Originally published on Colorlines on November 20, 2013.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) narrowly passed in the Senate two weeks ago for the first time since a version was introduced in 1974. It was even more significant because it now includes transgender people. But House Speaker John Boehner insisted the act won’t come to a vote in the House, leaving those LGBT people living in the 34 states [PDF] without anti-discrimination laws at a stark disadvantage. And because people of color are more likely to facehigh unemployment and poverty, and have a harder time getting good, steady jobs, they are even more vulnerable.
Preston Mitchum, a Center for American Progress (CAP) policy analyst who leads CAP’s Workplace Discrimination Series says that in addition to high levels of poverty and unemployment, states without laws protecting LGBT people in the workplace are particularly concentrated in the South—an area with a high density of black and brown people. And he says the discrimination often goes beyond just a supervisor.
“Supervisors will often bring other people in the workplace on board [to harass LGBT employees]. They will bring other colleagues in, which increases a hostile work environment,” he says.
ENDA likely won’t come to a vote any time soon, and so it’s that much more important to hear from those who have been discriminated against on the job. Here are five stories:
At 23, Ashland Johnson was closeted at her job as a registrar’s assistant at a college in Georgia. Having heard other colleagues in her predominantly black workplace making disparaging comments towards LGBT people, Johnson, who is black, felt it wasn’t safe to disclose that she is a lesbian.
In the end she didn’t have to tell anyone because her supervisor happened to see emails and photographs that revealed Johnson’s lesbian identity. Johnson says her supervisor demanded she resign because she was “no longer a good fit for the office.” Johnson refused, citing the school’s non-discrimination policy, but over the next month she says she was repeatedly locked out of the office and excluded from meetings. Soon after Johnson was hospitalized for a life-threatening blood clot in her lungs, during which time she received a FedEx envelope. She expected it to be a get well card. It was a termination letter.
Johnson took her case to Lambda Legal where she learned that there were no state or federal laws she could use in her defense. In Georgia it’s entirely legal for an employer to fire you based solely on your sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It was very hurtful, because I was in a community of color.To be rejected by that community because of my sexual orientation was part of the anger and pain that I experienced,” Johnson says. “I know we need more people to be out. But a lot of times people don’t realize there may be more at risk for people of color in also losing their community.”
Johnson now works as an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Tammy, 49, drives a viper red Peterbilt 18-wheeler truck 70 hours per week, zig-zagging across the country at a job she’s done and loved for the past 26 years.
Tammy, a transgender woman of Oglala Lakota descent, describes herself as “not passable,” meaning she continues to have a masculine appearance. In 1994, while driving through El Paso, Tex., she was accosted by a man she describes as a right wing nut job and the altercation turned physical. Tammy told her employer what happened and she was promptly fired.
“Most trucking companies at that time—if you were gay or lesbian, no big deal. Trans folks, not so much,” says Tammy, who did not want to use her last name.
After that incident, she says she felt unsafe outwardly expressing her gender identity. So Tammy wears masculine clothes and goes by her birth name on the job. She was also directly instructed by her current employer not to play up her feminine attributes. Tammy has been searching for a new job with little luck. “If you have an excellent driving record, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to land a job, but I’ve been denied a couple because they just didn’t like how I looked,” she says.
This coming year, Tammy is “hanging it up” as she says, leaving the only job she’s had since leaving the Marine Corps more than two decades ago. She’s not sure where she’ll be able to find employment but to her, it’s worth it. “I’m tired of living a double life. Tired of living a lie,” she says.
Seventeen years ago, Kylar Broadus left his job as a claims manager at a Missouri insurance company. He’d been there for eight years and had a strong track record and positive reviews, but a supervisor who was hostile to his transgender identity made working there unbearable.
Broadus, who is black, wore masculine attire and says he “passed as male” most of the time. But when he cut his hair shorter than his usual below-the-ears length, his supervisor demanded he get haircuts approved in the future.
“He would call me every hour on the hour to harass me. He’d ask me, ‘Where are you? What are you doing?’ It was impossible to get any work done. He would call me at seven or eight o’clock at night, giving me assignments every night that needed to be completed by nine the next morning,” he says.
Broadus was later falsely accused of having a sexual relationship with a colleague, who happened to be white woman with blonde hair, and Broadus believes this added a racial dimension to the harassment he experienced.
“All they saw was that I was chasing this white woman,” he says. “It was all painted with racism, as well as me being some kind of sexual, perverted creature to them.”
In addition to his hair, he was prevented from using his chosen name, and his masculine clothing choices were called into question. After leaving his job in 1996, Broadus wanted to sue the company, which is when he discovered that Missouri had no laws protecting transgender people from workplace discrimination. And even though the harassment took place nearly two decades ago, Broadus says he continues to struggle from post traumatic stress disorder. He also hasn’t recovered financially from being unemployed.
Broadus, 50, is now an attorney and activist for transgender rights. He currently works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and last year made history as the first openly transgender person to testify in front of the U.S. Senate.
Jennifer Chavez is a 59-year-old Latina woman originally from El Paso, Tex. She built a career as a certified master automotive technician before undergoing gender transition four years ago. At the time, she was working for a private car dealership in Paulding County, Ga., and had nearly 40 years experience in her craft. She notified her employers that she was going to begin her gender transition, and had what she believed to be the full support of her supervisors and the owner of the business. But things quickly changed.
“A month after informing them, the owner came to the facility to have a private meeting with me. And he said he didn’t like it, that it would negatively impact business,” she says. “I left feeling they were going to look for reason to terminate me.”
And they did. Chavez was fired for dozing off on the job. Because it was a first-time minor offense, the Georgia Department of Labor (DOL) granted Chavez unemployment benefits. But her former employer appealed and the DOL overturned their decision four months later, forcing her to repay the $5,800 she’d been granted in unemployment support.
Chavez has filed a federal lawsuit against the owners of the car dealership that fired her. But more than this lawsuit, and the more than $3,000 she still owes the DOL, she hasn’t been able to land a steady job in her field since she was fired.
“I was known in the automotive industry, I was very active in classic cars and racing and show cars. But word spread like wildfire and it has been extremely difficult for me to stay employed,” she says. “I’m blackballed even though I’m a highly certified technician. I can’t find a good company to work for because they won’t hire me when they find out about the lawsuit or that I’m trans.”
Faith Chelthenham is a 33-year-old black woman originally from St. Louis Obispo, Calif. She identifies as bisexual, and says the experiences like hers are often overlooked, particularly in conversations about workplace discrimination.
Chelthenham says she’s been repeatedly put into uncomfortable situations at work because she disclosed her sexual identity. She works in the technology sector, a field notoriously white and male with very few women of color, and even fewer who identify as LGBT.
“Bisexual people in the workplace are seen as un-promotable or flakey, as transient instead of permanent,” says Chelthenham, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and one-year-old son.
“People will ask things like, ‘I want to know about threesomes are like,’” she says. “And they are more likely to be gossiped about, more likely to have their sexual partners or relationship under the microscope, or having people judge that. It’s difficult. You go to work to work, not to talk about who you sleep with.”