Working as an advocate
July 17 2014 3:00 AM ET
Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke
My education in what it means to be a working trans woman began in April 1997, the moment I told my boss that I planned to transition from male to female and would soon begin coming to work as a woman. One minute I was a trusted, reliable employee on the management promotion shortlist, the next I was an unwanted problem who had to be fired for insubordination.
I contacted the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights but soon discovered that while being fired for being a member of a racial, ethnic, religious, or even sexual minority was against state law, there was no such law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression, and firing an employee just for being transgender was completely legal.
The coming out process had not been easy for me. I’d lost friends I’d cared about and now I’d lost my job. A failed suicide attempt a few months earlier had convinced me that I really didn’t want to die, I wanted to live as the woman I understood myself to be. Now I was faced with a new challenge: Without a job and little hope of finding another one, I had no idea how I was going to fund my transition.
Friends suggested I consider de-transitioning just long enough to put some money in the bank and use it to pay for hormones and eventually surgery. I toyed with the idea for a while, but in the end I just couldn’t bear the idea of going back to living as male, even for a little while. I was either going to live as the woman I am or I wasn’t going to live at all.
It took me six years of applications and interviews that went nowhere before I finally landed my first job as a woman. By then I’d legally changed my name to Rebecca and appeared passably female to casual inspection.
I worked as a cashier in a pet store, and while I wasn’t making much more than minimum wage, I couldn’t have been more proud to be able to go to work every day and interact with customers and coworkers as a woman. It was the kind of job I’d have seen as a stopgap if I were still working as male, but as a woman on her first job, I was loyal to a fault. I was thrilled just to be bringing home a paycheck with the name Rebecca on it, and committed myself to being the best employee in that store. Even that, however, wasn’t enough to keep me employed.
The store’s assistant manager was the only staff member to have a problem with me, but he never hesitated to make it known to me or my coworkers. He’d ask me questions like “Do you really think you should be using the ladies room?” and tell me that he didn’t feel I should be permitted to wear makeup or present as a woman at work because it was “deceptive” and “dishonest.” He’d wonder openly, in front of me and other store employees, whether me presenting as a woman at work, despite all my legal documentation, was a violation of the company’s personnel policies against dishonesty and misrepresentation. He made it his business to make sure I and everyone I worked with knew that he saw me as a fraud and someone who shouldn’t be allowed to work there.
Finally, after months of his
near-constant verbal abuse, I made the mistake of asking him if he had anything to say to me that was actually relevant to my job, and if not, to please leave me alone. Though I had one of the best attendance and work performance records of the staff, I was fired for insubordination.
Over the next few years, I managed to find work in retail here and there, but never jobs with the kind of opportunity for advancement that were made available to cisgender employees. I watched coworkers who were still in diapers or not even born when I was managing my first retail store promoted into supervisory positions over me as I was passed over for promotion again and again. Over time, the overall attitude of retail managers toward a trans woman as an employee seems to have evolved from “We don’t want you working in our stores” to “Just shut up and be happy we let you work here, but don’t expect to be treated like everyone else.”
At one job I was assigned to answer phones while literally hidden behind a curtain, barred from working on the sales floor. After I went to management and asked to be put on the sales floor, where I felt I could do my best work, I was eventually told that my services would no longer be required.
At another job, when I hurt my back on the job and was prohibited from heavy lifting by my doctor, I was removed from my position as a shift supervisor at a store in a very progressive area and reassigned to a lower position in another store in a rather conservative town.
When transphobic customers complained that they felt threatened or unsafe in my presence, I would be “written up,” a disciplinary notice placed in my file as if I had actually done something other than simply be present and visibly trans to cause these customers to complain. Once the company’s managers felt they had enough write-ups in my file to protect themselves from a lawsuit, they fired me for what they claimed was misbehavior. When the company tried to use that excuse to contest my unemployment benefits, I demanded my right to a hearing and a presentation of the evidence against me under New Jersey state law. The company twice failed to appear to present their evidence, and I was awarded my full benefit entitlement.
My retail resume can still get me an interview in many cases, but never serious consideration for a job, especially now that an identity check on Google is standard procedure. As a result, I’ve begun looking for work in other fields, in radio and freelance journalism, careers where my trans status will hopefully prove less of a barrier to employment, and perhaps even an advantage.
According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force published in 2011, almost half of trans workers surveyed attributed firings, refusal to hire them, or being passed over for promotion directly to their trans status. Ninety percent reported harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job, or took steps to avoid those problems like remaining closeted at work. Unlike cisgender gays and lesbians, trans workers, particularly trans women, often don’t have the option of remaining in the closet.
Until Congress finds the courage to do the right thing for LGBT workers and the families that depend on us, working trans women in particular will continue to be primary targets for bigotry and discrimination in the workplace.