Transgender job seekers face uphill battle

February 22, 2013: 7:06 AM ET
Transgender and unemployed for 4 years
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

Rebecca Juro, 50, has been unemployed for the last four years and she can't help but think it's because she's transgender.

She has applied for almost 100 jobs and has gone on close to 20 interviews, but there have been no offers. No one says they aren't hiring her because she's transgender. But some employers tell her the job has been filled even though she continues to see postings for it online. Others have "laughed in my face."

"With as many non-trans people out of work as there are, it seems almost no one is going to hire a trans woman when there's another choice," said Juro, who lives at home with her mom as she job hunts.

Transgender is a term used for people who identify as a different gender from the one they were given at birth. Some undergo surgery or take hormones to change their bodies.

And as millions of Americans struggle with unemployment, this community is being hit especially hard.

Related: Transgender financial struggles: 'How we get by'

It's hard to pin down a precise jobless rate since there's so little transgender-specific data available. The most recent comprehensive study of more than 6,000 transgender individuals was released in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality. This report found the transgender jobless rate to be 14% -- double the national rate -- and as high as 28% for black respondents. And a recent online Prudential survey of 49 transgender individuals had similar findings.

Keisha Allen, a black, 45-year-old transgender woman, has been working as a prostitute since her mother kicked her out of the house at age 16 for being transgender. She makes less than $12,000 a year and lives at a homeless shelter, where she is forced to stay in the men's section. She has applied for hundreds of entry-level jobs that don't require a college degree -- from dishwashers to cashiers -- without making it past the first interview.

"Once I get to the interview and my name doesn't match my ID and my body doesn't match what it says on my ID, I never hear back," said Allen. "My only way of survival is through sex."

Even those who find jobs often end up taking significant pay cuts, said Lisa Mottet, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Transgender Civil Rights Project.

Jennifer Chavez, 55, has 40 years of experience in the auto industry but said she was terminated from her job as a mechanic just two months after telling her boss she planned to transition from male to female. Upon finding out about her transition, she said co-workers stopped talking to her and her boss even told her an applicant had turned down a job because of her. Soon, word about her transition spread.

Related: I'm unemployed and hopeless

"[P]rior to my transition, getting a job was nothing," said Chavez. "After my transition, a huge segment of Atlanta in the auto service world knew about me, so I was blackballed from all the auto dealerships."

More than 300 applications later, she landed a full-time, commission-based technician job at Pep Boys, where her potential annual earnings are around $35,000 -- half of what she previously made. As a result, she has barely been able to hold on to her home.

Many transgender individuals aren't able to afford a home at all. Homelessness among this group is estimated to be double the national rate, according to the NCTE study. Respondents were also nearly four times more likely to have annual household incomes of less than $10,000, and 16% said they resorted to sex work or drug dealing for income -- a percentage that nearly doubled for the unemployed and skyrocketed to 53% for black respondents.

Medical bills can also be a problem. Tim Chevalier, a 32-year-old transsexual man from California, has a high-paying job as a software engineer at Mozilla. But he's still struggling to make ends meet after racking up $50,000 in medical bills from his reconstructive surgery and related medical costs that insurance wouldn't cover.

Help for the unemployed

A growing number of programs are being launched to help the transgender community.

The LGBT Community Center in San Francisco assists transgender job seekers with decisions like which name to include on a resume -- the one from their previous sex or their new name -- whether to bring up their transition to a potential employer or to come out to past employers in case they are called as a reference.

It also started offering a computer coding class late last year -- a skill in high demand. The first class of 15 people is in its second semester, and the center will try to connect them with companies in the area like Twitter and Google upon graduation.

The Chicago House, a facility for people with HIV/AIDS in Chicago, is launching transgender-specific housing and a four-week employment program offering job search advice, career counseling and even help with makeup and clothing before job interviews.

Programs like this are especially important in the aftermath of the economic downturn, since transgender people were often the first to be laid off and last to be hired, said Mottet.

But a federal law protecting transgender workers remains crucial to getting to the root of the unemployment problem, advocacy groups say. And there's growing optimism it could happen, with state anti-discrimination laws that specifically protect transgender employees now covering 45% of the population -- up from 5% about 10 years ago.

Related: Heroes helping others find jobs

Even so, it's often hard to prove a discrimination case.

In one of the biggest recent victories, Vandy Beth Glenn sued the Georgia General Assembly for firing her immediately after she told her boss that she planned to transition from male to female. A federal appeals court based in Atlanta ruled that treating her differently due to her gender identity violated the Constitution's Equal Protection clause. Glenn was given back her job editing proposed state legislation, and the court even went on to rule that public and private employers can't fire transgender workers because of their gender identity, said Greg Nevins, an attorney at Lambda Legal who represented Glenn.

"Once [employers] are aware of what is prohibited, I think it will get rid of a lot of the barriers to transgender individuals having the right to earn a living and be part of the workforce," said Nevins.

Are you transgender and struggling to make ends meet? Or do you have a success story you want to share? E-mail blake.ellis@turner.com.
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