Thursday, May 27, 2010

Trans (Un)Employment—a primer (part 1)

By André Pérez

What are the stats?

Some readers may be thinking, “We all know people that are unemployed because of the economy. Why are trans people any different?” The overall unemployment rate has become a prevalent issue recently as it has climbed to %10. While statistics specifically addressing transgender employment are not available on a federal scale, there have been some local efforts to track this number, and experts agree that the unemployment rate among transgender and gender variant people is several times higher than the national average. A study in the San Francisco Bay Area conducted in 2006 of 194 transgender individuals found a 35% unemployment rate, with 59% earning less than $15,300 annually. Well before the recession began, in one of the most queer-friendly places on the country, the level of unemployment was more than seven times the amount of the general population (% 4.6). If you believe that discrimination plays a role in creating this inequality, then it is also reasonable to believe that the rate of unemployment in the trans community has more than doubled because increasing competition for jobs means employers have more discretion in whom they do and do not hire.

What’s the issue?

In one word—it’s complicated. Though employment does not take the spotlight in discussions of queer issues, it is one of the most persistent issues facing transgender and gender variant people, contributing to criminalization, homelessness, domestic violence, and HIV infection.

When pushed out of traditional employment, some transgender people feel they have few options but to engage in the black market economy or to stay in abusive romantic relationships in order to support themselves. Some people engage in sex work, while others resort to running scams or petty theft in order to meet their needs. Due to the illegal nature of these options, transgender people go on to be over-represented in prison populations, where sexual assault is rampant and HIV rates are 2 to 3 times that of the average population (according to Bureau of Justice Statistics). Not only does imprisonment and sex work increase the risk for HIV infection, but also, trans people who (either because they cannot afford medical care or because they do not have the necessary paperwork to access social services) buy hormones off of the streets often do not have access to clean needles. These issues all compound one another, often making it difficult for trans people to seek help or improve their situation.

How typical is this?

Many transgender and gender variant people experience significant periods of unemployment. Despite the dirth of research on the issue, anecdotal evidence would suggest that we get fired more often, are overwhelmingly more likely to experience harassment in the work place (for gender and/or for perceived sexual orientation regardless of one’s actual sexual orientation), and stay out of jobs longer than our cisgendered counterparts.

Transgender and gender variant people experience employment discrimination at every stage of our lives. A disproportionately high number of homeless queer people are gender variant youth who have been kicked out of their parents’ homes after disclosing their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Many go on to seek survival sex in order to secure basic needs such as housing and food. These youth often face insurmountable difficulty finishing high school and are discouraged from pursuing higher education due to lack of financial support. Older, more established people who come out as transgender often risk their families and jobs in doing so. While these people may be in a better position to take care of themselves financially than their younger counter parts, their employability may be more questionable because of age discrimination and gaps in experience (they often do not feel comfortable listing experiences or references prior to their transition if they are afraid of being outed).

People who do not pass for any variety of reasons (biological factors, the age at which they began transition, having a non-normative gender expression, etc.) are especially vulnerable to discrimination.

What’s my deal?

Motivated in part by the recent discussion of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and in part by my own five-month job search, I am launching my own investigation into employment issues and the trans community. While this piece is more of a primer, I plan to do more research and collect interviews from gender variant people that I will combine into an audio piece. By getting the perspectives of activists, trans community members, social services workers, legislators, and many others, I hope to reveal some of the more overlooked aspects of this pressing issue. I plan to create an audio documentary piece that I will submit to NPR’s Third Coast Audio Festival and will continue to post written articles on this blog. If you are interested in the project and/or are willing to share your experience with me, let me know by e-mailing me at

Stay tuned
for more information on ENDA as well as more specific information about the experiences of transgender and gender variant people in Chicago.


  1. It would be nice to see a break down of transgendered unemployment statistics by education. For example, are the rates being pushed higher by those without a high school diploma? What are the rates for those who have a college degree?

  2. I'm really glad that you wrote this piece and are investigating employment patterns of transpeople.

    I would also suggest you investigate "underemployment". This is a situation where people get employed in situations below their level of education, experience or expertise.

    It has been reported that trans unemployment is somewhere between 2-3 times the norm. I would guess that underemployment is more on the order of 4-5 times the average.

    What will be difficult to track is hiring bias on the front end. Employers will mouth the right words, especially in a state like Illinois where we are allegedly accorded protections, but then too often we find the job offers lacking. I suppose you could track months out of work as evidence of this.

    I think it would also be interesting to break your study down into FTM vs. MTF vs. andro or gender queer, as well.

    I think that we are often judged by our looks, and our ability to pass. Beyond that, however, we have a work experience and reference trail that follows us. Most often, this trail is made up of people and experiences that were accumulated in the wrong gender.

    Good luck on your project!

  3. I'm one of those whose had chronic unemployment -- both due to my trans identity and severe depression.

    I've only had one true full-time job in my life, and I'm 50 years old, now. Most of them have been part-time jobs in the service and retail sector.

    I've been without a job for nearly five years, and if it wasn't for family and a roommate, I'd never be able to afford an apartment (which I have Section 8) and pay the bills. I'm also on $200/mo food assistance. I've been on Medicaid, but was knocked off, and trying like hell to get back on.

    There has been very few if any hard scientific research and general interest articles into transfolk in the blue collar/service/retail industry. Most of the attention is on folk who can either pass well, like Calpurnia Adams, or professionals like Susan Stanton, Jenny Boylan, etc. who stayed in the closet for decades before coming out.

    I'll be interesting to see the rest of this article as it plays out!

  4. @ Anonymous: I've actually recently read that the trans community is 3 times as likely to have a undergrad degree than the average population and almost five times as likely to be unemployed. Whether or not this sampling includes people who live on the street, participate in sex work, id as genderqueer but pass as cisgender person, etc. is questionable but it does indicate that education is not the problem here.

    @ Julie Kristine: underemployment is very high. Add to the equation the fact that trans peopel often find employment in non-profit or free lance sectors where part-time work abounds. I have heard of a recent study that set out to prove job discrimination with some pretty compelling results:

  5. Sounds like a great project. I don't feel comfortable participating myself, but I will pass on a link at Questioning Transphobia :)

  6. I grew up in the midwest US, transitioned right out of highschool. I graduated university magna cum laude with two bachelor's degrees. My past was unavoidable however, as I was born in a state that won't let you change your birth certificate. Social Security also will not change your gender marker unless you first change it on your birth certificate, so you can see where this goes. I was repeatedly compelled to out myself to potential employers and as a result I was all but unemployable for the next 8 years after graduating college, until I moved to Seattle, where I got my first ever DAY-job at the age of 30. Without disclosing my status, this time.

    I still live in fear of getting a no-match letter and being forced to identify as male to my HR depts or else be fired. This means I haven't stayed more than a couple of years in the same job, for fear that that no match letter is going to catch up with me if I linger.

    I haven't been unemployed since I moved from Texas, but I've been UNDERemployed for the last year. I'm i n the middle of negotiating towards full time at my current job, but they can't guarantee they'll be able to accomodate me. I am not out at my job, and even tho I don't think I'd be fired from this particular job if I were outed, I am not willing to take the chance. If I lose this gig there is no guarantee I'll be able to replace the income in a timely legal fashion.

    I'm going to be 36 this year, and after 19 years of struggling to support myself and never getting ahead because of my trans baggage, I'm just about spent.

  7. André,

    Let's see if we can collaborate on this to get the info workable. I am a trans-activist as well as a statistical analyst and programmer. I have had severe contract failure over my transition. My video and story can be viewed at: with the title Allison & ENDA . Best wishes and hope to speak with you soon.


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