Google aired transgender ad during ESPY Awards

SAN FRANCISCO — Google aired a powerful commercial on national television about the emotional journey of a transgender man moments before Caitlyn Jenner made her first major public appearance to receive the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage during the annual ESPY Awards.

The 2 1/2-minute spot was first released on YouTube last month to celebrate gay pride. By running it on national television Wednesday night Google says it was sending a message about the importance of acceptance and equality in the business world.

More Americans who have wrestled with gender identity are transitioning openly, but often with trepidation that they will face intolerance, even discrimination. Google is looking to touch hearts and change minds with the heartening story of 26-year-old Jake Nothnagel, who grew up feeling he was a boy trapped in a girl’s body. The commercial is a rare glimpse into gender transition, from testosterone doses to a medical procedure to more closely align his body with his gender identity.

“The video had more than 1 million views on YouTube, and we thought: ‘We are in the middle of this conversation around the transgender community. Clearly we struck a nerve. And we want to be able to continue to have this conversation,'” Google’s vice president of marketing Arjan Dijk said in an interview. “Not that many big brands have very publicly supported and endorsed the transgender community. It’s a role we want to play as a brand.”

The spot is one of the longest to air on ABC and the longest ever to air during the ESPY awards.

“We really wanted to give people the time to understand and appreciate the story,” said Dijk, who is executive sponsor of Google’s LGBT group, the Gayglers.

Dijk won’t say how much the Internet giant paid for the lengthy prime-time spot but says it was money well spent.

“We feel very passionately about advancing equality and acceptance of the LGBT community internally and we want to do that externally, too,” he said.

The commercial focuses on the sense of community and belonging Nothnagel found at a local gym that helped him sculpt the masculine physique he had always wanted. It was filmed last year to highlight the personal touch of small businesses and the power of the Web to connect these small businesses with their customers. AdWeek praised the commercial for skillfully weaving the threads of a transgender person’s story without being exploitative.

“It’s also unapologetic about the business tie-in — the spot promotes the Google My Business tools for small businesses—which is a good thing, as it doesn’t feign disinterested altruism and presents a tangible case for supporting LGBT-friendly companies.” AdWeek said.

For the ESPY Awards, the commercial has discarded the business tie-in and now ends with the words: “Here’s to courage.”

The bid to raise awareness of the transgender community is in keeping with Google’s long tradition of being one of corporate America’s chief LGBT advocates, from its opposition to anti-LGBT legislation across the country to international campaigns to stamp out homophobia to its LGBT-friendly corporate policies and corporate celebrations of gay pride. Google also frequently embraces LGBT issues on its search page and other iconic products.

And while many corporate brands have yet to figure out how to take part in the growing national conversation around transgender issues, Google is very consciously stepping to the forefront.

Google was one of the nation’s first companies to offer transgender health benefits. It also designates a benefits “buddy” to help trans employee navigate insurance.

In an effort to help Google employees become better allies to their transgender colleagues, Google offered a course on what it means to be transgender and the impact of gender identity in the workplace, featuring a panel of trans-identified Google employees sharing their experiences.

Google has some gender-neutral restrooms on its Mountain View, Calif., campus and is working on a gender-neutral shower and restroom policy.

The corporate policies and community outreach come as Google pays greater attention to diversity. Google and other major technology companies which are dominated by white and Asian men have come under growing pressure to increase the diversity of their ranks, from the boardroom and the executive suite to the rank and file.

“It’s great to see Google’s continued support of the LGBT community, and I hope this inspires other companies to deepen their awareness of and commitment to creating inclusive organizations that support all employees,” said Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a strategy firm that consults with technology companies on diversity and inclusion. “I’ve been excited to see a growing number of tech companies begin to think more about the importance of providing inclusive health benefits and creating inclusive office spaces where everyone feels comfortable to be who they are.”

That is just the kind of environment that Hailee Bland-Walsh says she wanted to foster at City Gym in Kansas City, Missouri.

Bland-Walsh, the gym’s owner, says she set out to create safe spaces where anyone could feel comfortable.

Drew Smith, founder of The Union, a support and resource group for transgender men in Kansas City, joined City Gym after hearing it had private gender neutral changing rooms. Smith started The Union in late 2010 with six guys in his living room. Now the group has more than 100 members.

Smith confided in Bland-Walsh about the challenges of making a gender transition at a big-box gym and she developed an exercise program called Momentum geared to transgender men.

“It’s a little bit strange to get kudos or publicity. It was a heart thing,” Bland-Walsh said. “This is what I love about being a small business owner and an entrepreneur, I can allow my core guiding values to determine the things that I get involved in in my community.”

City Gym came to the attention of Google which flew out a film crew to shoot a commercial in one 12-hour stretch last fall.

Smith and Nothnagel, who work as IT technicians, decided to step out of their comfort zone and participate in the commercial even though they knew it might out them to people who did not know they are transgender.

“When you hear about LGBT, it’s mostly the L and the G. Now we have our story being told nationally. It legitimizes our group. We can say: ‘Here’s our story in a nutshell,'” Smith, 30, said.

Nothnagel says he grew up wanting to be man. He even asked his parents when he was five years old if he could return to the hospital “to be made into a boy.” Only after high school did he begin to research the possibility of actually following through on his long-held desire.

“Now when I look in the mirror I finally see myself the way I have wanted to see myself for a long time,” he said, echoing the sentiments of Jenner, the Olympic gold medal winner and reality star of Keeping Up With the Kardashians who has become a leading figure in raising awareness about transgender identity.

Jenner’s selection for the Ashe award has not been popular with everyone.

Sportscaster Bob Costas wrote it off as “a tabloid play” to promote Jenner’s new reality series I Am Cait that documents her gender transition, while others say Jenner should not have been considered because she has not been actively involved in sports for nearly four decades.

Nothnagel says he’s just grateful to be in the audience for this cultural moment that has come so much sooner than he expected. Google flew Bland-Walsh, Smith and Nothnagel to Los Angeles so they could attend the ESPY Awards.

“I never expected to be here,” Nothnagel said. “The only thing I really hoped when we did the Google ad is that people would see it and that it would open their eyes.”

“I feel like with Caitlyn Jenner being in the spotlight that she is, reaching so many people, that maybe now people will want to research it, and know more about it and understand it better.”

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