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Nearly 1 in 3 Transgender People Live in Poverty in U.S. What Can We Do?
The phone interview went well for Michael. The supervisor he spoke with said his experience looked great and that he was excited to meet him.
But the supervisor also assumed that Michael was a woman, as the name on his resume implied. While Michael identified as a male, he hadn’t started changing his paperwork when he applied for the position as a summer camp counselor. As a result, Michael’s resume had his old name on it.
Michael arrived wearing a dress shirt, bow tie and slacks. With a smile and his hand outstretched, he greeted the interviewer. He told him he goes by Michael and that he uses male pronouns. The interviewer ignored his hand.
During the interview, Michael said, the man sat across from him, staring down at his resume and refusing to make eye contact. He leaned away from Michael when he asked him about his experience. He referred to Michael by his old name and used his old pronouns multiple times throughout the interview.
“He couldn’t get far enough away from me,” said Michael, who asked to only be identified by his first name.
The interviewer told Michael he would hear back about the position in the coming days. Michael never got a phone call.
“You can tell when someone doesn’t want to talk to you,” he said. “Not only [did] being misgendered hurt, but knowing that someone was uncomfortable even being in the same room as me was a little bit degrading.”
Here’s What Many Transgender People Face in the Workplace
Today, Michael is employed –– but the company he works for doesn’t know he’s trans.
Michael isn’t alone in his experiences: The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey of 27,715 transgender people — the largest-ever survey of its kind in the U.S. — found that 53% of respondents who held a job in the previous year hid their gender identity at work to avoid discrimination. The same survey found that 30% of those who had a job in the past year reported being fired, denied a promotion or experiencing other forms of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression.
That’s why Lucas Whele, transgender care coordinator at Metro Wellness Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, dreads the question: “I’m not out to my employer — what do you recommend?”
A transgender man himself, he is responsible for helping trans people find resources they need for everything from changing their legal paperwork to obtaining proper health care.
“I have no idea what their employer is like,” Lucas said. “I can recommend things, but at the end of the day, my most secure recommendation is for people to make sure they have their ducks in a row and are prepared for the worst. If you think it’s going to go horribly, it will probably go horribly.”
When President Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military on July 26, 2017, an estimated 15,500 active-duty personnel suddenly faced the possibility of being out of a job. The military is the single largest employer of trans people in the world, The Washington Post reported.
The Justice Department has since placed the ban on hold, allowing transgender people to enlist in the military, but the Trump administration continues to defend the ban against multiple lawsuits.
Taliyah Cassadine, a 35-year-old trans woman who served in the Army from 2000 to 2004 while she still identified as a man, disputes the reason Trump gave for the ban — that allowing trans people to serve brings “tremendous medical costs and disruption” — saying that transgender people often physically transition during their leave time.
“So who is to say that a trans woman or a trans man couldn’t serve their time in the military and they get paid every 1st and the 15th, save their money, and pay for it themselves?” Taliyah said. “No one is saying that they ever asked the government to pay for anything, and I think that’s the biggest issue.”
She described the attempted ban as “discrimination at its finest.”
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey estimated the unemployment rate in the transgender community at 15%. At the time of the survey, that was three times higher than the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. High unemployment contributes to the staggering poverty rate of 33% in the trans community, a rate that’s twice that of the general U.S. population.
But the poverty cycle often begins long before a transgender person tries to get a job.
Delores T. Van-Cartier, a transgender woman and drag performer at LGBTQ-friendly chain Hamburger Mary’s, said many in the trans community turn to sex work as a result. The U.S. Transgender Survey found that 1 in 5 of respondents have participated in the underground economy for income at some point, and 12% have done sex work in exchange for income.
“They are afraid to go out and get a real job because of fear,” Van-Cartier said. “They’re afraid of being found out; they don’t want to be discriminated against, or rejected. So they go out, and they look for work where they won’t have to deal with being called names in their office every day, because that’s rough. You have to have a thick skin in this life.”
What Can We Do About Anti-Trans Discrimination?
While the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey revealed the ongoing discrimination trans people face, it also found growing acceptance.
More than half of respondents reported that their family was supportive of them being trans. More than two-thirds who were out to their co-workers stated that they were supportive. For students, more than half reported that their classmates supported them.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal work to defend the rights of the transgender community both through legislation and by representing those who have faced discrimination.
“We’re fighting discrimination in employment, housing, and public places, including restrooms. We’re working to make sure trans people get the health care they need and we're challenging obstacles to changing the gender marker on identification documents and obtaining legal name changes,” the ACLU’s website states.
Still, the National Center for Transgender Equality reminds people that “laws on the books don’t always translate into actual fair treatment.”
Lambda Legal has an entire page dedicated to employers and how they can make their workplace all-inclusive by taking steps like supporting employees’ rights to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, offering diversity training and contracting with a health insurance provider that covers transition-related expenses.
But unfortunately, for those in the transgender community who deal with discrimination, the best advice Lucas can give them is to present in their assigned gender, at least temporarily.
That allows people to save as much money as possible and start searching for an LGBTQ-friendly workplace.
“It sucks, and I hate to say it, but sometimes that’s all you can do,” he said. “But in order to get to a place where you’ll be comfortable, you might have to do it in order to survive.”
But Lucas adds: “In some places, those just don’t exist.”
Kelly Anne Smith is an email content specialist at The Penny Hoarder. Catch her on Twitter at @keywordkelly.