In a conference call with activists and reporters on Wednesday, transgender ex-Navy SEAL Kristin Beck said that in a country where workers can be fired for expressing their gender identity, people are not truly free. The Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) made it through markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Wednesday morning, the first significant movement on that bill since 2010. ENDA would punish employers for illegally discriminating against workers on the basis of their sex, race, age, ideology or beliefs, and would also provide protections for LGBT people in the workplace.
On the call, National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling said, “There’s been no action on ENDA since 2010. There has been no vote in the Senate for 17 years.”
Transgender people have a particular stake in the passage of workplace protections, Keisling explained. “At NCTE,” she said, “we get calls virtually every other day from a trans person who has faced job discrimination. Our national transgender discrimination survey painted a really sobering picture of the trans employment situation.”
According to the discrimination survey, released in 2011, 91 percent of trans people report facing some form of discrimination in the workplace. Some 63 percent of trans people surveyed had experienced a “serious act of discrimination,” which the report defined as “events that would have a major impact on a person’s quality of life and ability to sustain themselves financially or emotionally,” including loss of a job due to bias, loss of housing due to bias, homelessness, assault, sexual assault or incarceration.
“We saw an unemployment rate of about twice the national average,” she said. “We saw that trans people are four times more likely than the general public to be living on less than $10,000 a year. But what we as trans people know is even when trans people have jobs, they’re usually dramatically under-employed and they often have to have multiple jobs to make up difference between what they had before they came out and what they were now earning.”
Furthermore, it is passingly rare for a trans person to continue in the career they had before they transitioned. Teachers seldom continue teaching, she said. People in sales rarely stay in sales. The situation for trans people in the workplace is “extremely dismal.”
Kristen Beck, former Navy SEAL and author of the book Warrior Princess said on the call that ENDA is important not just in terms of legal protections, but for educating people that trans people can be fired from their jobs in the majority of states with no recourse.
“The ENDA bill is going to mean a lot to me,” said Beck. “Just for the pure fact that I can show up for work in a dress in more than 30 states and just for that one reason, I could be fired on the spot. There’s no recourse for that. I just find it hard to believe.”
“When I start to speak about this to a lot of my friends,” she continued, “way more than half the people find that very surprising. I have to explain to them the way that employment works and how discrimination works. If employees are discriminated against, you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all that? This is the land of the free, but I am not free.”
In the military, it is still against regulations to come out as transgender. As with most federal workplaces, there are now protections in place for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, but not yet for people who are transitioning or who have transitioned. Beck sees this as a fundamental inequality, but nonetheless, advises transgender people in the military not to come out yet because they can be dishonorably discharged under current laws.
“They need to hold on,” she said to trans people who are currently serving, “because trans is so much different than being gay, lesbian or bi.” A soldier can come out as being one of those orientations without having to make huge, sweeping changes in their life, she said, they’re just freer to express themselves. “It was easier for the military to take on board,” she said of accepting lesbian, gay and bisexual soldiers.
For a transgender person, “there’s an immense amount of changes that goes on in a person’s life. It’s a journey. There are just so many more considerations,” she said. She said that the Department of Defense is still studying the question, and with transgender people now coming out in childhood as young as 3 and 5 years old, it is a question that the military will ultimately have to resolve.
“One of these days it’s going to be acceptable,” she said, “but the amount of considerations that you need to take, as far as the Department of Defense, and as far as trans people in the military, I say just hold on. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Do a great job. We know we can do a great job. We’ll see some changes probably in the future. It’s gonna happen.”
“I’m excited that our country is starting to catch up,” she said of the ENDA hearing Wednesday and recent same sex marriage victories in the Supreme Court. “We are really going to be the land of the free.”
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee met Wednesday morning and passed ENDA out of committee in a historic, bipartisan 15-to-7 vote. It’s unclear if ENDA will even come to a vote in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
UPDATE: The LGBT labor rights group Freedom to Work has released a statement from its founder and president Tico Almeida regarding the Senate HELP Committee’s passage of ENDA that reads:
“Today’s vote is a monumental step forward for gay civil rights in this country and an important moment in the fight to end workforce discrimination. We applaud the leadership of Senator Harkin, Senator Kirk, Senator Merkley, Senator Murkowski, Senator Hatch and many others who made today’s vote possible. Taken with the Supreme Court rulings last month, today’s vote shows that the tide has turned and the movement for full LGBT rights will not go backwards. Those who continue to stand in the way of the march towards the freedom to work, like the Republicans who voted against the legislation today, not only find themselves on the wrong side of history they find themselves on the wrong side of the founding principles of our country – justice and freedom. We will continue this fight to ensure this vital legislation passes the full Senate, the House and is signed into law by the President. Because it is far past time that all people in this country have the freedom to work.”
[photo of Kristin Beck by Christy Borjes, licensed for public use]