Arriel Michelle Williams is in the early stages of a painstaking physical transformation from man to woman and the clanging dissonance between her masculine voice and high heels, earrings and fashionable ladies’ tops risks disquieting potential employers.
She left high school before graduation, so her bare-bones resume is limited to stints in a Burger King kitchen, as a parking attendant, volunteering at a drug addiction center and fetching food orders at an Atlanta, Georgia, sports arena.
Even with those obstacles, not to mention a poor economy, the 26-year-old is pursuing a social work career and the city of Washington is helping her get ready. Williams and 16 other transgender men and women graduated on Friday from a month-long, city-funded job training and life skills pilot program in Washington that aims to find jobs for an often-marginalized population.
“I don’t like the stigma that all transgenders are sex workers and that’s all they’re good for. I know for myself, I am an intelligent individual and very resourceful to last over 10 years on the streets,” said Williams, who was born Terrell Williams and began gender-changing hormone treatments about three months ago. “I just felt that this was the time to be a part of something greater than me.”
Washington’s program is one of several transgender-oriented career development classes, workshops or job fairs that have popped up around the US. City officials say theirs is unique because it is organized and fully financed by the city government.
The programs, which teach basics like creating a resume as well as more nuanced workplace skills, reflect a growing appreciation for the workplace obstacles confronting transgender people. Studies show those who identify as transgender routinely endure discrimination, struggle with unemployment and turn in disproportionate numbers to drug dealing and prostitution to earn money.
“What we see is people who transition, their income rapidly declines. It happens so fast for some people that many folks don’t have a safety net, whether that’s family to lean on or friends or financial savings,” said Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.
Only 15 states plus Washington have laws banning workplace discrimination based on gender identity, which give workers an avenue to file lawsuits. However, even when employers are unfazed by the prospect of hiring transgender workers, other hurdles remain.
Advocates say they regularly encounter transgender job hopefuls who left school early because of bullying and therefore have little formal schooling or work history. Some people change jobs, and their gender and legal name, later in life, which can make it difficult to prove the authenticity of what may be an impressive resume.
Then there are workers who get interviews, but are rejected after presenting themselves in person as transgender, not to mention workers who select jobs at transgender organizations because they think that is their only option.
A survey of 6,450 transgender people released in February by the US National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 90 percent of respondents had reported harassment or discrimination on the job; 15 percent said they left school early because of harassment; and 26 percent said they had lost a job because they were transgender.
Although no one thinks job training alone can undo deep-rooted discrimination, advocates say the programs can at least teach rudimentary skills to get transgender applicants started.
The Washington job training is part of Project Empowerment, a government-run program that helps ex-convicts, past drug addicts and others find jobs. Project Empowerment receives US$11 million from the city, said director Charles Jones, although he could not say how much money is allotted specifically to the transgender program.
That sum includes an US$8.25 an hour subsidized wage the city temporarily offers to the program’s graduates, who are linked up with employers in the public, private and nonprofit sectors based on their skills and work experience.
The initiative has been running for about 10 years, but this is the first time a class of strictly transgender students was enrolled.
Of course, the flagging job market — Washington’s unemployment rate in August was 10.9 percent — affects far more than transgender people and it might seem a tough time for the city to fund this particular program. However, Jones said he has heard no complaints and said the city benefits if transgender residents are gainfully employed.
Williams says the class helped train her to adjust to the mundane rituals of a steady job, such as arriving on time each day and remembering to pack a lunch for herself.
“We’re not looking for a handout, we’re looking for a hand,” she said. “And we’ve always just been looking for a hand.”
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