If you’re of a certain age, you’ll probably recognize the title of this column as the opening line of the theme song from the classic television comedy series “Cheers.” Even in the economic boom times of the 1990’s when “Cheers” was at the top of the television ratings, those words held a lot of resonance for many Americans, and that’s just as true today, especially if you happen to be transgender.
When I came out and began living as a woman fulltime in 1997, even giving it everything I had didn’t help very much. I was pretty naïve at the time, and never really believed that something as relatively inconsequential to my work performance as changing my presented gender from male to female would be a problem for me on the job. I was a well-liked, experienced, and reliable retail worker, and on the management promotion short list. Not once did it occur to me that it could all just disappear just because I told my boss I’d soon be wearing skirts and pumps to work instead of ties and oxfords.
And yet, that was exactly what happened. Once I told my boss that I’d be transitioning and beginning to live my life as a woman, his attitude toward me changed as if someone had flipped a switch. Suddenly, I could do nothing right in his eyes. By the time he fired me a few days later, I’d learned my first lesson in what it is to be a trans woman in the modern American workplace.
It was six years after I’d been fired from that job that I was finally able to get hired as a woman. I worked as a cashier in a pet store, a significantly lower position than I was accustomed to after working in retail for almost twenty years. I wasn’t happy of course, but I’d resolved that if what it was going to take to rebuild my career in retail as a woman was to start from the bottom again and work my way back up I was going to do it. Unfortunately, my employers had other plans.
When I began looking for work as a woman, I was blindsided by the sudden loss of male privilege and credibility that simply being perceived as a man had afforded me all of my adult working life. It wasn’t long after I began living and working as a woman that I discovered that that loss of male privilege was actually a double-whammy: Not only did men now see me as less capable and intelligent because I was a woman, but in many cases I also wasn’t afforded even the basic respect a non-transgender woman could expect in the workplace. I was almost always the last hired and the first fired, never seriously considered for promotions, and sometimes even openly mocked and insulted by fellow workers, managers, and customers.
While it did get a little easier over time to get hired in retail, keeping those jobs didn’t. In New Jersey, legislation was passed into law in 2006 which added gender identity and expression protections to the state’s Law Against Discrimination, which already outlawed discrimination based on a wide variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.
Companies were put on notice that refusing to hire based on no other reason than an applicant’s status as a transgender person was now unlawful and could subject them to a lawsuit as well as sanctions imposed by the New Jersey State Division on Civil Rights. The new law did have a positive impact in being fairly considered for entry-level employment, but it didn’t do much for my career advancement once I’d been hired. One glass ceiling had indeed been broken, but only to reveal another, even thicker and more durable version installed right above it.
As hard as it was for a trans woman have a gainful career in retail then, once the economy began tanking a couple of years later it quickly became next to impossible. With so many out of work and applying to the retail jobs that were once my bread and butter, no one wanted to hire a trans woman when there were so many “normal” options available.
This began another six-year stint of unemployment for me which ended only recently when I decided to seek work as a freelance journalist and began taking on assignments in LGBT commercial media (like this one, for example).
For all of the progress trans people and trans women especially have made recently in terms of our acceptance in the culture, the workplace and other areas of American life and society, it’s still pretty tough out there. Not everyone has the time, skill, or financial space to do what I did and leave behind a career they invested almost their entire adult working life in to take their chances as freelance journalist. It’s even tougher when those trans workers have families that depend on their paychecks.
Just as my ability to do this work depends on the willingness of forward-thinking editors and publishers to hire me to write for them, so too could many other trans job applicants benefit from support of those who will judge them on their demonstrated skills and abilities in hiring and offer the opportunity to prove themselves. If you’re one of those people, or have influence with someone who is, I hope you’ll consider it.
Not only do trans people have the skills and experience employers are looking for, we tend to be very loyal to those who give us a chance to shine. Invest in trans workers and make us part of your team. We’ll return that investment with interest.