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Transgender New Yorkers Want Access to Jobs and Workplace Protections

By Danielle Tcholakian | December 9, 2015 5:46pm | Updated on December 9, 2015 6:19pm
 First Lady Chirlane McCray speaking at the end of a panel discussion featuring actress-activist Laverne Cox, activist Cece McDonald, and Queens organizer Lala Zannell (not pictured).
First Lady Chirlane McCray speaking at the end of a panel discussion featuring actress-activist Laverne Cox, activist Cece McDonald, and Queens organizer Lala Zannell (not pictured).
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Mayor's Office/Ed Reed

FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Transgender and gender non-conforming New Yorkers need access to jobs and job readiness programs and it's up to the city and the private sector to make that happen, activists and bankers said at a forum Tuesday night.

Actress Laverne Cox, activist Cece McDonald and Queens-based organizer Lala Zannell joined First Lady Chirlane McCray for the Transgender Economic Empowerment Forum, held in the Deutsche Bank building at 60 Wall St. The event featured a job fair with recruitment and employment resource tables.

“This really is a first for Wall Street,” said Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation President Gary Hattem. “It’s really a historic moment.”

The forum intended to shine a light on the struggles that transgender New Yorkers, specifically women, face in their attempts to obtain jobs and job training, and what can be done about it.

The rate of unemployment for transgender women is twice that of the general population, presenters at the panel said, and the odds are even worse for trans women of color like Cox, McDonald and Zannell.

Cox recounted the years she spent as a waitress at various establishments where she was mistreated, but felt she had no recourse because she was transgender and might not have found a job elsewhere.

She and McDonald both said they and their friends had been denied jobs that they were over-qualified for, and McDonald said that "passability" — looking feminine or masculine enough —  is a frequent problem for people like herself, who choose not to undergo as physically or hormonally extensive a transition.

"Because of me not being a 'passing' woman, [potential employers said] I would bring unnecessary attention to their establishment," she added.

All of the panelists said companies should create workplace training programs for all employees about the experience of trans people and establish clear consequences for "outing" or harassing a transgender colleague.

"The problem is not always the employer, it's also the staff," Zannell said, urging employers to have staff sign a contract so that if an employee harasses a trans colleague, that worker would face disciplinary action.

"I've been sexually harassed at work. I've been outed at work," Zannell said.

Because transgender New Yorkers face difficulties finding employment, they often turn to the "street economy" and sex work, the panelists said.

"You can't criminalize us or demonize us for that, because we have to survive," McDonald said.

"A lot of the trans women who were murdered this year were involved in some kind of street economy and didn't have a place to live," Cox added.

A recent study funded by New York State found transgender New Yorkers were twice as likely to be unemployed and 140 percent more likely to be in poverty than their cisgender, or non-transgender, gay and lesbian counterparts regardless of whether or not they had a college degree.

Zannell said it's difficult for transgender people to get job training, even to learn things as fundamental as how to write emails appropriately.

Cox said "the private sector could be doing more" to address this, and suggested Deutsche Bank start a job-training program that focuses on transgender people.

At the close of the program, Deutsche Bank vice president Jon Tilli, who co-chairs dbPride, their group for LGBT employees and allies, joked that Cox stole his thunder, announcing that Deutsche Bank would be doing just that.

The city's Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis also spoke at the event, assuring attendees that the city is taking an "aggressive stance" against employers and others who mistreat transgender New Yorkers.

"This city does not tolerate harassment of transgender people," Malalis said, to applause and shouts of "yes." She encouraged attendees to speak with her agency's investigators.

“The commission’s law enforcement bureau wants to work with you to investigate your complaints," she said. "We want to meet you.”

McCray also assured the room that they have "a committed ally" in Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Since before the day we met, Bill has been a passionate supporter of the LGBTQ community," McCray said. "I assure you, we wouldn’t have gotten to the first date if he hadn’t been.”

And she encouraged attendees to visit another city agency's table outside the auditorium — the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which is responsible for testing and hiring city employees.

“We want city government to reflect all the people we serve, and that means we need more transgender and gender non-conforming people on our team,” McCray said.