Gender identity and employment

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For transgender, transsexual, and gender-variant people, gender expression is a major factor in their employability.

Most transgender people at some point in their lives possess physical or behavioral characteristics that readily identify them as transgendered and, therefore, are vulnerable to loss of employment, denial of employment, or underemployment, with potentially devastating effects on them and their families.

It is considered common knowledge within the transgender community and among community allies that transgender people are underemployed and unemployed at disproportionate rates to the population as a whole. States and local jurisdictions are passing and enforcing non-discrimination laws and ordinances to protect transgender people from workplace discrimination. But, nothing seems to help in getting passed the application and interview processes.

While legislative and civic remedies are, to a minor extent, being pursued to include gender identity or gender expression in a community’s anti-discrimination policies, such laws are non-existent in every jurisdiction of the United States. A critical need still exists to provide these employers with the resources and information they need to make workplaces more safe and inclusive for transgender people. Managers and co-workers need more information about the issue of transgenderism and how a person’s gender identity and expression affects the ability of the business to operate effectively.

Even the companies who have included sexual orientation in their workplace protections and have participated in diversity workshops that deal with sexual orientation still lack the information and resources necessary to deal with transgender applicants and employees. In spite of some people’s assumptions, many of those who identify as transsexual or transgender do not identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and are, in fact, heterosexual. Much of the diversity training and outreach based on sexual orientation issues does little to incorporate transgendered voices and issues or simply treats such issues as a subset of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

About 60 percent of transgender people who responded to a 2006 survey from the Woman’s Foundation of California earn under $15,300 annually, and only 8 percent earn over $45,900. Forty percent do not have a bank account of any kind. Only 25 percent are working full-time, 16 percent are working part-time, and nearly 9 percent have no source of income. Over 57 percent report experiencing employment discrimination, but only a little over 12 percent have filed an administrative or civil complaint as a result.

As for job readiness, 50 percent would like career and job counseling in order to explore their options. About 53 percent would like to undergo further education or training in order to enter a new career. At least 9 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED. Eighty-eight percent of respondents, though, have completed high school: 30 percent stopped there, 23 percent have attended some college, over 32 percent have a college degree of some sort (including 10 percent of people who have post-graduate degrees), and less than 3 percent have a vocational certification.  Yet, over 35 percent of those respondents in the survey are unemployed. 

Still, even these figures do not reflect, nor ever will, those who have not made it through the process of applying or interviewing for a job due to fears and concerns about being found out, ridiculed, or harassed.

The fact is that nearly 40 percent of the survey respondents believe that they have been discriminated against when applying for work. They described discrimination such as having applications being thrown in the trash as the transgender applicant leaves the business, positive phone interviews followed-up by neutral or negative in-person interviews, and comments that the applicant “wouldn’t like it here” or “wouldn’t fit in with the company.”  Twenty-four percent reported sexual harassment, 21 percent had experienced verbal harassment, 19 percent were overlooked for promotions, and 18 percent dealt with nuanced terminations.

Furthermore, the survey reported that among transgender individuals 14 percent were on food stamp help, 2 percent on veteran benefits, 23 percent on SSI/SSDI, 14 percent on general assistance, 3 percent on state disability, 3 percent on unemployment insurance, and 21 percent on street or narcotic sources of income. Plus, interestingly enough, 43 percent of those answering the survey were 25 to 40 year olds, 41 percent were white, 21 percent were African American, 32 percent were transsexual, 29 percent were high school grads, and 4 percent had an income of over $61.000 annually.

The employment solution is a hard one. Some trans people are forced to look for work without aid of their work history. Some trans people do not even have sufficient opportunity to build up a work history. High school drop out rates for transgender youth are phenomenally high, in part due to harassment and violence at school. Sometimes trans youth are forced out of their homes by unsupportive parents. Even with a good work history and matching identification, trans people who do not easily ‘pass’ as the gender they intend to present often find it difficult to find work.