The Gender Identity Divide



Toni Beasley wanted this job — badly. She was once a certified nursing assistant, and ostensibly she had the qualifications for the post she was seeking: a peer health educator for an outreach program in downtown Los Angeles, where she would be counseling people on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Known by the transgender men and women in her Skid Row support group simply as Ms. Beasley, she’d lived in the neighborhood since 1998, in shelters or motels, sleeping in tents, a van, or county jail. She had struggled with drug abuse in the past, but Beasley was sober now, grateful for what she had, and sympathetic to transgender women in the area who survive on the streets, often through sex work.

Getting dressed for the interview, however, Beasley had to make a choice — show up in her usual dress and a short-haired wig or wear a red button-down shirt with blue jeans, going sans wig, eye shadow, and lip gloss. “I went in as a boy,” she says. “I didn’t want to jeopardize it. I didn’t want them to look at me and think, I don’t believe you’re the best person for this position.You’ve got to get through that door first.” Beasley got the position, and then, on her first day on the job, arrived dressed as a woman. Her supervisor may have been shocked at first, but by then Beasley was already through the door and had the job, and she did it well.

Not all transgender Americans find themselves in such predicaments. But even in California, 12 other states, and the District of Columbia, which have laws banning workplace discrimination based on both gender identity and sexual orientation, recent studies confirm what many experts long suspected to be true: Transgender individuals — and trans people of color in particular — face disproportionate rates of unemployment and poverty, both in comparison to the general population and in comparison to gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals.

Perhaps most striking, preliminary findings of a national survey of 6,450 transgender people, released in September by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found that 97% of respondents experienced on-the-job harassment, ranging from colleagues repeatedly using the incorrect pronoun as a means of mocking to outright physical and sexual assaults. And the abuse takes place on all rungs of the ladder — from the minimum-wage doughnut shop employee whose boss insists her appearance makes her unsuitable to work at the front counter to the legislative aide fired for transitioning. “Gender nonconformity has always been the major reason why [LGBT] people are being harassed,” says Lisa Mottet, the Task Force’s transgender civil rights project director.

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