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We Can't Let Sessions Drive Trans People Back to Sex Work


Thanks to discrimination, Columbia graduate Diana Feliz Oliva had to rely on sex work to survive. She won't allow that to happen to her brothers and sisters.

Just three years ago, I was unemployed. Even though I had an Ivy League education from Columbia University, I spent two whole years searching for a job. The problem wasn't that I wasn't qualified -- it was the immense discrimination I faced for my gender identity. From 2012 to 2015, I had to resort to survival sex work.

My experience is all too common in the transgender community. In 2015, the U.S. Transgender Survey reported that the unemployment rate among transgender people was three times higher than that of the total U.S. population and that nearly one-third of the transgender population was living in poverty -- more than twice the rate in the U.S. The discrimination faced by transgender people creates compounding issues. From finding a job to being the target of hate crimes, our marginalization directly impacts our ability to survive. This discrimination manifests itself in more ways than unemployment and regular, hostile treatment -- it translates to an increased risk of HIV, homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide.

So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood poised to gut lifesaving employment protections for transgender individuals, I felt a heightened urgency to share my story. Though my days of unemployment are behind me, my work as the Transgender Health Program Manager at St. John's Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles feels more urgent than ever. I can tell you: There is hope -- but it demands that you join the fight.

Until 2014, there was little communal effort or opportunity to improve the lives of transgender people. That year, St. John's made history by becoming the first and only community health center in south Los Angeles to offer an economic and professional development program called Trans* Empower Program, which has grown from serving just five transgender job seekers to over 700 today. St. John's is one of the few trans-specific health centers in the United States that is committed to supporting the basic human right to health, employment, education, and housing for all individuals regardless of gender identity and expression, providing low or no cost health care to individuals in need.

St. John's program has evolved rapidly to address transgender individuals' multifaceted needs. In just three years, St. John's has expanded program hours and our service, including workshops on resume building, interview preparation, professional attire, job placement, job fairs, and legal name changes. Prior to the Obama administration, many transgender people faced discrimination in employment settings. Our programs were a direct response to counteract that rampant discrimination.

Under the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo in 2014 announcing that the Justice Department would take the position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination, "encompasses discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status." Since then several federal courts have also ruled that Title VII's protections extend to gender identity, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency responsible for enforcing federal workplace discrimination laws, maintains that position as well. The actions by Sessions last week are yet another offensive attempt by the Department of Justice to roll back the protections that are necessary to ensure that transgender people are treated with basic respect and dignity.

Next month is Transgender Awareness Month, which is cause for celebration, but it's also a call to action. Our actions or continued inaction will make a significant difference between the current climate of discrimination and violence and a world of freedom and equality. I encourage you to join our cause and join our community in resisting these targeted attacks. We must take up the call for human rights for transgender people and confront this pattern of abuse and injustice. We must accept nothing less than a complete elimination of this pervasive inhumanity; we must work continuously and strenuously together for justice.

DIANA FELIZ OLIVA is the transgender health program manager at St. John's Well Child and Family Center.

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