Prizm News / April 1, 2018 / By MJ Eckhouse

It’s hard to get hired in the first place, but harassment and mistreatment await on the job.

Two years after coming out as transgender, Sasha García was on her first job search.

“They would look me up and down, realize that I was transgender, and they said, ‘No, there’s no job,’ even though there were signs saying they were hiring,” she says.

Originally from Mexico, García lived in New York City before moving to Cleveland. In New York, García was working at a retail outlet when she started medically transitioning. That’s when her boss and manager began sexually harassing her, she said.

“I told them, ‘I feel like you shouldn’t make remarks about me working, getting too close, rubbing my body or saying comments about my body.’”

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The harassment continued anyway, she said. Eventually, she left her job of five years, became homeless and lived in a shelter. García kept looking for jobs without success.

After several unsuccessful interviews, she was forced to step back from her transition.

“I decided not to go back to my voice coach, take off my makeup and hair. Then, I went searching for a job. The first day I started searching for a job, I got a job.”

García’s experiences aren’t unique.

The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, found that 15 percent of trans Americans were unemployed and 29 percent were living in poverty.

The polling company CivicScience and the National LGBTQ Task Force found last year that the unemployment rate hadn’t changed.

In Ohio, 16 percent of transgender residents were unemployed in 2015, according to the trans survey, and 26 percent were living in poverty. The state’s overall unemployment rate never topped 5 percent that year.

Melissa Alexander, co-chair of TransOhio. (Prizm photo by Staley Munroe)

Melissa Alexander, co-chair of TransOhio, believes non-discrimination laws act as a deterrent to harassment and discrimination by employers. Working for more than 20 years as a labor attorney in Columbus taught Alexander about businesses’ perspective in discrimination cases.

“What really scared employers most of the time was the fact that they could lose or they would have to incur legal fees and expenses,” Alexander says. “That affected their bottom line and the image of the company.”

But despite her expertise on the issue, Alexander has faced the same difficulty in her career as other transgender people. In January, she testified before the Ohio House Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight in favor of House Bill 160, which would prohibit discrimination statewide based on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Ohio is one of 30 states without inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“In my transition, I lost none of my training, education, experience or work ethic,” Alexander told lawmakers. “But employers and clients seemed to act as if I had, for I faced discrimination and lost employment.”

García began presenting femininely again after a while at her new job. Her manager was  respectful. But then he left the company.

“His brother became the manager and it was like, all over again, the harassment,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was welcome. And then he let me go.”

After that, García moved to Cleveland. She hasn’t started looking for a job.

Among transgender Ohioans who were employed the previous year, 34 percent reported in the 2015 national survey that they had been fired, denied promotions or experienced mistreatment at work that included being outed or forced to use the wrong restroom.

Trans people of color experience higher rates of discrimination. Nationwide, 20 percent of black respondents were unemployed, twice the rate of the overall black population. For Latino/a respondents, 21 percent were unemployed, compared to 7 percent generally.

Although 20 cities in Ohio have LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws that cover employment, housing and public accommodations, they cover just 22 percent of the state’s population.

With TransOhio, Alexander hears stories of discrimination from across the state. Jaiowyn Robinson lives about 30 miles outside Cincinnati. She calls the area “Leelah Alcorn’s graveyard,” referring to the trans teenager from Kings Mills who committed suicide in 2014.

While working at a distribution center, Robinson says, she was assigned jobs by herself that usually took two workers. Her coworkers threw her shipments onto the floor to make her job harder.

Robinson believes that skilled professionals experience less discrimination than laborers. A friend in the IT department didn’t face the same hostility, she says.

“Nondiscrimination just doesn’t trickle down to where I’m at,” she says.

Customer service jobs bring additional challenges. Rykelle Jackson of Canton worked the night shift as a server. When she made a mistake once on an order, the customer complained and insulted her gender expression. After the confrontation, her manager said he had no idea she was transgender. A few days later, she was fired.

Many transgender job seekers must decide whether to come out to employers. But legal documents with their former names or gender markers can out them anyway.

In late March, four trans Ohioans, with the help of the ACLU of Ohio and Lambda Legal, filed a federal lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Health that seeks to change a state policy that denies transgender people the right to change the gender marker on their birth certificates.

Ohio is one of just three states that doesn’t allow changes in gender markers. A federal judge in early March ordered Idaho to change its anti-transgender policy.

Logan Dorado of Cleveland Heights came out two years ago while working at a brewery. Last year, he made a career move to a bigger company in a new field.

“This, honestly, was a bit scary, as none of my legal documents matched my preferred name or pronouns. They still don’t,” he says. “So even just applying was nerve-wracking.” Miles Ehrman of Kent, who works for a mental health agency, also had problems with legal documents during job searches.

“It’s an issue because documentation such as my high school diploma has my previous name on it, as do college transcripts,” Ehrman says.

There are 17 Ohio companies with 100 percent ratings on Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. Nearly 300 Ohio businesses, nonprofits and universities have joined Ohio Business Competes, a coalition that supports expanded nondiscrimination laws.

While some companies have implemented trans-friendly policies or programs, many haven’t taken these steps.

Michael Robinson, a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University, says many employers don’t prioritize trans employees because of a lack of academic research.

“We end up having all these anecdotal pieces that people experience,” Robinson says. “We don’t have that aggregate knowledge of what happens, how it happens and why it happens.”

Robinson says it’s hard to collect data because transgender people often don’t trust businesses or academia.

“It makes sense that transgender people don’t trust the system,” he says, “because our marginalization is based on systemic oppression.”

MJ Eckhouse is a trans activist from Hiram. He studies political science at Kent State University and is the editor of Kent State’s LGBTQ magazine, Fusion.

Bob Vitale
A Toledo native and graduate of Toledo Public Schools, Bob has worked as a local government and politics reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, as a Washington correspondent for Thomson Newspapers and as editor-in-chief for Outlook Ohio. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.