05/11/2011 08:46 am ET Updated Jul 11, 2011

The High Cost of Discrimination

I recently heard from a transgender woman who, prior to transitioning, enjoyed a 20-year career in the auto financing industry. She left her last post -- as a senior vice president managing an $8 million portfolio -- to transition. She's spent the last two years since leaving her job trying to find a new position in her industry. But she can't, thanks to pervasive discrimination against transgender people and widespread misunderstanding of what it means to be trans. Today, Eva barely scrapes by as a nail technician, and her savings are dwindling.

Eva's experience is not unique. And while we often focus -- rightly -- on the financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual costs of discrimination to individuals, a report released today by the Williams Institute quantifies the costs of discrimination to another stakeholder in this debate: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Employment discrimination means that otherwise qualified workers are not paying income tax. It also means that these same workers are forced to seek health insurance and other assistance through publicly-subsidized programs such as rental assistance, shelters, and Section 8 housing. The Williams Institute estimates that the state is losing millions of dollars annually because of employment discrimination against transgender state residents, including $3 million that's being spent to provide health coverage to people who would otherwise be privately insured, and additional millions in lost income taxes.

The Williams Institute calculated costs to the state based on data in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) released this year by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which revealed that 76 percent of Massachusetts respondents experienced harassment, mistreatment or discrimination in employment, 20 percent had lost a job, 39 percent weren't hired for positions they sought, and 17 percent were denied promotions.

As the executive director of the state's only organization solely dedicated to ending discrimination based on gender identity and expression, nothing in the Williams Institute report surprised me. The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition annually fields hundreds of calls from trans people across the state on the brink of personal and financial ruin because they cannot find work simply for being who they are. Many of them are highly educated and/or experienced; the NTDS found that respondents had much higher rates of attaining college and graduate degrees than the general U.S. population, which means it's highly likely that discrimination is a factor in their individual predicaments.

Massachusetts cannot afford to discriminate against its transgender residents, morally or financially, and it doesn't need to. Our state legislature is currently considering the Transgender Equal Rights Bill, which would add protections based on gender identity and expression to our state's non-discrimination and hate crimes laws. It's a commonsense piece of legislation that costs nothing to implement but would save our state millions of dollars.

Governor Deval Patrick long ago pledged to sign it into law, a commitment he renewed in February, when he signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and expression in state employment. In this era of austerity budgets, Gov. Patrick rightfully recognized that using every tool at his disposal to put people back to work so they can provide for themselves and their families is good for our state's bottom line.

I hope our state lawmakers soon follow suit. They can't afford not to.

Gunner Scott is a founding member of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and he currently serves as the Executive Director. He has been involved with the transgender rights movement since 1998 in variety of roles including providing training and community organizing on the local, state and national levels.