We are at the end of February, and this year’s very long season of Epiphany is almost at an end as well. Here in the Boston area, side streets are still littered with chairs and other detritus-- markers of the you-shovel-it-you-keep-it parking culture-- but snow banks are finally showing signs of letting go. Last week the state’s transgender community also received welcome news that perhaps the long-frozen nondiscrimination bill, too, might be starting to thaw.
As recently posted on Walking with Integrity, last week Governor Deval Patrick signed an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression for all who work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Boston Globe both reported on the move and published an editorial praising it, and yesterday the local LGBT paper Bay Windows published a comprehensive article on it as well.
As reported in all three pieces, this development both creates a sense of momentum for the statewide bill which would add "gender identity and expression" to the categories of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, and marital status, and prevent discrimination on those bases in employment as well as in housing, public accommodations, education, and credit.
The dire need for this protection was just underscored by the major new study released on February 4th by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. They surveyed over 6,450 transgender-identified participants and learned the following, as summarized on NCTE's website:
"* Respondents were nearly four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with household income of less than $10,000.
* Respondents were twice as likely to be unemployed compared to the population as a whole. Half of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace, and one in four were fired because of their gender identity or expression.
* While discrimination was pervasive for the entire sample, it was particularly pronounced for people of color. African-American transgender respondents fared far worse than all others in many areas studied.
* Housing discrimination was also common. 19% reported being refused a home or apartment and 11% reported being evicted because of their gender identity or expression. One in five respondents experienced homelessness because of their gender identity or expression.
* An astonishing 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to only 1.6% of the general population.
* Discrimination in health care and poor health outcomes were frequently experienced by respondents. 19% reported being refused care due to bias against transgender or gender-nonconforming people, with this figure even higher for respondents of color. Respondents also had over four times the national average of HIV infection.
* Harassment by law enforcement was reported by 22% of respondents and nearly half were uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
* Despite the hardships they often face, transgender and gender non-conforming persons persevere. Over 78% reported feeling more comfortable at work and their performance improving after transitioning, despite the same levels of harassment in the workplace."
An interview from the Bay Windows story shows both some of the unexpected ways that people's transgender status can come up in an employment application process and the reality that there are indeed workplaces where people are free to do their jobs and be themselves. Diane DeLap, who works for the Department of Workforce Development, explained how her application process inadvertently revealed her transgender status to her prospective employer: "'One of the interesting things was that the Massachusetts Employment Application requires the inclusion of discharge papers if you have a history in the military,' DeLap said. She had served in the Navy for four years, and included her discharge papers with her application. 'Of course, the military doesn’t change names for anything,' DeLap said, laughing, 'so it had my old name on there and all the other papers had the new name on there, so the fact that I was transgender became a topic of discussion very early in the hiring process. They determined that it shouldn’t make any difference.'"
DeLap clearly had a good experience in her interview process, and others I know also have had positive experiences coming out at work. Increasingly, there is good news of that sort to tell, and it is important to share it along with the alarming statistics and stories, as both are realities right now. The latter tells us how much work we have to do while the former encourages us that it has already begun and we can indeed do it.
As with marriage equality, which received a major boost from the Obama administration this week, I am hopeful that the ice is truly beginning to thaw for transgender equality, that momentum is finally building toward passage of key legal protections. It is up to us to keep that momentum going.
The executive summary of the NCTE/NGLTF survey can be found here, and the full report here.
Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge is Interim Episcopal Chaplain and a Lecturer at Harvard University.