At the end of last year, Rolling Stone declared 2014 “The Biggest Year in Transgender History,” noting increased representation of trans characters and actors on TV (think: Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, Amazon’s Transparent). Prominent women’s colleges like Mills College and Mount Holyoke began to accept transgender women as applicants, and the United States made legislative strides toward more inclusive health care.
2015 arguably saw a trans woman in the brightest spotlight yet: Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and subsequent press tour broadcast a high-profile trans woman into homes across America. But new visibility should not be mistaken for progress; transgender Americans endure significant adversity and financial penalties.
While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was touted as revolutionizing trans-specific health care by eliminating the discrimination often faced by trans people when it comes to health coverage, the changes weren’t nearly as sweeping as they were made out to be. And while Caitlyn Jenner is a valuable advocate for transgender rights, her extraordinary resources and profound privileges are not reflective of the community as a whole.
The economic reality for most trans people is a starker one.
Jobs, What Jobs?
The most severe case of economic discrimination faced by the trans population is employment, says Finn Brigham, director of care coordination at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York City. Trans people are already more likely than their cisgender counterparts to face homelessness, and according to the Movement Advancement Project are nearly four times more likely as the cisgender population to earn a yearly income below $10,000 (“cisgender,” or simply “cis,” describes people whose gender identity lines up with the sex assigned to them at birth).
That number escalates for trans people of color; Asian American/Pacific Islander and Latino trans people are nearly six times more likely to live in poverty than cisgender Asian American/Pacific Islander and Latino people.
Overcoming poverty is hard enough for anyone, but trans people are “often set up from a very young age to not be able to obtain gainful employment,” Brigham says. Many trans people are kicked out of their homes and are unable to finish high school, making college unlikely. This makes finding work that pays a living wage exceptionally difficult.
If a trans person does manage to overcome these obstacles, the onboarding process at a new job presents a challenge, Brigham says. Even with all legal documents changed to reflect the correct gender identity (which is a herculean task — here are some resources to help navigate it), most jobs will require some sort of background check and a list of any names you have gone by in the past.
At this point, it becomes nearly impossible not to disclose that a person is trans (if they haven’t already, and some trans people choose not to disclose), which presents a shocking problem: It is legal in 32 states to fire somebody simply because of their gender identity. This means that a perfectly competent, qualified, hired person can lose their chance at employment when an employer chooses to discriminate — and it’s legal.
Unfortunately this isn’t rare: According to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 26 percent reported losing a job due to their gender identity, while 47 percent reported being fired, denied promotions, or not being hired at all. If they did gain employment, 90 percent reported harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination in the workplace.
The results of this bias are staggering. According to the survey, “respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population at the time of the survey, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.” Sixteen percent of respondents were left with no choice but to work in the “underground economy,” taking up illegal occupations like selling drugs or engaging in sex work.
It gets worse. Those who had lost a job due to gender identify bias reported “ruinous consequences”; four times the rate of homelessness, more than double the HIV infection rate, and 70 percent more drinking or drug use as compared to the wider population not fired due to discrimination. All these statistics go hand-in-hand with the 85 percent increase in the likelihood of incarceration.
Unfortunately, unemployment isn’t the only way trans people find themselves predisposed to being homeless.