The recent celebrations of Labor Day and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom both show how far we have come as a society in moving toward workplace equality and embracing the contributions of all American workers. As a result of hard work from organized labor and worker rights advocates, American workers are afforded important workplace protections, pay and benefits that greatly improve our quality of life.
Historically, all workers have not been able to enjoy these hard earned gains. Consequently, Bayard Rustin, a gay, black civil rights leader, and A. Phillip Randolph, a civil rights leader and head of the nation’s first predominately black labor union, organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to bring attention to racial discrimination, workplace inequality and the exclusion of African Americans from opportunities of economic prosperity.
The Labor movement and the March on Washington have done a great deal to advance the cause of workplace equality, but the task is not complete. Modern instances of pervasive workplace discrimination are not limited to African Americans. Other groups, such as the LGBT community and immigrants, also face discrimination. Transgender people, in particular, face huge barriers to finding gainful employment.
Jeri Hughes, a transgender activist, says that every transgender person she knows has faced workplace discrimination. Similar to present racial discrimination, anti-transgender discrimination is often difficult to prove. “I went three years without work and it’s not because I don’t have skills,” Hughes told me. “I finally got a job through the D.C. senior program.” She worked there for a few years and after getting laid off, she went to work for Transgender Health Empowerment. Her position with T.H.E. recently ended when its programs shut down due to financial troubles.
Hughes worked in private industry for years, but has not been able to secure any type of employment in the private sector since transitioning from a man to a woman and moving to D.C. “I worked for a guy in New Jersey for many years,” Hughes said. “I was a renowned maintenance supervisor. [The owner’s] son was the vice president of the company and my immediate supervisor. After I transitioned, I moved to D.C. and was looking for a job.” Hughes’ previous supervisor also moved to the D.C. area. Hughes secured an interview and since her former supervisor was the developer who hired the management company she was interviewing with, “I was a shoo-in because I was given such a high recommendation [from my former supervisor],” she said. “After I went to interview, they decided to keep a guy who didn’t know half what I knew.”
Transgender people who do not have the work experience that Hughes has, have an even harder time gaining employment. Hughes said that when she was at T.H.E., “I had girls come into the office trying to turn their lives around, applying to entry-level jobs everywhere.” They never received responses to their applications “until they gave up and ended up back on the stroll [in prostitution] or some underground economy and then they’d end up back up jail.”
If Dr. Lynel Johnson is any indication, workplace discrimination seems to be less of an issue for transgender men than for transgender women, but it is still a factor. Johnson, a transgender man who works as a physician, has faced some discrimination from individual co-workers, but has not faced any systemic discrimination since transitioning three years ago. Johnson said that early in his transition, he was working for a government agency. There was a verbal altercation when an employee started making hostile statements based on sexual orientation (Johnson was early in his transition, so he was still perceived as a lesbian at the time). The police came, took a statement, and the offending party was ultimately barred from the work site.
In his current position, “H.R. knows my birth sex, as well as a few employees, but I don’t think most people know. I put in my paperwork. My credentials are female, but my gender presentation is male. H.R. have respected my privacy” and have not told anyone, said Johnson.
Johnson acknowledges that he may face less workplace discrimination than transgender women because he is passable as a heterosexual man. “People do not really notice me and if they notice me, they notice that I’m really small.”
Hughes says that integration is the answer to breaking down barriers in the workplace. “We have to look at the civil rights movement. There was integration in the schools, in the workplace, the barriers started breaking down and discrimination started disappearing. Only when we started living together” will we start to see progress.
At the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the last living speaker from the original march, said, “We have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years, but we still have a great distance to go before we fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.” We should heed his words and recommit ourselves to continuing to fight to fulfill Dr. King’s dream of equality for all people.
Lateefah Williams’ column, “Life in the Intersection,” focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is the immediate past president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her at twitter @lateefahwms.