In the transgender community, to have full-time work is to be in the minority. In fact, a new survey of 194 trans people conducted by the Transgender Law Center (TLC), with support from the Guardian, found that only one out of every four respondents has a full-time job. Another 16 percent work part-time.
What’s more, 59 percent of respondents reported an annual salary of less than $15,333. Only 4 percent reported making more than $61,200, which is about the median income in the Bay Area.
In other words, more than half of local transgender people live in poverty, and 96 percent earn less than the median income. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that 40 percent of those surveyed don’t even have a bank account.
TLC doesn’t claim the study is strictly scientific — all respondents were identified through trans organizations or outreach workers. But the data give a fairly good picture of how hard it is for transgender people to find and keep decent jobs, even in the city that is supposed to be most accepting of them.
It’s been more than a decade since San Francisco expanded local nondiscrimination laws to cover trans people, but transphobic discrimination remains rampant. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents said they’ve experienced some form of employment discrimination.
And interviews show that job woes are hardly straightforward.
Navigating the job-application process after a gender transition can be extraordinarily difficult. Trans people run up against fairly entrenched biases about what kind of work they’re suited for. Sometimes those who are lucky enough to find work can’t tolerate insensitive, or even abusive, coworkers.
Marilyn Robinson turned tricks for almost 20 years before she decided to look for legal employment. She got her GED and, eventually, a job at an insurance company. The first six months went OK, but then a supervisor "thought he had the right to call me RuPaul," she told us. "And I look nothing like RuPaul." Suddenly the women in the office refused to use the bathroom if Robinson was around. She left within a month.
Once again, Robinson was on the job hunt. She interviewed for a receptionist position, and thought it went well. But on her way out, she saw the interviewer toss her application into the trash with a giggle.
"The reality is, even a hoagie shop in the Castro — they might not hire you," she said.
Still, many activists say the increased attention being paid to trans employment issues is promising.
Cecelia Chung from the Transgender Law Center told us there’s a "silver lining" in the effort the "community is putting into really changing the playing field. We’re in a really different place than we were five years ago."
Activists say true progress will require broad education efforts and the cooperation of business owners throughout the Bay Area. But the project is well under way, with San Francisco Transgender Empowerment, Advocacy and Mentorship, a trans collaborative, hosting its second annual Transgender Job Fair March 22. More than a dozen employers have signed up for the fair, including UCSF, Goodwill Industries, and Bank of America.
Imagine trying to find a job with no references from previous employers. Now envision how it might feel to have interviewer after interviewer look at you askance — or even ask if you’ve had surgery on a fairly private part of your body.
These are just a couple of the predicaments trans job-seekers face.
Kenneth Stram runs the Economic Development Office at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. "In San Francisco there are the best intentions," he told us. "But when you scratch the surface, there are all these procedural hurdles that need to be addressed." As examples, he pointed to job-training classes where fellow students may act hostile, or arduous application processes.
Giving a prospective employer a reference may seem like a fairly straightforward task, but what if your old employer knew an employee of a different gender? Do you call the old boss and announce your new identity? Even if he or she is supportive, experience can be hard to erase. Will the manager who worked with Jim be able to speak convincingly about Jeanine? And what about your work history — should you eliminate the jobs where you were known as a different gender?
Most trans people can’t make it through the application process without either outing themselves or lying.
Marcus Arana decided to face this issue head-on and wrote about his transition from living as a woman to living as a man in his cover letter.
"It became a matter of curiosity," Arana told us. "I would have employers ask about my surgical status."
It took him a year and a half to find a job. Fortunately, it’s one he loves. Arana investigates most complaints of gender identity–related discrimination that are made to San Francisco’s city government. (Another investigator handles housing-oriented complaints.)
When he started his job, in 2000, about three quarters of the complaints Arana saw were related to public accommodations — a transwoman had been refused service at a restaurant, say, or a bank employee had given a cross-dressing man grief about the gender listed on his driver’s license.
Today, Arana told us, at least half of the cases he looks into are work-related — something he attributes to both progress in accommodations issues and stagnation on the job front.
TG workers, he said, confront two common problems: resistance to a changed name or pronoun preference and controversy over which bathroom they use.
The name and pronoun problems can often be addressed through sensitivity training, though Arana said that even in the Bay Area, it’s not unheard of for some coworkers to simply refuse to alter how they refer to a trans colleague.
Nine out of ten bathroom issues concern male-to-female trans folk — despite the fact that the police department has never gotten a single report of a transwoman harassing another person in a bathroom. One complaint Arana investigated involved a woman sticking a compact mirror under a bathroom stall in an effort to see her trans coworker’s genitalia.
But a hostile workplace is more often made up of dozens of subtle discomforts rather than a single drama-filled incident.
Robinson told us the constant whispering of "is that a man?" can make an otherwise decent job intolerable: "It’s why most of the girls — and I will speak for myself — are prostitutes. Because it’s easier."
The second and third most common forms of work-related discrimination cited by respondents in the TLC survey were sexual harassment and verbal harassment.
But only 12 percent of those who reported discrimination also filed some kind of formal complaint. That may be because of the widespread feeling that doing so can make it that much harder to keep a job — or find another one. Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in Washington, DC, said that "it’s a common understanding within the transgender community that when you lose your job, you generally lose your career."
ANOTHER KIND OF GLASS CEILING
Most of the trans people we spoke to expressed resentment at being tracked into certain jobs — usually related to health care or government.
Part of that is because public entities have been quicker to adopt nondiscriminatory policies. San Francisco city government created a splash in 2001 when it granted trans employees access to full health benefits, including sex-reassignment surgery. The University of California followed suit last year.
But it’s also because of deeply ingrained prejudices about what kind of work transgender people are suited to.
Claudia Cabrera was born in Guatemala but fled to the Bay Area in 2000 to get away from the constant insults and occasional violence that befell her. Despite her education in electrical engineering and business and 13 years of tech work, it was difficult for her to find a job — even after she was granted political asylum. In 2002 a local nonprofit she had originally turned to for help offered her a position doing outreach within the queer community.
Cabrera doesn’t make much money, and she sends some of it back to her two kids in Guatemala. But that’s not the only reason she would like another job. She wants to have broader responsibilities and to employ her tech savvy.
"There is a stereotype here in San Francisco [that] transgender folk are only good for doing HIV work — or just outreach in general," she said.
Whenever she’s gotten an interview for another kind of job, she’s been told she is overqualified. Does she believe that’s why she hasn’t been hired? "No," she laughed. But she also acknowledged, "Even though there is discrimination going on here, this is the safest city for me to be in."
Cabrera is now on the board of TLC and is working to create more job opportunities for herself and others in the trans community. She often repeats this mantra: "As a transsexual woman, I am not asking for anything that doesn’t belong to me. I am demanding my rights to live as a human being." *
TRANSGENDER JOB FAIR
SF LGBT Community Center, Ceremonial Room
1800 Market, SF