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Trans jobseekers out themselves with references, face discrimination

Whether we’re climbing the corporate ladder or slogging away in retail our jobs consume a huge part of our adult lives. But for trans people finding employment — and keeping it through transition — can be a struggle.

“A lot of people have issues around providing references,” says Holden Keys, who facilitates the trans group Thrive at the Fred Victor Centre. “Not wanting to come out in a new or old workplace is an ongoing challenge.”

Thrive, a group for trans people focusing on employment and housing, is cohosting the upcoming Trans Job Fair, with help from the Rainbow Employment Network of Toronto. The fair, which is the first of its kind in Toronto, takes place Mon, Aug 11 at Fred Victor’s Employment Resource Centre.

Keys says trans jobseekers can also run into difficulties when presenting would-be employers with credentials and identification, which may not match the name and gender under which a person is seeking employment.

“There are systematic challenges around presenting identification, being able to change your name,” he says.

“Once you fill out an application, disclose personal information, [potential employers] ask for identification and then the issue becomes controversial,” says Shadmith Manzo, who runs the transition support group at the 519 Community Centre. “What happens many times when I do my applications is I put the gender I’m living with and present ID and [because they don’t match] many times the interview doesn’t even start.”

Manzo, who has been with the transition support group since 1996, says she’s seen many group members struggle with employment issues.

“We have many people who work on the streets, some even with professional degrees. They feel like they cannot compete and like they have no other choice,” says Manzo. “Many live on social assistance, jumping from one basic job to another. It’s an on-going problem and the reason for that is identification. Many trans people are very successful jobwise before transition.”

Manzo says making it easier for people to change their gender on their personal identification would go a long way to making it easier for trans jobseekers. In Ontario a person can have the gender on their drivers’ licence changed after presenting a letter from their doctor, but amending federal identification — including birth certificates, health cards and passports — requires the person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.

“It is cruel and unfair that people have to have a procedure that’s risky and expensive to be politically and legally recognized,” says Manzo.

Facing discrimination in the workplace during transition or after coming out as trans is also a common concern, says Keys.

“People are scared of being discriminated against,” he says. “I think it’s a matter of workplace policies. A lot of workplaces have policies but when it comes to it there’s a lot of room for discrimination.”

“It’s anxiety-provoking, being at work and not being out,” says one trans woman who works as a server and a counsellor. “On one hand you’re proud to be passing and on the other there’s a certain anxiety. If you come out, what will people think? You basically have to undo all the programming people have had about trans ideas and that’s a lot of work to do when you’re trying to work.”

“I’ve worked on wrongful dismissal cases,” says employment lawyer and trans woman Nicole Nussbaum. “Unfortunately it’s still relatively common that people who transition in the workplace get dismissed. Often there will be an allegation of performance issues or other discipline issues. When someone is transitioning often they’re not in the most empowered situation so if they are looking for a job or have been terminated, prospects for future employment are more challenging.”

Although the Northwest Territories is the only jurisdiction in Canada to explicitly protect trans people from discrimination transsexuality is understood to be covered under other categories elsewhere in the country.

“Essentially the human rights code protects trans people from discrimination and harassment in employment that’s based on their gender identity under the grounds of sex protection and, in terms of medical needs, it falls under disability as well,” says Nussbaum. “The main thing for trans people to know is that they do have legal rights.”

Antidiscrimination laws aren’t the only things protecting trans people in the workplace.

“I transitioned on the job in 1994 and had support from the union,” says trans activist Martine Stonehouse, who is head caretaker at Toront’s Eastdale Collegiate. “I basically did it cold turkey. I was a floater going from school to school. When I switched to a different school, I came in as myself.

“It was a little dicey at first. I was rather fortunate where I worked and being in the union.”

Stonehouse has been on the job for 25 years and is a member of Canadian Union of Public Employee’s Pink Triangle Committee.

“We’ve done a lot of work on the issue,” she says of her work within the union. “We’ve identified things like transphobia in the workplace, gotten gender identity added on the equality statement; gender identity is protected in our collective agreements.”

Similarly York philosophy professor Michael Gilbert had tenure when he came out as trans to his students and colleagues.

“It started in 1996,” recalls Gilbert. “At that time there was a taskforce at the university on the LGBT community and there was not a mention about trans issues. I wrote them and said it was unfortunate; it was the beginning of my coming out.

“I felt as someone who has tenure it was my moral obligation to come out. I felt that because I was protected in controversial situations, it was time to put up or shut up. I was teaching a second year course called gender and sexuality and I asked my students if they would like to meet someone who was trans, and I came in a woman professor.”

Gilbert, who is also the director of the weeklong trans gatherg Fantastia Fair in Provincetown, says employment has been a big issue at the annual event.

“Last year at the event a main topic of conversation was ENDA — the Employment Non Discrimination Act,” says Gilbert. “It was being revamped in the States and it did not include gender orientation. It was a hot topic. At this year’s upcoming Fantastia Fair we’ll have as a guest speaker British author Stephen Whittle who has just written a book on employment and gender.”