Every other week, I’m reading a story about a trans employee who was fired, usually after transitioning at work. Almost all of these cases involve trans women, and many involve trans women of colour. Workplaces across the US routinely dismiss transgender employees on the grounds that they’re transgender, and therefore no longer competent at the jobs they used to do, apparently. And they’re perfectly within their legal rights, because few states and cities have anti-discrimination policies for trans workers, who should be considered an extremely important protected class.
We live in an era of growing trans visibility. Many people are much more open about being transgender, and a growing number of people are transitioning publicly. The very nature of gender and transition is shifting, with a growing awareness about nonbinary gender and people who transition across varying ranges of the spectrum. Transness has come out of the closet, and it’s not going back in. Some people do prefer to go, or to stay, stealth, for a variety of reasons, which is well within their rights — but by the same token, people who do choose to be public, or can’t avoid being public, shouldn’t be punished for it.
With more trans people exploring their gender identity, coming out, and transitioning openly than ever before, discrimination is a growing issue. As with discrimination against other protected classes, it may peak and then slowly slump as people get used to the idea that trans people are people, but we can’t afford to wait for that.
Transitioning is incredibly difficult, for a multitude of reasons, but especially for women. In a sexist culture, transmisogyny maps over in some really ugly and unpleasant ways. Trans women are ‘pretenders’ and ‘men in dresses’ and they’re mostly likely to be targeted by the gross, outdated, and hateful ‘passing’ standard, which even some trans people adhere to. Women are supposed to look a certain way in our society, and if they don’t, they’re targets of vicious hatred. For trans women, that hatred of ‘ugly’ women is compounded by a hatred of trans women, and the results can be violent and horrific.
The workplace is just one of many places where trans people face discrimination, but it’s one with huge ramifications. If people can lose their jobs because of their gender, it can set off a spiral that leads to a very bad place. Someone who can’t get work again — like, for example, a trans woman being discriminated against because of her gender — is going to quickly be living in poverty. Notably, transgender women are much more likely to live in poverty than people of other genders. What a strange coincidence. People living in poverty are forced to make really terrible choices — especially in the case of trans women, who may need to access hormones and other transition-related needs. Poverty means being homeless, it means being driven to survival-based sex work, it means being driven to do things that are dangerous and terrifying and awful.
One transmisogynistic supervisor has the ability to completely ruin a woman’s life, or to create severe obstacles to success. That’s a really perturbing thought in a society that seems to struggle constantly with just accepting trans people in the first place — sure, everyone loves Orange is the New Black, but you wouldn’t want to work with one of them. Janet Mock is inspirational, but you wouldn’t want to use a bathroom with her, right? These are the kinds of things that people say, caught in this bizarre and utterly weird disparity of viewing trans women as entertainment, but not human beings.
We need employment protections because trans women get fired for existing. At the same time, some trans men actually experience better work circumstances after transitioning: More respect in the workplace, higher rates of pay, better treatment from supervisors. The exact same men in the same positions they’ve always been working in get better treatment, a really harsh illustration of male privilege and social acculturation. The people who treated a man like crap when they thought he was a woman are suddenly falling all over themselves to give him every possible workplace advantage.
The same isn’t true of all trans men, of course — some face the same kind of discrimination and ugly experiences that trans women do, especially those who, again, have difficulty ‘passing.’ This is especially true of disabled trans men and trans men of colour, who face intersectional workplace discrimination. It’s a consistent trend to note, however, and one that’s been the subject of study to explore how workplace attitudes shift as people transition. The matter of how people transition also plays a role — taking a leave of absence, staying at work to transition, shifting to a different department, and other options seem to determine how people are treated as well, assuming they’re not fired when they come forward to request accommodations.
Yet, repeated attempts at creating comprehensive workplace protections for trans people have failed. Conservatives would argue that this should be left to the states under the framework of federalism. I argue otherwise. Individual states are clearly not moving to protect their trans communities, and they won’t, because their legislatures are transphobic and hateful. Congress and the White House are required to intervene here to create civil rights protections for people who are equal citizens and deserve fair treatment under the law, and it’s up to the court to enforce these protections.
The fact that gender-inclusive employment legislation continues to be up for debate is a national shame. The United States should be deeply embarrassed by the fact that it cannot take a simple, yet life-changing, step to protect a class of people who are culturally and socially vulnerable as a result of who they are. This is supposed to be a country where people can live freely no matter where they are on life’s journey, but it seems much more like a prison of hate to me.
Image: Alessia Cross, Flickr