Homophobia in the Workplace? Fear of Transgender People Is Even Worse

Around two-thirds of transgender people say they suffer discrimination, whether on the job, looking for work or in seeking promotions.

Ilan Assayag

Doreen, 29, who was born male and underwent a sex-change operation about a decade ago, was reduced to working as a prostitute after an extended job search in Tel Aviv failed. Potential employers didn’t give their reasons for rejecting her, but the aversion was clear.

“I went into stores that had help-wanted signs, and everywhere I was rejected. There were people who gave me frightened looks and whispered among themselves, and there were people who said they would get back to me and never did,” Doreen says.

“Unlike gays and lesbians, some of whom can hide their sexual identities, transgender women are out in the open, and so is transphobia,” she says, referring to fear of transgender people. “I was left with no choice but to work in prostitution. Otherwise I simply would have starved to death.”

It was only thanks to Doreen’s mother, who insisted that Doreen work as a caregiver for her grandmother, that things began to turn around.

“My grandmother had suffered a stroke and my mother conditioned payment to the nursing service on my being her caregiver. That’s how I got work,” Doreen says. “The company got to know me and appreciate my work, and later it referred me to take care of another elderly woman.”

But the job with the second woman didn’t last. As Doreen puts it: “When rumors about me reached the woman’s family, I was fired. I was told: ‘We don’t need a caregiver in the afternoon anymore.’ At the moment I’m happy, but I’m terrified at the thought that, heaven forbid, my grandmother could die. What would happen then? They could fire me in a minute.”

Doreen’s bumpy road is very common among transgender people in Israel. Transgenders are considered the most vulnerable to workplace discrimination in the LGBT community.

A survey this year by Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that around two-thirds of transgender people report job discrimination. Fully 65% report discrimination in looking for work and 63% in seeking promotions.

The study also found discrimination against gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, but less than for transgender people. About 25% of gays, lesbians and bisexuals report discrimination in promotions and 18% in looking for work.

Bosses are offensive, too

Members of the LGBT community are also subject to offensive behavior on the job, including crude humor, harassment, insults and threats. About 40% of those surveyed (not including transgender respondents) said they had fallen victim to such conduct; about a quarter reported such behavior by supervisors.

As a result, two-thirds of respondents (not including transgender people) suffering discrimination reported a decline in job satisfaction, 40% said discrimination had impaired their work performance, and 38% said their physical or mental state had suffered. Transgender respondents reported double the rate of impaired job performance, and about half said they had been absent from work due to offensive behavior.

Although the equal employment opportunity law bars discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, only a fraction of LGBT Israelis who experience such discrimination file complaints with the equal employment commission. In 2013, only three complaints were filed out of a total of 903 complaints to the agency. So far this year the numbers are four and 500, respectively.

It takes time for awareness of employment rights, says the head of the commission, Tziona Koenig-Yair. “Groups that are discriminated against in society first address personal freedoms and only later move on to the situation in the job market,” she says.

And again, transgender people bear the brunt. “The more a person is exceptional when compared to the norm, the more he is perceived as frightening,” Koenig-Yair says. “We are put off by people who are different, and so are employers.”

What’s normal, anyway?

So how would Koenig-Yair respond to an employer who claimed that transgender employees put off customers? After all, a “normative appearance” is required by the equal employment opportunity law.

“One would have to come up with evidence to support such a claim,” she says. “What is actually required and why? Based on that rationale, any ‘different’ person could put off customers, beginning with someone who wears glasses to a person in a wheelchair.

As Keonig-Yair puts it, “If a want ad seeks a sex-education counselor for an ultra-Orthodox school, the employer could argue for such a rejection out of unsuitability for the position. Every case must be examined individually, and the burden of proof is on the employer. I call on anyone who feels discriminated against in the community or in general to come to the commission for advice.”

Despite the LGBT community’s generally higher level of education — about 60% have more than high school — both salaries and seniority are lower.

Still, according to the survey, discrimination against people with higher education was much lower than against people with just a high school diploma. Unfortunately, transgender people might have a hard time affording a higher education in the first place.

As Doreen puts it, “As someone from an ultra-Orthodox family, I had no choice but to leave home at a young age, so I was deprived of an education and professional training.”

Yaheli Ben-Ami Wittenberg, the director of the Hoshen center, which strives to break stereotypes about the LGBT community, said workplace discrimination had become more subtle in recent years.

“After we got married, my partner was insulted because her workplace didn’t list her among employees who had gotten married that month. Her managers also turned up their noses when she left to be with me in the delivery room. So when people ask me if there’s still discrimination against the LGBT community, I say go through a week at work with me and you’ll see,” Ben-Ami Wittenberg says.

“Nowadays overt comments are less prevalent, such as ‘Hey, homo,’ but other hurtful comments and behavior still exist. It’s the employer’s responsibility to create an equal and safe work environment. It’s a clear interest. When an employee feels insulted, he’s often absent from work. These absences have an economic cost to the employer.”

Ben-Ami Wittenberg suggests communicating openly as well as treating employees with respect.

“If a transgender woman asks to be addressed in the feminine, that should be respected,” she says. “If people aren’t sure how to address her, they simply need to ask. Familiarity dissolves 90% of the fears.”