Transgender Job Applicants Face Discrimination in the District
Consuella Lopez, business owner and hairstylist, loves her work. She loves the freedom to be herself, unapologetically.
“If you don’t like it, fine. I’m tired of putting on a front, I’m tired of trying to make someone like me because I’m transgender,” said Lopez, a resident of Friendship Heights.
She remembers a time where it was a stretch to find change to ride the metro. Now, she sets her own hours. As a self-described celebrity hairstylist by day and transgender advocate by night, Lopez has taken many years to get where she is now.
“I go to certain areas and I get treated like a statistic, but where I work and where I am, I don’t,” she said
Lopez immigrated to the District from Nicaragua when she was just 5 years old. Years later, she met one of her first transgender friends in a salon where she was offered her first job shampooing hair on weekends.
After earning U.S. citizenship and transitioning at age 18, she “felt lucky to even have the opportunity” to work hourly jobs and other administrative positions where she, at times, encountered transphobic discrimination in the workplace.
She didn’t have a career until she pursued her true passion full-time: hair.
At age 42, Lopez now runs her own salon, Transformations, in downtown Bethesda. There, she works with a long list of loyal clients. Her styling has even earned her celebrity clientele, including Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and actress Patricia Arquette.
She is also a member of the boards of several transgender advocacy organizations and has been on the advisory committee for the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs for both the Vincent Gray and Muriel Bowser administrations.
This story of overcoming obstacles to become a business owner who is stable in herself and her career is one the transgender community in D.C. looks to for inspiration– a community that is still struggling to find stable, well-paying employment.
‘Tired of Putting on a Front’
It has been illegal for employers in the District of Columbia to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and expression since 2006, yet 48 percent of employers in the city were found to have offered interviews to less-qualified applicants who were perceived as cisgender (not transgender) over more qualified candidates who were perceived as transgender.
The “Qualified and Transgender” report was conducted by using fake resumes to apply for real jobs. The District Office of Human Rights (OHR), which is responsible for enforcing the city’s nondiscrimination laws, administered the report.
Investigations were launched against five employers as a result of OHR’s testing. OHR is not allowed to identify businesses that have been investigated or discuss the circumstances, but the businesses that received enforcement actions were identified as part of the restaurant, administrative and university sectors.
Since these tests were based on fake individuals, the investigations were initiated by OHR’s director, Mónica Palacio. Enforcement actions resulting from the director’s inquiries are not mandatory.
“We found that the vast majority of employers end up implementing the changes, mostly because they don’t want a grievance from an actual complainant to come in and cost them a lot of money in the future,” said Elliot Imse, OHR’s director of policy and communications. “Although they are advisory, they tend to make a real impact.”
OHR’s testing results, which were released in November, were reinforced by a survey of more than 500 participants in the transgender community living in the Greater Washington Area that was also published in November.
The “Access Denied: Washington DC Trans Needs Assessment Report” was published by the DC Trans Coalition (DCTC), an advocacy organization. The DCTC report found that 36 percent of respondents reported unemployment, compared to a 9 percent unemployment rate in the District. The report also found that 46 percent of respondents made below $10,000, compared to 11 percent of all residents.
Data Sheds Light on Deeper Discrimination
“Our report and the report that was put out by the DC Trans Coalition really are tools for awakening people’s’ conscience … These are real numbers that people cannot just dismiss,” Imse said. “These are numbers that people are going to have to recognize and hopefully because of recognizing that, real change will happen.”
The 48 percent perceived rate of discrimination that OHR found in its tests was discovered using transgender résumés that listed recent college graduations, as well as Anglo-Saxon names that employers would perceive as white applicants.
This was done to isolate the reasoning for the discrimination so that if the résumés did not advance, it was likely because the person was transgender and not because of any other characteristic, like race or age, according to Imse.
The reality is that the discrimination rate found in OHR’s report is for people who are perceived as white, young, transgender and highly-educated.
“If we’re looking at someone who is a black, trans woman who is in her 40s or 50s and maybe did not receive that much education, it’s more than likely that the discrimination rate against that sort of profile would be much higher than the 48 percent,” Imse said.
Transgender individuals of color experience higher rates of unemployment, with 55 percent of black and 35 percent of Hispanic respondents reporting unemployment in the DCTC report. This is compared to a 15 percent rate of unemployment from white respondents.
Over 40 percent of respondents had been denied at least one job because of their gender identity and expression, with more transgender individuals of color (49 percent) reporting being denied a job than white transgender individuals (30 percent).
“Although things are clearly bad here in D.C., our fear is that across the nation it is potentially much worse, especially in jurisdictions that don’t have nondiscrimination policies based on gender identity or expression.”
Addressing the Discrimination
OHR has been trying to raise awareness about transgender issues for the last three and a half years. In 2012, it became the first government agency in the nation to put out an awareness campaign that focused exclusively on transgender people.
“It was meant to humanize transgender issues for the general public and to help people understand that trans people are like all other people in D.C. and have lives, enjoy the city, go out for dinner and have community and family,” Imse said.
Going forward, OHR will conduct outreach to businesses so employers understand that discrimination against transgender and gender nonconforming people is illegal in the District.
“During the hiring process they need to make sure that people aren’t accidentally or purposefully discriminating against transgender applicants,” Imse said.
OHR is also focusing on outreach to encourage the transgender community to file complaints of discrimination so the agency can investigate and ensure justice is served when discrimination occurs.
Both the OHR report and the DCTC report acknowledged failure by the transgender community to report discrimination to OHR.
During the agency’s last three fiscal years, 2013-2015, it only received 10 complaints of gender identity and expression discrimination in employment.
“Undoubtedly, we hear a very small fraction of discriminatory incidents that occur against the transgender community here in D.C.,” Imse said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The DCTC report recommended greater clarification on what constitutes as discrimination in the workplace or as a hostile work environment, such as the use of wrong pronouns and preferred names.
Removing Barriers to Employment
The DCTC report cited homelessness and a lack of access to education as factors contributing to the community’s inability to secure employment that pays a living wage.
This year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser started Homeward DC, a five-year plan to end long-term homelessness in the city.
“If folks are looking for an LGBT or a trans-specific housing policy, it’s not going to be there,” said Terrance Laney, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs. “When we talk about homelessness, we have to think about homelessness as it impacts everyone. The plan to end homelessness is trans-inclusive.”
More than 51 percent of the District’s unemployed transgender community work at least one informal job that pays under the table, including over 35 percent of respondents who said they engaged in sex work, or the exchange of sexual acts for money, housing and/or drugs, according to DCTC’s report.
The DCTC report recommended legislation to prevent offenses related to sex work from being considered on employment applications, as well as establishing LGBT-specific GED testing completion programs, scholarships for transgender individuals and entry-level positions and trainings with employers.
In 2011, the District’s Department of Employment Services began Project Empowerment, a subsidized, trans-specific employment program. The program had 22 cohorts of up to 25 transgender residents who underwent three weeks of employment training, Laney said. After the training, participants were assigned a position for six months of job experience.
“That program did not produce the kind of success one would assume it would because of a lot of other risk factors that complicate trans folks in the employment process,” Laney said. “When you take someone out of sex work, how do you get them engaged in some mental health care as well as a job? We don’t have a lot of models to draw from, we don’t have a lot of research to pull from. It’s sort of a trial by fire on all of these issues.”
Lourdes Hunter is working to address all of these barriers.
Hunter has been engaged in advocacy on behalf of transgender and gender nonconforming people for more than 20 years. First in her hometown of Detroit and then in New York City before moving to the District in the summer of 2014.
Hunter is now chief operation officer and interim executive director of Casa Ruby, one of the city’s largest organizations helping the transgender community.
Hunter described Casa Ruby’s mission as providing services to those disproportionately impacted by structural oppression. The center provides access to housing, healthcare, mental health, meals, support groups and assistance for undocumented individuals who are seeking refugee status.
Casa Ruby’s housing service provides 36 beds in total, with 10 beds at its transitional housing location for people ages 18-24, an emergency house with 10 beds, as well as 16 beds at its new hypothermia shelter that just opened this month.
The hypothermia shelter is typically open from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. when temperatures reach below 32 degrees, but is planned to be open as often as possible throughout the winter, Hunter said.
“It is our point of entry for the homeless in Washington, D.C.,” Hunter said. “These are people who are in the throws of complex issues.”
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“The core mission of Casa Ruby is about creating success stories with our young people,” Hunter said. “We’re trying to shift the narrative in our community.”
Casa Ruby’s hope is to help people become sustainable and independent, which has happened for many of their residents, some of which have become staff members, Hunter said.
‘For Us, By Us’
“This is the first job where I felt comfortable being myself, and have been allowed to be myself, said Mally Hatcher, who works as an administrator at Casa Ruby. Now 22 years old, she started transitioning when she was 20 years old.
“I was homeless, I had nowhere to go at the time and I engaged in sex work to keep myself in hotels,” Hatcher said. “I have slept on grates outside, I’ve slept in shelters where I was sexually assaulted before. Even in the streets, I was sexually assaulted.”
Establishing trust, which has been identified by both OHR and DCTC as a significant factor in helping the transgender community, is one of the reasons Casa Ruby is successful in its mission, Hunter said.
This trust is established because the organization is led by and for the community that it serves, Hunter said. Casa Ruby employs more than 90 percent of transgender or gender nonconforming people of color.
“They are existing in the same identities, they walk the same streets, they take the same subway that our clients and constituencies take, and they deal with the same discrimination and oppression,” Hunter said.