"There is always more to be learned about tolerance." - Mercedes Ruehl, commenting on her Lifetime movie role as the mother of transgender child
Before starting Queercents, I had never interacted with anyone from the transgender community. Perhaps, it's just a by-product of living in a conservative area like Orange County, CA. I used to see a transgender woman walking regularly around the Back Bay, a nature preserve near our home. Once, I saw her waiting for take out at our favorite Mexican restaurant and I considered introducing myself. But then I couldn't think of an appropriate next line after telling her my name. As you might suspect, I never was the one picking up others in my bar-going days. I always needed a friend to provide an introduction.
My Queercents blogging has actually taken on the role of a friend doing introductions for me and even though I still haven't met anyone face-to-face in the trans community; I've done plenty of interviews and feel like I have a better understanding of our brothers and sisters in the trans world. E.g. Donna Rose, Jamison Green, Alexandra Billings, Jennifer Boylan and next Friday (11/14), I'll post an interview at Queercents with Nina Poon - the model in the Kenneth Cole ads if you'd like to stop by.
What I've learned from these interviews (and now from Ashley Wilson's posts), is that coming out as a transgender person often times has a much greater impact on one's finances than coming out as a gay person. In a way, it seems like the workplace treats the trans community today much like the treatment of the gay community thirty years ago. In the words of Jamison Green, employment issues are still a challenge for many:
I've met scores of highly educated, otherwise successful people who have either lost everything when they couldn't retain their employment or find a new job once their trans-ness became known, or who have limited themselves and avoided opportunities because of their own fear of confronting the world as a transgender person.
Or as Donna Rose explained to me why under-employment is still a significant issue facing transgender people:
It's actually a very simple answer. Discrimination. Transgender people often make others uncomfortable so they're not given opportunities to do jobs they're well qualified to do.
Our society has expectations for men and women - how they look, act, and are supposed to "be" - and it doesn't treat ambiguity in that regard kindly. Often, transgender people necessarily challenge that binary and have difficulty fitting into these neat little molds. This often manifests itself in unfortunate decisions that are made when it comes to hiring or retaining qualified talent.
I have many friends who held significant corporate roles prior to announcing their transition who ended up unemployed for many months to several years afterwards... In order to make ends meet many of us find ourselves forced to take jobs (if we can get them) that are significantly below our skill level, at a significant reduction in pay. The impact that this has, not only on our ability to pay our bills but on our overall psyche, is often devastating.
Knowing this, I was pleasantly surprised back in April 2007 when the Los Angeles Times was incredibly supportive about the transition of one of their own: Mike Penner, a well-know sportswriter, made a very public transition to Christine Daniels. She had positive things to say about her employer and taking on the role of spokesperson for the trans movement:
Yes, I was prepared for it, and it has come to pass. I am fine with it. I believe this is my calling -- to help provide some sorely needed education about a natural but vastly misunderstood condition. I believe I was born trans and reached this life intersection for a reason -- I am a high-profile writer already working within the "testosterone sports culture," I have communications skills, I have a powerful platform at the Times with which I can help disseminate an important message that is long overdue.
Fast forward to today. Christine is back as Mike. Helen Boyd of My Husband Betty fame writes:
As far as I know, this is the most famous person to de-transition I've ever heard of, and it's surely going to cause additional confusion to people who are just starting to get why people transition in the first place. So - why do people de-transition? I've met people who did because they couldn't find a job as a female, especially if/when there were dependents in the picture. Others realize they weren't transsexual - and that is the point of RLT, after all, & that means it's working.
Joe Moag at the GaySportsBlog.com though brings up an great point about work:
I think the story here is a happy one. Mike went through whatever Mike needed to go through to try and do what we all need to try and do: become a happier, healthier human being. That voyage took Mike to Christine, and now has taken him back to Mike. All the while, the L.A. Times accepted him, paid him, employed him, and supported him. No one came unglued (oh, I am sure that Right-Wing Fundamentalists all over the place came unglued, but those assholes come unglued if it rains, so who gives a fuck?), and Mike was allowed to take his voyage on his terms. He did his job, he did it well, and he didn't get fired or hassled.
So kudos to the Los Angeles Times for accepting, paying, employing and supporting both Mike and Christine. And all the while, Times readers haven't skipped a beat. More companies should take note. I'll end today's post with the hopeful words of Donna Rose and how we can continue to promote change in the workplace:
Education. Gradual cultural acceptance. Continued visibility. Persistence. All are important to spotlight what is happening and to lower the barriers of discomfort that prevent many of us from realizing our career potential as transgender individuals.
As usual, your thoughts are welcomed below in the comments section.