09/16/2013 08:44 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Transgender Economic Equality: The New Frontier


These are pivotal times for the visibly emerging transgender community. Transgender people are coming out in record numbers while increasingly demanding economic equality. The transgender community is recognizing that without the ability to achieve economic parity in the marketplace, social marginalization -- often accompanied by unemployment/underemployment, poverty, substance abuse, prostitution, depression and even suicide attempts -- will remain the status quo.

For trans people, economic equality isn't a luxury: It's a necessity. Without the ability to have a job and earn a decent living, the plunge into poverty can be swift and brutal. Poverty carries its own inherent set of hardships. Research indicates that the transgender community knows about those difficulties firsthand.

Unfortunately, ignorance and misconceptions about transgender people still abound throughout society. The price of such a lack of awareness is almost too high to count. For example, transgender unemployment is rampant in the United States. It's difficult to get even a minimum-wage job if one doesn't "pass" well in public. The unemployment rate for trans persons is approximately twice the national average. For transgender persons of color, that rate increases to four times the national average. Think about that: Over 30 percent of trans persons of color are unemployed. The socioeconomic implications are staggering.

It's not easy to be transgender in a society that doesn't understand and isn't educated about the transgender phenomenon. The reality is that discrimination based on nonconforming gender expression is everywhere. Factoring in the problems of unemployment and poverty makes a complex situation even worse.

Imagine for a moment that you are a transgender individual. (I know it's a stretch for some, but try to play along anyway.) Now imagine that you can't get a job because you're transgender and, though you do your best, you may not pass all that well. Employers won't hire you, and you can't make a living. You may even be well-educated and highly qualified, which many trans persons are, but you still can't get hired due to your gender status.

Let's carry this scenario a little further. Since you can't get a job because you're transgender, you are now forced to live in poverty. You can't pay your rent or utility bills. You can't buy food or a cellphone. You can't get a car, and even if you had one, you couldn't afford to buy gas or insurance for it. You can't afford medical insurance, so you don't have access to the necessary hormones, psychotherapy, surgeries, checkups, examinations, or other medical treatments that may be needed.

Do you think you might be a little depressed if your life were going in such a direction? How about more than a little? For many transgender people who find themselves in a seemingly hopeless situation like this, despondency, despair, and low self-esteem become constant companions. Realistically, who could blame them?

When people become desperate, they do desperate things. According to "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey," a staggering 41 percent of transgender people in the United States have attempted to commit suicide. Research indicates that 30 percent of that number will not survive the attempt and will die. To put this in perspective, the suicide attempt rate for the rest of the U.S. population is 1.6 percent. If 30 percent of any other demographic group were dying like this, we would almost certainly be declaring a full-scale pandemic and scrambling to help, but because it's only trans people who are dying at such rates, no one gets too upset about it.

Even if suicide is not attempted overtly, depressed and desperate people often engage in other life-threatening behaviors. Sadly, alcoholism and drug abuse are common in the transgender community. Sometimes trans persons are forced to turn to prostitution simply to be able to get money to eat. These destructive, soul-killing behaviors on the part of transgender persons are often the direct result of being unable to make a living -- and it all starts with discrimination based on nonconforming gender expression.

Most of us know that people tend to fear and/or hate what they don't understand. However, ignorance of the transgender phenomenon is no longer an excuse, especially when education is available. No one should be forced to suffer discrimination based on their gender identity and/or gender expression.

We must press for policies in all workplaces to protect everyone -- including transgender people -- from discrimination, with progressively severe penalties for repeat offenders. Those in essential medical services should be held to the highest standards possible, with zero tolerance for refusal to treat a trans person, or for providing subpar treatment out of ignorance and fear.

Awareness training should be mandatory in all work environments to ensure that workers not only understand diversity and inclusion but learn about behavioral expectations and responsibilities on the job.

Managers and supervisors should receive required refresher training at least every two years. Situations change. Laws change. Responsibilities change. Corporate policies change. Without appropriate training, managers will be unequipped to cope effectively with these changes.

The intent of all this is not to punish people but to inform and educate them so that they can work in organizational cultures that are more competent and productive. Creating awareness about the transgender phenomenon is essential if discrimination is to be addressed and lawsuits are to be avoided. Ending discrimination in the interviewing, hiring, training, and promotion of transgender workers is an important step toward addressing the problem.

In the end it's all about helping create economic equality for the transgender community. Without such equality trans people will continue to suffer, live in poverty, and even commit suicide in record numbers. With it trans people have legitimate hope of securing a better life for themselves and their loved ones. This ought to be a no-brainer for society, but it has to start with education and awareness. Those are the keys to a more successful future for transgender citizens and, therefore, for society as a whole.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or visit You can also visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386.