Many of the gender-diverse people interviewed for Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace told stories of leaving a workplace, and almost every instance mentioned was related to discrimination.

Some were fired due to their trans identity. Cory, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, shared that while working in a Boston cafe, “the owner of the café had the manager take me off the schedule and it was shared with me through a roundabout way that he had been getting complaints about a man with boobs working behind the counter. And then I was discreetly shuffled off the schedule and there was no more work for me. So there was never a ‘we’re firing you because you’re trans [moment],’ but it was made clear to me that I was not working there anymore because I was trans.”

Additionally, many of the people interviewed described experiences in which they were fired after varying their gender expression or transitioning at work but were not able to concretely link their termination to their changing gender expression. For example, Whitney, a white trans woman in her twenties, was fired from her machine shop a week after beginning HRT, after several months of comments about her feminine gender expression.

Getting Pressured To Leave

When not explicitly fired for being trans, many of the gender-diverse people interviewed described being pressured to leave. In most of these cases, employers attempted to create a workplace environment so hostile—whether through policies, verbal harassment, or exclusion—that gender-diverse employees had no choice but to quit.

After Casey, an indigenous nonbinary person in their twenties had a manager at the animal clinic who outed them to the rest of the staff, this manager started more actively discriminating against them. “She was not allowing me to do anything to help me gain experience [and forbade other employees to train me]. In order to become a technician at that clinic, you had to complete a checklist of all these tasks and have a supervisor sign off on a checklist. And she wasn’t letting me do anything . . . she didn’t want me to be allowed to do anything except clean and stock.” When this manager’s behavior escalated after Casey set up a mediated conversation, they knew it was time to go. “It was just so stressful that I was like I need to get out of there.”

Jessie, a Latinx nonbinary person in their forties, asked for coworkers at the Spanish newspaper they worked at to use “she/her” pronouns but had those requests ignored, both by coworkers and by the HR department. Jessie began correcting people herself, saying “It was not too long after I started like trying to correct people about pronouns that they actually started making things very, very uncomfortable for me . . . they no longer really felt comfortable with my being there . . . I would say that they tried to like pile as many things on me as possible just to see if I could just bear with it, handle it or what not. But there were obviously just looking for any excuse they could think of.”

Kai’s story is perhaps the most dramatic. While working as an ophthalmologist in Arizona, Kai, a white transmasculine person in his thirties, informed his boss that he would be transitioning and undergoing HRT. While initially receptive, once Kai’s gender expression began to change, Kai’s boss didn’t follow through. “He treated me like a piece of shit. I went from being his right-hand technician . . . I was his fill-in-the-blank person. I was his surgical gofer. After [transitioning], I was a piece of shit to him. I was less than a kennel attendant. I was not even good enough to clean up shit.” Kai’s boss put Kai on an unsustainable work schedule and slashed his pay. Kai tried going to HR, but when his representative made a fuss on Kai’s behalf, Kai’s boss had the representative replaced. This act made it clear that Kai would not receive any protection from discrimination, and Kai had no choice but to quit.

Sacrificing Employment While Transitioning

The high salience of these stories of discriminations—and the severity of the consequences for the people featured in them—are not lost on members of gender-diverse communities. Many of the interviewees we spoke to who considered transitioning at work or changing their gender expression in some way mentioned their fear of discrimination as a primary reason why they chose to quit preemptively or avoid employment while transitioning.

Alex, a white trans woman in her forties, quit her job as an executive at a tech company after watching another trans colleague’s career stagnate after coming out at work. After Alex quit, however, she began to regret her choice. At the time of the interview, though Alex acknowledged that staying “would have been a risk,” she wished that she “had stayed and at least tried to figure it out in retrospect.” Jessie, a Latinx nonbinary person in their forties, had to give up what she felt could have been a promising career in journalism after their transition. They explained, “it’s no longer possible, at least not in my opinion, to become a globetrotting journalist and go through all these dangerous parts of the world where even here in the Bay Area there’s people getting killed for being trans or non-conforming.”

Cassidy, who worked for many years as a microbiologist, chose to leave that job and avoid employment altogether during their transition out of this fear. “I do not want people to see me during this transitional time. I don’t want to face any discrimination, I don’t want to have any problems.”

Remaining Trapped In The Vicious Cycle

Many of those who leave the workplace, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, eventually find themselves needing to rejoin it. Some must do so eventually out of financial need, while others wait to complete a social and/or medical transition. Regardless, gender-diverse people at this end of the cycle find themselves back at its beginning, navigating the many obstacles associated with hiring. Many find as the cycle repeats itself, that they will face hiring discrimination, fears of unemployment, and the realities of settling for less. In their jobs, many will experience discrimination on the job, whether in the form of harassment, exclusion, higher standards, or violence that pressures them to leave.

Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, the strain of living in this vicious cycle was glaring.

Excerpted from Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace (Praeger, May 21, 2018).