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