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Transgender people face uncertainty in employment protections

Queer & There

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Whether applying for a job or attempting to hold down an otherwise solid position, former teacher and librarian Gina Douglas claims that her career prospects nearly always diminish when her employer, or a prospective employer, realizes that she is transgender.

Over the years, Douglas has filed six claims of discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Division. (The Indy has opted not to name the defendants, as the CCRD must decide the validity of Douglas' claims). Defendants settled two of her previous claims, and she lost one, but three — two against potential employers, one against a doctor — remain up in the air.

Since I met her in January of this year, Douglas says she has been unable to find gainful employment, though prospective employers always offer different reasons for their rejection.

It wasn't always this way. A gifted student, Douglas started college at age 16. She earned a master's degree in library science and has worked for schools and libraries along the East Coast and in Colorado Springs. But since transitioning in 2008, she has struggled to find and hold onto not only those positions, but jobs below her qualifications level in retail and call centers. She claims employers remain wary of her transgender status — a claim reflected by national statistics.

The 2014 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, showed that white respondents to the survey experienced unemployment at double the rate of the general population, and transgender people of color at up to four times the rate of the general population. Moreover, 47 percent of respondents claimed they had been denied a promotion or fired due to their transgender status. In some states, they have no legal recourse at all.

Though quite a few court cases tried at multiple levels of the system have established that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal employment anti-discrimination law, does protect transgender individuals, the consensus among courts has not been unanimous. This may soon change. On Nov. 30, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider pending petitions, two of which address Title VII's application to gender identity or sexual orientation. One of these petitions, filed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, see p. 14), the virulently transphobic and homophobic policy group co-founded by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, urges the Supreme Court to address the case of Aimee Stephens, who was fired from her job at a funeral home after coming out as transgender to her boss. A federal appeals court ruled that her rights were, in fact, violated.

But Title VII protections for LGBTQ people are hardly assured, especially in light of a majority-conservative Supreme Court and a recently leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services that suggested adopting a narrow federal definition of gender based on biological characteristics.

Statewide, Colorado's anti-discrimination laws explicitly protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination, but no law can truly prevent employers from discriminating against anyone; it can only offer those individuals the opportunity to seek justice. Douglas claims justice is not always served.

Shortly before Colorado's anti-discrimination law took effect in August 2007, a company fired her from her job handing out and receiving textbooks. "Overtly they fired me for not following someone's orders to sit at a particular desk at a particular time," she says. "But really they knew that as soon as accreditation was over, that I was going to come out officially and say I'm legally entitled to do this."

She lost that particular case. Of course, 2007 turned out to be, in Douglas' words, "a bad time to be out of work."

"I turned into one of the 99ers who had a master's degree, couldn't work at Starbucks, and there were just no jobs. We just got downsized out of the economy," she says.

Even as the general unemployment rate has dropped over the years, little has improved for Douglas. Originally denied Social Security Disability for her injured back, she currently awaits an appeal hearing to be held in August. Unless something major changes, she claims she will end up homeless long before the hearing, and may rely on a GoFundMe campaign (tinyurl.com/GinaDouglasGFM) to weather the storm.

Douglas says the media tend to focus on stories of transgender success. Surgeon Marci Bowers, author Janet Mock, actress Laverne Cox and people like them can act as role models and advocates, but Douglas says their stories distort the public's view of trans life. "Those are the stories that get reported," she says. "It's not anything about what it's really like."

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