community. When it launches in 2020, it will offer products tailored for members of that community, like a loan for transgender people in the process of transitioning and the True Name Mastercard.

While they are a small minority of the population, transgender people often experience disproportionate financial hardship, in no small part because they are likelier to face discrimination in employment or to be ostracized by their own families.

According to a survey conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 29% of transgender people were living in poverty, compared with 14% of the rest of the population. Nearly a third of transgender people had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, and just 16% owned a home, compared with 63% of the general population.

But a more inclusive and accepting banking system can help them achieve a greater measure of financial security, said Mara Keisling, the center's executive director. While a payment card is not necessarily an official identification document, in some cases it functions like one, she said.

“If you’re a trans person and you’re checking into a hotel and you know you have to give them a credit card and you don’t know how someone’s going to react to the name, it has the impact of an ID document in that context,” she said.

Some bankers say it also just makes good business sense to meet the needs of transgender and nonbinary people.

Robert Rivers, CEO of the $11.5 billion-asset Eastern Bank, said its LGBTQ-friendly reputation has been valuable. About 5% of the population belongs to the LGBTQ community, and less than 1% is estimated to be transgender. But Rivers is quick to point out that “it’s never been safe or comfortable to come out” and the true number is likely higher. LGBTQ issues, including transgender rights, also resonate with an increasingly larger segment of the population, especially millennials.

“It’s good for the brand, it’s good for customer attraction, it’s good for talent attraction, and fundamentally it’s rooted in what is really the right thing to do,” he said.

In addition to the True Name card, Dilda said BMO Harris is training its staff to be more respectful about using customers’ chosen names. He acknowledged that in some cases bankers will need to use a customer’s legal name, like when signing loan documents or authenticating a customer calling into a contact center. But in other situations, like in conversations and in marketing, bankers have more leeway to address customers by their chosen names.

“It does allow us to challenge as to when do I absolutely need to [use a legal name] and when do I have the latitude to respect a customer’s choice about how they choose to be called,” he said.

Rivers praised BMO Harris for offering the card and said, “We should be doing the same thing, honestly.”

Keisling said the card is a good start, but the banking industry can do more to support transgender and nonbinary people.

“They could hire more people, for sure. They could have policies and training in place, both to treat their customers properly and their employees properly,” she said. “And they should be thinking beyond just Mastercard. They should be thinking about all debit cards, all credit cards and other financial products.”

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