For Trans Women of Color, Safe Employment Is a Matter of Life and Death
With an unemployment rate four times higher than the general population, trans women of color face countless barriers when it comes to finding safe employment.
Illustration by Jennifer Kahn
In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to extreme violence and suicide in 2016, we're taking an in-depth look at the social factors that contributed to their deaths. Read more of our coverage here.
In July, Deeniquia Dodds was found unconscious by police officers in Washington D.C. after being shot in the head — nine days later she died at the hospital. According to her loved ones, Dodds was "was forced into sex work after being unable to find a regular job due to her status as a trans woman." Previously, she had been arrested twice in 2014 for "sexual solicitation." Upon her death, investigators didn't rule out the possibility it was a hate crime. However, after arresting a suspect in September, Metropolitan Police Department police chief Peter Newsham announced in a press conference that the case was likely the result of a robbery.
All women of color face unique challenges in their daily lives, especially when it comes to employment. And while the gender pay gap is widely known, women of color are paid even less than their white female counterparts. What is often left out of discussions around the wage gap and employee discrimination is how trans people, and especially trans people of color, can be disproportionately discriminated against because of their intersecting identities — charting them on a course toward poverty, drug abuse, and sometimes death.
The discrimination against trans people and trans people of color in the workplace often starts long before the hiring process begins: at school. A study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that, when it came to education, 71 percent of trans students of color reported being harassed at school — while 59 percent of their white trans counterparts reported the same. In fact, the study also found that "students of color experienced higher rates of harassment and violence across the board." Not only that, but students of color were more vulnerable to "lower educational attainment and income" due to the compounding effects of racism (with women experiencing even more discrimination because of their gender).
Because a key to finding safe and stable employment is education, it's no surprise that a 2015 report by Human Rights Commission also found transgender people of color have an unemployment rate four times higher than the general population—one that is nearly twice as high as white trans people. For trans women of color, what they face as women intersects with obstacles they face as racialized individuals; the same report by HRW also showed that black trans people were more than eight times as likely to be living in extreme poverty — a number that is four times higher than the general black population.
Currently, there are 28 states without non-discrimination laws to keep members of the LGBTQ safe from being fired or harassed in the workplace. Because of the difficulty in finding legal and safe employment, many trans women of color turn to what advocacy groups call "underground employment," which often involves sex work or drug dealing. In a 2015 survey on transgender experience in the sex trade, the National Center for Transgender Equality found women of color had the highest rate of sex trade participation.
Often, underground work leads to violence and encounters with law enforcement. The results of the study reported that people of color were "more than twice as likely (46.8%) than their white counterparts (18.3%) to report being arrested." Many also reported much of the violence they encountered was at the hands of police officers.
In 2015, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported 54 percent (thirteen out of 24) of trans women killed were women of color — something the organization has closely linked with poverty, job insecurity, and homelessness. So far, in 2016, the murders of 26 trans women have been reported. Many of the victims over the years were underemployed, some were killed during sex work.
When I came out, the first trans person I met in my life said to me, 'If this is what you want, it comes with a price.'
While it's not uncommon for many trans women of color to feel their only option of employment is sex work,. Cecilia Gentili, a trans Latina woman who currently works as a health coordinator in New York City, said her journey to find safe employment of her own choosing wasn't an easy one. As an undocumented immigrant from Argentina, Gentili found herself in a position where her only option was sex work — something she said was the only reality she saw for herself as a trans woman in the 80s. "When I came out, the first trans person I met in my life said to me, 'If this is what you want, it comes with a price.'" Gentili recalled, "'You are going to be a whore, you're going to do drugs, and you're going to die young.'"
Gentili says during her time as a sex worker, a job she did for survival, she abused drugs to cope, "because of a history of abuse, doing sex work was problematic for me and drugs became handy to do that kind of work." Ultimately, this led to jail time.
However, while incarcerated,something changed for Gentili. "My immigration status came up while being in Rikers, and I was transferred to an immigration detention center," she said.
Being trans, Gentili couldn't be properly housed at a detention center — leading her to get an ankle bracelet and live away from the detention center. "Because of that, I had a chance to get my act together and I sought recovery," she said."I was granted asylum, but while pursuing my immigration status I got an internship — I'm a huge believer in internships." For Gentili, that process ultimately led to self discovery. Finding she enjoyed working with others like herself on a compassionate level, she applied for jobs where her trans identity was an asset.
"While I was doing sex work and actively using drugs, I was very isolated, so a part of my journey out of sex work was to connect with my own community. Seeking empowerment that only your community can give you," she said. This meant seeing other trans people and trans women of color in professional roles outside of sex work.
Gentili asserts that it's critical for trans women of color to know there are more options. "I don't have a problem with sex work, but I didn't choose it," she said.
What is most clear from various research is that a major factor in keeping trans women, and particularly trans women of color, safe is the promise of meaningful employment. As the study by the Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force suggests, much of the violence transgender people face is directly related to unsafe employment, homelessness, and poverty. Currently, organizations like Trans Employment, the ACLU, and Trans Equality help individuals gain employment,learn about their employment rights, and help navigating everyday aspects of the workplace. As Gentili experienced, safe and empowering communities that help trans women obtain experience and employment are not just needed—they necessary and often life-saving.