My experiences have not been unusual. Sadly, they are more common, by far, than those whose personal experiences have not been subject to workplace discrimination. Whether it’s loss of work, the inability to get hired or intolerable workplace conditions, trans individuals have consistently been on the losing end of the employment equation. It isn’t because our qualifications suffer or that we’re stupid. It isn’t because we have poor work habits and it isn’t because we have criminal records. It is because we have the audacity to believe in and maintain our right to personal expression and individuality. It is despite our belief in constitutional guarantees regarding the concept of equality. It is mainly because we are perceived to be different.
I will grant you that my employment history falls well outside of the mainstream. I have lived on the “edges of society” my entire life and not directly or solely because of gender issues. When I finally overcame a life of denial and began to embrace that I was gender diverse, I was well past 40 years old and ill equipped to survive traditional workplace roles. Imagine how less prepared I would be factoring in gender discrimination. Add to that age-based discrimination and I faced a perfect storm — the prospect of homelessness hovered ever near. I had always created my own way, often on the fringes — never getting rich, but living and experiencing what life had to offer. In my case, self affirmation also meant undermining much of the career I had created for myself as a live music photographer. After a less than amicable divorce, I not only lost the means to earn a living, but faced bankruptcy from previously accrued debt. My life and my career were slipping away.
As a newly transitioning trans person, entirely unsure of so many things in life, save that I had to be myself, the foremost and most daunting task was, of course, survival. Could I find affordable housing? Pay the bills? Buy food? Much of what transition entailed had to be shelved until I was stable. Many individuals choose to defer transition until it’s financially feasible, but I had no idea as to how long that would be. After finally being honest with myself and the world, delay was just no longer an option. If I continued to wait, I felt it would be forever — I’d never have the funds. I wasn’t naïve, I knew this would be tough, especially living in the rural South. I was unaware, however, of the many repercussions and consequences as well as minor and not so minor details which might stand in my way. And, that spectre of homelessness was always present.
As I looked for work, lesson number one was the repercussion of gender marker disparity on documents and the dual no-win scenario encapsulated within.
Lesson number two was about the consequences of honesty.
Lesson number three was about the “ick factor,” from which I deduced the corollary bathroom issue.
Given North Carolina is an “employment at will” state, employers were free to discriminate no matter how I presented myself. If I neglected to mention I was trans, invariably they noticed the gender marker disparity and thought I was deceiving them. If I went the honesty route, I got that “no way” look and no call back. The few who were at least frank with me intimated that if their customers found out they’d hired a transsexual , they’d lose business. One gay attorney was in that group. And, never articulated, but ever present, was the unanswered question of what bathroom I’d use. Nobody wanted to face that conundrum.
I realized two things. First, I would become homeless and die before I’d find a job without an appropriate gender-marker designation on my driver’s license. Second, that most employers would never hire an openly transsexual individual. I decided to return to school and pursue a paralegal degree. Under the delusion of faulty reasoning, I thought the legal community would be more open about hiring me. And, I thought that the legal experience would put me in better stead to be an effective activist. Perhaps, if enough of us understood the law, we could better effect change.
A rudimentary knowledge of the law has put me in better stead as an archivist. It has, unfortunately, not helped me find a legal job, despite graduating Phi Theta Kappa with highest honors. The legal community is no more enlightened regarding the concept of equality than any other potential employer might be. Just like so many of my trans brothers and sisters, I am working a job for which I am over qualified and which barely pays a living wage. I am demeaned and marginalized; yet I am told “be thankful you have a job.” And, I am. Still, were it not for the kind of bigotry which has imbedded itself into the moral fabric of our culture, many of us would be thriving and contributing, not merely surviving — or not, as the case may be.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is not the end-all and be-all and many will fall through the cracks. Intolerance and bigotry are recalcitrant. The problems of hiring discrimination and enforcement are daunting, often hard to prove and it will probably take time before being trans is perceived as no big deal. Legislation, however, does create an environment in which change is more likely to occur; it also helps to shape and advance societal understanding. Furthermore, the boon of better statistical record keeping by the EEOC and other agencies can be expected with legislative stipulations. These records will help make the case for the existence of systemic and systematic discrimination against trans persons, evidence paralleled by signficant findings from a just-being-completed study. The combined efforts of the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force evince clear data establishing a record of consistent and pervasive discriminatory hiring and firing practices, and conditions for trans workers.
The marginalization and dehumanization of any individual is unacceptable. All persons should be free to live their lives as they see fit. ENDA is a critical step towards this end. : :
— Comments and corrections can be sent to email@example.com. To contact Robbi Cohn, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published in the March 6—March 19 print edition.