It Happened To Me: I Was Fired For Being Trans

One day I was called to a meeting with my manager and the company's human resources director. They were very concerned; rumors had been going around that I was transsexual (which was true, though I had not said so to anyone I worked with).

Jan 10, 2013 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

Employment discrimination isn't new. People who belong to disadvantaged groups have been facing it for a long time. And it's not gone, despite laws in various places prohibiting it, despite government organizations supposedly dedicated to helping people who experience it.

Like the woman who was fired from a Catholic school in New York, I'm a trans woman. Also like her, I lost a job because of it.

It's hard to talk about. All this time later, having moved halfway across a continent, having had several jobs since, it still hurts. "Hurt" is inadequate; it leaves me enraged and panicky. Which, I expect, is not all that unusual.

We mostly hear about lost income when we hear about employment discrimination. Income is important; things cost money. But there are other costs, things we couldn't sue for even if there are laws against the discrimination that cost you your job. Even if you can prove that it was discrimination, which is actually very difficult.

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What being thrown into unemployment can feel like. 

Image credit: Tax Credits.

FIRED FOR BEING TRANS

One day I was called to a meeting with my manager and the company's human resources director. They were very concerned; rumors had been going around that I was transsexual (which was true, though I had not said so to anyone I worked with) and was planning to transition at work (which was not true; I had not planned that far ahead at all).

They wanted me to understand that I should not; it would be disruptive in the workplace. I assured them I was not planning to come to work wearing anything overtly coded as being women's clothes. (Not in those words.) I thought that was the end of it.

Until then, I'd had glowing performance reviews. I was an outstanding, productive, reasonably happy employee. I'd worked out a method for assigning monetary value to share options that accounted for the very low volume of share trading -- which wasn't part of my job at all, but they knew I'd studied math in college. I was, I thought, pretty well-liked and -respected.

The very next performance review after the "We hear you're transsexual" meeting with human resources stated that I was massively deficient in communicating with my co-workers. Especially in e-mail, I was too formal. I came across as arrogant and intimidating. People felt I looked down on them for having a different education from mine. I was, in fact, so deficient that they had no choice but to put me on probation. If I didn't fix the problem in 90 days, I would be fired.

Ninety days later, I was.

Gosh, it's almost like they were planning for a possible discrimination suit. A suit I could not have in fact brought, because at the time and place, gender identity and expression were not protected from employment discrimination.

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Even in progressive Seattle, being trans can be a job liability. 

Photo credit: Bryce Edwards.

Admittedly, I screwed up. The rumors didn't come out of nowhere. I was, and am, transsexual. At the time, I was starting to come out to friends and family, to wear clothes I'd been afraid to before, to go out in public -- in Seattle, where I could be mostly anonymous -- as me. It felt good, really good, and I wanted more.

So when Halloween came around, I went to work as me. People I worked with didn't recognize me. They marveled, praised me for how good I looked. And it felt wonderful. And I didn't think anything more about it, until that meeting with the HR director about those rumors later on.

IT COST ME MORE THAN MONEY

It cost me my job. Because I had been fired for cause, I was not eligible for unemployment benefits. I lost my home and wound up moving from Washington to Texas to live with relatives. But it cost more than that.

I became paranoid -- I knew for a fact people were talking about me where I couldn't hear; I just didn't know when and started to think whenever anyone was talking where I couldn't hear, it was about me. I drank a lot more, leading to an arrest, a plea agreement, and five years' criminal probation. I became delusional. I damaged myself. I shaved all the hair on my body, including my head.

I was, at various times, officially psychotic. I was hospitalized as a risk to myself and others. I was prescribed a wide range of psychiatric medications, some helpful, many not. Some of them carried side effects like pseudo-Parkinson's tremors. Luckily for me, those turned out to not be permanent.

There were no laws against my employers firing me because they suspected I was a trans woman. Even if there had been, I wouldn't have had much of a case for discrimination because they had the communication issue.

And you know what? I'm lucky. I had the great good fortune to be born white, to a family who, for all their faults, are willing to help me not be homeless. I collect disability income from Social Security because I once worked and paid into the system. I've never had to do sex work to survive.

We need protections against employment discrimination.

It won't be perfect. Employers who want to discriminate will find ways to evade the laws. People who are discriminated against will still lose more than they could recover under any law. But at least they will be forced to know they are evading the law. There will be the possibility for some justice. Employment protections can lead to other protections, in housing and access to public accommodations, to inclusion in hate crimes laws.

It's a start. We deserve at least that much.