Shortly after graduating from college in Pennsylvania last year, Elaine Rita Mendus hopped on a Greyhound bus, hoping the $2,000 in her bank account would keep her afloat until the first paycheck. There was only one city in the country that seemed moderately promising for a 6-foot-3 transgender woman in the early stages of transitioning to launch a career.
“I figured, where else will I be accepted?” Ms. Mendus, 24, said. “New York.”
It was a rude awakening. The luckiest break she caught after a monthslong quest to find steady work was a coveted slot at one of the city’s few homeless shelters that give refuge to gay and transgender youths for a few months. It was a blessing, she said, but also “a really strange pill to swallow.”
Americans’ understanding of transgender people has been shaped recently by the riveting, glamorous lives of the former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and the actress Laverne Cox. The two, though, are far from representative of an economically disadvantaged community that continues to face pervasive employment discrimination, partly as a result of lagging legal protections.
Roughly 15 percent of transgender Americans earn less than $10,000 a year, a rate of extreme poverty that is almost four times higher than the national average, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. They are twice as likely to be unemployed as the general population, though transgender Americans have a higher level of education than the general population. About 16 percent of respondents to a 2011 survey said they resorted to illegal trades like prostitution and drug dealing. Ninety percent said they faced harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job. The worst off are black and Hispanic transgender women, particularly those who don’t have the means to alter their physical appearance as much as they would like. For many, coming out means being drawn into a cycle of debt, despair and dreadful choices.
In 1993, Minnesota became the first state to enact a law protecting employees from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Since then, 18 other states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and scores of jurisdictions have taken similar steps, which today collectively cover about 51 percent of the population.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began taking the position that discrimination against transgender employees was a form of sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That offers individuals valuable legal recourse, but pursuing claims through the E.E.O.C. is time-consuming and generally futile for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
Bills to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers from discrimination have been introduced in Congress, but none have passed. A federal law would help by prompting employers to update personnel policies and increase awareness of illegal bias. As things stand now, laws barring gender identity-based discrimination vary considerably from state to state and city to city.
“That really contributes to a lot of confusion for employers who aren’t clear of what their obligations are under the law,” said Sarah Warbelow, the legal director at the Human Rights Campaign. “Part of what feeds into workplace culture is a firm grasp on what legal obligations the employer has to the employee.”
New York State lawmakers, for instance, passed a bill in 2002 to bar discrimination against gays and lesbians, but have not enacted a law to protect transgender workers. New York City laws bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but transgender people and their advocates say discrimination, often subtle, remains common in a city widely regarded as very liberal.
Stronger legal protections can make a difference. Though they won’t change intolerant attitudes overnight, they have historically helped other minorities and gradually made workplaces more inclusive.
Ms. Mendus, who is of Puerto Rican descent and studied geography and Latin American studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, spent the first few weeks in town applying for jobs online, but got few promising leads and none in journalism, her top choice. A paid internship in the Bronx working on an H.I.V. prevention campaign sustained her from July to November, but when those checks stopped, she became desperate to find work.
She began pounding the pavement, a stack of résumés in hand, willing to do virtually anything. Applying for a bartender position, she was brusquely told, “We don’t hire guys.” At a Duane Reade drugstore she used her birth name on an application, even though it did not correspond with the identification form she had on hand. “The guy looked at me like I had three heads,” she said.
She got the same answer everywhere: Sorry, and good luck. In November, Ms. Mendus went to a city-run employment center in Harlem to get coaching. A counselor told her she should show up at job interviews dressed as a man, using a male name. She could try to transition once she proved herself on the job, he suggested.
“It was not the most affirming thing to be told to lie and go back in the closet,” she said.
Young transgender people in New York often end up sleeping on the streets or in subway cars, waiting for a bed at one of the homeless shelters for gay and transgender youths to become available. To survive, many wind up turning to the underground economy, and some, advocates say, have reportedly exposed themselves to H.I.V. in hopes of becoming eligible for housing and assistance programs that serve people with AIDS.
“One of the few areas where transgender people are in demand is sex work,” said Carl Siciliano, the executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which operates a network of shelters for gay, lesbian and transgender youths. “You have the law of supply and demand. Here are all these trans people struggling to get an economic foothold and here’s where the demand is.”
Ms. Mendus has met several transgender sex workers and others who have found ways to live off of welfare. An older woman urged her to “claim you’re crazy, get on public housing and make them take care of you.” Expanding transgender legal protections would keep more skilled people in the work force and fewer from drifting into the illicit economy for survival.
While stronger protections emerge, employers can do their part by establishing clear guidance for managers and recruiters. Federal government agencies and several large companies that have done so in recent years have found that it makes good business sense. The Human Rights Campaign, which runs a corporate equality index, has had great success in encouraging large employers to adopt policies that protect and attract gay and transgender workers. In 2002, 13 major businesses qualified for a 100 percent ranking. Today, 366 do.
“I think companies recognize diversity is a core American value,” said Ms. Warbelow. “Embracing diversity among employees, they’re able to attract the best and the brightest.”
Moving into Trinity Place Shelter, which is run out of the basement of a church on the Upper West Side, in January gave Ms. Mendus a chance to be more strategic about her job search. In April, she got a job at a vegan restaurant on the Upper West Side, and since then, she has managed to save $500 a month.
Recently, she took and passed the test to be considered for a slot in the New York Police Department academy. She’s hoping to become one of the 1,300 officers the city is adding to the force. Eventually, she would like to be able to investigate sex crimes. “It’s something I’ve really come to care about,” she said.