Bré (pronounced “Bree”) Rivera, the executive director and cofounder of the Trans Sistas of Color Project—Detroit, recounts the time she was trying to help a fellow transgender woman of color get a job at an all-white primary care clinic in Detroit, acting as a conduit between the woman and the prospective employer.
“The employer told me that they would have hired her,” says Rivera, “but they didn’t like how she showed up”—in boots with sky-high heels that they felt were inappropriate for a job interview. Rivera explained to the employer that the candidate, like many transgender folks, was trying to enter the mainstream job world for the first time and had both insufficient know-how and financial resources for on-the-job dressing. Rivera urged the employer not only to give the candidate a second chance, but to help her out. The employer heard Rivera—and not only hired the woman but gave her a gift card to buy workplace-appropriate clothes.
Then Rivera had to turn around and talk the woman down from being offended. “I said to her, ‘This is them trying to let you know that they understand the world that you’re walking through and that they want to help. So take the job and the gift card.’ The next time I saw her, she was appropriately dressed for an office and she felt good. And two years later, she just got her own apartment, and she’s done a total 360 with her life.”
The story, focusing on a pair of boots, may seem silly, but it underscores the many challenges trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) folks—particularly those without a traditionally educated and trained background—face when trying to break into and rise within the conventional work world, even the sphere of well-meaning social-service and social-justice nonprofits.
“People get excited about hiring trans folks, without understanding the crap we have to go through,” says Rivera, who is openly HIV positive (diagnosed in 2010) and currently is a program fellow at Groundswell, a reproductive justice fund run by women of color. And part of that “crap,” driven by discrimination and poverty, is a massive lack of traditional job experience. As summarized by the National Center for Transgender Equality:
“More than one in four transgender people have lost a job due to bias, and more than three-fourths have experienced some form of workplace discrimination. Refusal to hire, privacy violations, harassment, and even physical and sexual violence on the job are common occurrences, and are experienced at even higher rates by transgender people of color. Many people report changing jobs to avoid discrimination or the risk of discrimination. Extreme levels of unemployment and poverty lead one in eight to become involved in underground economies—such as sex and drug work—in order to survive.”
Indeed, TheBody took on this story because, during interviews with leaders at nearly 50 HIV agencies nationwide as part of our “Eyes on the End” series, we learned that even in the world of HIV—where transgender women of color, in particular, are heavily affected—most agencies had no TGNC staffers, and those that did had no more than one or two, almost never in leadership positions. It was common for agencies to say that they’d employed one or two trans former clients as peer advocates—until the special funding for those positions ran out—or that they were “committed” to hiring more transgender staffers but faced challenges given how few, especially those who looked like the agency’s transgender clients, had work experience or required degrees.
Hence, we decided to ask leaders in the transgender HIV space what HIV and related agencies could do to not only increase the number of transgender employees but to support them in a manner that would foster sustained careers and happy lives. Here’s some of what they had to say:
Consider That Some of Your Current Staff May Be TGNC and You Don’t Know It
“Not everyone who is trans is out,” says Rivera. “I know a couple of people who worked in the field who didn’t want to disclose they were trans, because they didn’t want to be tokenized.” In that case, ask yourself what many HIV and related agencies have been asking themselves in recent years: Is this a safe and affirming work environment for TGNC people? Is there a gender-inclusive bathroom policy? Pronoun and name policy? Is trans-affirming care, everything from hormone therapy to surgery, covered in your health plan? These things, in addition to being the right thing to do, signal to TGNC folks that they are in a workplace that has at least done the basics when it comes to being TGNC-affirming. If you don’t know where to start on these things, hire a local transgender consultant. You can find one in your area through the national Transgender Strategy Center (TSC).
Don’t Just Expect TGNC Folks to Come to You
“I often hear from employers, ‘Oh, we can’t find any trans people to hire,’” says Aryah Lester, deputy director of TSC. “But it’s because you’re not getting the right people to assist you. It doesn’t take much effort. Contact your local TGNC leaders. Every one of them is connected to a whole community.”
Thomi Clinton, CEO of Transgender Community Coalition in California’s Inland Empire, which works for increased access to health care, housing, and employment for TGNC folks, says, “Consider going to TGNC events to try to do employment recruitment.”
Consider Lived Experience as Well as Education and Career Background
Employers often say that many TGNC job applicants don’t have the licensing or education required for certain jobs. “And it’s true,” says Clinton. “How are you supposed to go to school when you’re living in your car?” Consider, says Lester, saying in a job ad that lived as well as professional experience will be taken into account.
But Then Try to Build Educational Advancement Into the Job
It’s OK, says Clinton, to hire TGNC folks as receptionists or janitors. But everyone advises that a workplace have some mechanism to help TGNC (as well as, frankly, all) employees articulate, if they choose, a career plan going forward—and tools to help them get there.
Kiala Emmons, the transgender services navigator at Metro Inclusive Health in Florida’s Tampa Bay area, says that not only does Metro provide partial tuition reimbursement, but its chief operating officer, upon hearing that Emmons was going back to school for her social worker’s degree, arranged for Emmons to sit in on counseling sessions with consenting Metro clients to learn those skills on the job.
Her colleague, Cole Foust, a trans man who is Metro’s LGBTQ+ division manager, echoes that. “I come from poverty, and though I have my bachelor’s, I’ve wanted to go to grad school for a very long time, but it felt out of reach.” Metro’s partial tuition reimbursement, plus institutional support for his continued education, made it possible. “I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to continue my studies at any other organization,” he says.
Understand That TGNC Folks Often Have Added Life Challenges
When Foust, while at a former job at a federal agency, was given the green light to do a TGNC sensitivity training, he says, he wasn’t allowed to talk about “privilege”—meaning the fact that TGNC folks, especially those of color, are often coming from less income, education, and vocational privilege and are often at higher risk of violence than cisgender staffers. But it’s a fact—and employers have to be sensitive to the possibility that TGNC staffers may need more support than their cisgender counterparts. This may take the form of being a little more patient with TGNC staffers when it comes to things like tardiness, missed days, or failure to immediately live up to job descriptions.
According to Keiva-Lei Cadena, community engagement coordinator at Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center, having someone on staff versed in trauma-informed communication can be hugely helpful in making both employers and TGNC staffers accountable to one another. “Consider the equity it takes to hire someone who’s had challenging life experiences and has experienced trauma, because I don’t think there is a trans person who hasn’t,” she says. She points to herself as an example of a trans woman who needs extra time in the morning to put herself together in a way that she feels confident going out in the world (not to mention, she says, morning nausea from her HIV meds).
That’s why, she said, her workplace lets her work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Similarly, she says, a history of trauma, for some TGNC folks, means that they might appear to communicate aggressively or not take feedback well—or that a history of sex work for survival may mean dressing in a manner that isn’t appropriate for an office. “We need skills-building,” she says, “management that is going to help us not take things personally or receive information differently.”
According to Rivera, TGNC staffers—perhaps more than most—need to know that workplaces care about their long-term development and wellness and won’t throw them out after the first misstep. “Everyone is owed one sit-down,” she says. “Before I transitioned, I was depressed and a horrible employee. My employers said, ‘We’re not going to fire you, but what is going on, and can we help?’ And I thought, ‘These people care enough about me to want to keep me here, so what do I need to do to stay here?’ And the relationship built from there.” Rivera transitioned at that job four years later.
That kind of extra sensitivity might mean occasionally helping TGNC staffers with housing or medical expenses. And it certainly means paying them a living wage. Says Rivera, “How can you talk about improving the lives of Black trans women, but you won’t let them pay their bills?” She recounts pointing out to an HIV agency employer that they had no problem giving people cash gift cards in bars as rewards for drunkenly agreeing to HIV rapid tests, but they hesitated to give such cards to their own employees.
Or, she says, consider having an annual $2,000-per-employee emergency fund at work.
In other words, it’s not just about employers feeling good about themselves by hiring TGNC folks, but doing the real work so that those staffers can have stable, sustainable lives. “I’ve been here over four years,” says Emmons, “and I’ve always felt that upper management has cared about me as a person, which has made me want to work harder.”
Don’t Hire TGNC Folks to ‘Profit’ off Them
Clinton remembers working for a large HIV nonprofit where the CEO mused openly in a meeting, in front of her, how much 340B (in-house pharmacy) profit the agency could bring in per transgender woman they could get on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Meanwhile, the agency said they wanted to hire more transgender staffers—but their health plan covered fewer trans-affirming services than provided by California Medicaid. “It was better for a lot of TGNC people to hang onto their Medicaid by working a part-time minimum wage job than to go work for them,” she explains.
She also hated that cisgender staffers—often cisgender gay men—insisted on posing for pictures with transgender female staffers and then posting on social media, as though to brag to the world that they had trans friends. “It’s tokenizing,” she says. “Trans people are still struggling to be accepted in the LGBT community, which usually still means gay men who have dominated the HIV space and haven’t really created a safe space for trans people living with HIV, unless they can make money off of them.”
In other words, be thoughtful about what you ask TGNC staffers to do—especially if it appears that you are trying to benefit in some way from their transgender status, or if it means imposing on them the de facto job of office “trans expert.” Says Rivera: “You don’t always have to go to the trans person on staff and say, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ You can lean on people that way to the point of exhaustion.”