Issues transgender individuals face in the workplace

July 31, 2013

Here’s a piece I wrote for my company’s LGBT newsletter. They wanted something outlining some of the struggles trans people deal with at work. Here’s what I came up with:

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 97% of transgender workers in the US report feeling harassed or discriminated against on the job. 26% of these workers have, at one point in their life, been fired because of their gender identity. As a result of this, transgender individuals face a poverty level more than twice that of the US population as a whole, with 19% of trans people having been homeless in their lifetime (more than 4x the rate of the general population).

Like a row of dominoes, one event leads to another. Harassment in the workplace leads to poverty; poverty leads to homelessness; homelessness leads to being relegated to work within the “underground economy” (such as doing sex work or selling drugs; which 16% of transgender individuals have taken part in).

Why is it that transgender men and women find themselves in this unenviable position? Simply put, it’s because there’s nothing preventing employers from mistreating or firing an employee on the basis of their gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, has been proposed in every session of Congress since 1994. Until 2009, versions of ENDA proposed did not include protections on the basis of gender identity. ENDA remains stalled in Congress, and it remains legal to fire trans employees at a federal level.

33 states, including New York, don’t even have protections at the state level for transgender employees. This gives individual businesses a choice as to whether or not they, as an organization, choose to employ transgender people. From a business perspective, trans people only make up roughly 1% of the population, so even in the event of boycott on the part of trans people nation wide, there’s no compelling business case for being inclusive.

Unlike one’s sexual orientation, one’s gender presentation is not something that can be easily hidden. The old argument of “why can’t you just keep your personal life personal,” while discriminatory in its own way, doesn’t apply to transgender people. There is no way to keep one’s transition to themself. Recently out NBA player Jason Collins chose to remain closeted for the first 12 years of his playing career, collecting salaries totaling $34.2 million. He was only able to do this through his choice to keep his sexual orientation hidden. Is it right that he felt he had to in order to launch and sustain a career? Of course not, but at least he had a choice. Transgender athletes and employees aren’t afforded the luxury of a choice. When we transition, people around us take notice and we suffer the consequences.

As an organization, we have the opportunity to change this. After all, true societal perception change needs to begin somewhere, and as stated above, at 1%, transgender individuals alone cannot make this happen. We need allies to help make this happen. Within the organization, policies are in place that allow transgender individuals to work without fear of discrimination. Even so, there are some things you still shouldn’t do:

  1. My gender identity is no one’s business. If someone in the office isn’t aware that I’m transgender, it is in no way appropriate for you to tell them. One wouldn’t say, “…oh, that’s Mary, she used to have cancer;” or “…that’s Bob, he has a prosthetic leg;” or “…that’s Jim, he has cirrhosis of the liver from too much drinking.” Why? Because it is not appropriate to discuss the medical history of others. Saying, “that’s Parker, she used to be named…” is not relevant to anyone’s job. Don’t do it. As the saying goes, if you’re not my doctor or my lover, my trans status is none of your business.
  2. Treat me like you’d treat any other woman you work with. If there’s an event that all the women in a department are going to, invite me. Why? Because I’m a woman. Would you ask other women in the office about their genitals? Then don’t ask about mine.
  3. Don’t hide me. One of the most common excuses for allowing transgender discrimination to continue is the, “if you walked into a store and some ‘man in a dress’ was at the counter, you wouldn’t want to go to that store,” attitude. This is the business argument for discrimination. In reality, most trans women don’t look like “men in dresses,” and even if they did, women come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t remove me from invitations to client or vendor meetings. If you do that, you’re really no better than the store owner who refuses to hire a trans person for fear of losing business.

Allies and colleagues, please help me. The next time you hear someone say something transphobic (anything about a “man in a dress,” someone intentionally using incorrect names or pronouns, or worst of all, someone using slurs like “tranny” in any way, shape or form), let them know that it’s not okay. Reinforce the culture of acceptance we have here. Most importantly, treat trans people with the same respect you’d treat anyone else. We’re not freaks to be gawked at, we’re just people.


One Response to “Issues transgender individuals face in the workplace”

  1. […] Issues Transgender Individuals Face in the Workplace […]

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