What It's Like To Be Trans At Work: "I Didn't See A Future"

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

Being able to work, and work well, requires a fair amount of stability that can be easy to overlook. For many marginalized groups, including workers with disabilities, for example, or LGBT workers, holding down a job isn't a simple matter of applying and then starting.

What must be considered are vast levels of bureaucracy — federal, state, municipal — organizational infrastructure (from facilities to employee regulations), and the general work environment. With so many factors coming into play, it can feel like society isn't changing fast enough for the people who need change most.

Last year, a groundbreaking survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), of more than 27,000 trans people in the United States painted a distressing portrait.

"Nearly one third of respondents said they were living in poverty, about twice the rate of Americans nationwide," The Guardian reported. "Respondents also reported an unemployment rate of 15%, three times higher than the national rate," with trans people of color experiencing the highest rates of unemployment.

As Tobin Low and Kathy Tu, the hosts of WNYC Studios' LGBTQ-focused podcast, Nancy, told Refinery29, being out and proud can come with many complications. Being out depends on safety and comfort; one's colleagues, peers, and customers; and even the phase of someone's life. Working consistently requires a certain level of stability, but for people who are trans, a lack of stability and support can impede their ability to make ends meet.

Ahead, one transgender woman, a software developer in Texas, shares her professional and personal journey — taking on a variety of jobs over her lifetime to make ends meet (including professional poker), and eventually landing at a large financial services company.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Refinery29: How did you get interested your field, and what was your early career life like?

"I’ve always been fascinated by computers. My dad's a schoolteacher, my mom didn't work, and we lived in a pretty rural part of Ohio. One summer when I was six or seven years old, my dad brought home a computer they had at the school. I got really into it and for my eighth birthday, we got a reasonably affordable home computer that I spent all my time playing around on.

"In sixth grade, I decided that I wanted to make video games — there were a few role-playing games I was into — and I mailed a letter to the developer of one of my favorites and got a personal letter back. He told me what kind of steps I should take, and I remember harassing my parents telling them all I wanted was a Pascal compiler, to be able to write better programs.

"I went to college as soon as I graduated from high school but I had a lot of problems with anxiety. I’ve always come and gone on the issue of not really having any hope for the future, and it kind of goes back to being transgender. I felt like I was presented with something where I could live a lie for the rest of my life and hate myself, or try to transition and be a freak that nobody would ever love. I had pretty horrible conversations in my head about it.

"In 2015, for example, a young trans girl committed suicide by jumping out in front of a truck on I-71; that sort of brought things into the media [but] no one in Ohio even reported that with the right pronouns until it went national. That was only two years ago, so before that, certainly nobody used the word trans outside of the trans community."

What led you to gambling as a way to make money?

"Around 2007, I started going to a trans support group. There were people who were passable enough that no one would ever catch on, and then there was everybody else who was in the closet and didn't want to go outside, and pretended to be the other gender to try to fit in.

"I was a flake. I dropped out of college several times, and tried to kill myself a couple of times. I just didn’t see any future in the regular kind of workforce. At some point, I started playing a card game, Magic: The Gathering, with a bunch of people in the math department at my school. A bunch of us got good enough to make money at it in tournaments, and around the same time, online poker started turning into a thing. We thought we could make a lot of money at it and I started doing it professionally. I put a lot of effort into it. I got really good at running a database locally, and I hooked up three different monitors to my machine, playing poker on six or eight tables at a time.

"But in 2006, it became kind of shady. It wasn't exactly illegal, but a bill passed making it illegal for banks to process payments to offshore gambling sites. As soon as that happened, PartyPoker, which was the biggest site, stopped allowing American players. I started playing on other sites instead."

Did anyone know what you were doing?

"About that time, I was dating a girl who was very supportive of what I'd call my gender confusion, I suppose. I was doing a bit of an 'ambiguous' thing — wearing a ponytail and eyeshadow — until we decided to move to Phoenix where she had a job opportunity. For the three years I was there, I started playing poker at Indian casinos in Phoenix and I started living as a woman full-time.

"That relationship didn’t work out at all, but it was my opportunity to transition. I had moved across the country, was playing poker full-time, and could transition because it wasn’t a legitimate thing. If I had tried to fully transition [beforehand] it just wouldn’t have happened. In Ohio, you can change your gender on your driver’s license, but that’s difficult to do when you’re not in a stable situation. You need to see a therapist for at least a year, get them to fill out all this paperwork, and then get the DMV to change your paperwork. It’s a big pain and I hadn’t done any of that. After that relationship fell apart, I needed to move back to Ohio.

"It was a really horrible time in my life. My relationship hadn't worked out and it was like, if she doesn’t love the freaky person, who will? And at the same time, I couldn’t get a job."

Was that because of qualifications or because you didn’t want to work at a place where you couldn’t be who you are?

"The latter. When I couldn’t get a job, I cut off my hair and did the dude thing. I got a job doing software in Dayton that worked out really well, but at the same time, it was psychologically difficult. On the inside, I was saying, 'Fuck you' to anyone who was nice to me. I'd think, You wouldn’t like me if you knew me. I sort of resented everybody.

"But around 2012, the State Department changed its rules allowing trans people to get a passport that had the right gender on it. That gave me a lot of hope. I was working as a guy and I had insurance and started seeing a therapist. I went to the therapist for a year and then I got a referral to a doctor [whom I saw] for about six months. I finally got all the paperwork to change my driver’s license to female in Ohio, and then I got a very specific letter from my doctor allowing me to change my passport to female.

"I sort of did all of that incognito. I was living as a female outside of work, but then I would go to work and wear like, Under Armour compression shirts under my polo and try to do the dude thing. Then, in 2015, I just decided to come out. I worked at a really conservative place — all the TVs were permanently locked onto Fox News — and I was like, 'Yeah, I’m trans. I guess it would probably be better if I quit and worked somewhere else.'"

Did they agree with you?

"They didn’t want me to leave. My boss didn’t want me to leave, or his manager, and my director who was actually a lesbian didn't want me to leave either. But as soon as I said, 'You know, I’m going to be using the women’s restroom...' they said, 'Yeah. That’s a tough one. It might be better if you [left].'

"That is a big thing for everybody. Because it was southwest Ohio, most of the jobs are related to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The military has plenty of non-discrimination [regulations], but my friends around there who are trans always say they aren't fired for being trans, but they're forced to walk to a different building to use a different bathroom.

"But I had all my paperwork in order. I had it updated with my social security, license, and passport, and I moved to Texas. Now, I get to be treated like a normal woman. All the paperwork my employer has ever seen has been female. Nobody every brings it up — but it still feels like a don’t ask, don't tell sort of thing.

"At this job, about five of us got together and formed a diversity and inclusion business group for LGBTQ people. They want to be diverse and be open — even just because they want to be able to hire good IT talent. But at the same time, that military background [makes it] hard for them to take a position on something that’s too left wing. So, it’s really weird to see it at this company. They have all these diversity groups — Latino, African American, a big disability diversity group — but we had to found the LGBT diversity group."

You've had all these different jobs. Can you talk about how different workplaces have allowed you to be yourself there, or not?

"I feel like in this job, they like having me work here. I’m probably a little bit of a token diverse character, and it would probably be a little difficult for me to get fired. One of the younger guys who's in our little LGBT group told me that the woman interviewing him said, 'We just hired our first trans person last month!' I was like, oh, that’s interesting. I’m already a selling point!

"I’ve worked there for about two and half years, and until we started this little group, I had never really talked about anything like that [at work] with anybody. I had maybe a couple of work friends that I was out with. I used to think I couldn’t possibly say anything, because there were one or two people who would give me a shitty look if I caught their eye as I was walking into the women’s restroom.

"I felt like I couldn't be open — as if I needed to at least give people the opportunity to maybe think I’m cis, or maybe I’m post-op; maybe then they’d be okay with that — but definitely not talk about it. So, going from that to feeling like I’m actually kind of accepted feels like a much better environment at work."

Can you talk about the difficulty of transitioning on the job?

"Doing things the way I did do them — getting all my paperwork taken care of to the point where HR doesn’t have anything on me that ever would have had my old name or say male puts them in a position they’re much more comfortable with. From their view, there’s no real evidence I’m not just like any other woman.

"When someone transitions on the job, it’s a little bit out of the hands of the employer if they don’t immediately fire you; to some degree, they have to do some kind of containment, just because the bathroom thing is very difficult for people. They’re perfectly nice people [but] somebody going in one bathroom one day, and then going in the other bathroom the next is just way too much for them.

"I think being trans on the job seems like too much of a liability for the employer. They don’t know what they’re going to have to pay for, or how smoothly it’s going to go, and what expectations the person will have. I’ve heard of people transitioning on the job being referred to as 'gender terrorists' when they get fussy about some little thing. It just seems very difficult."

What changes do you think are needed in your industry to make it possible for trans people to be open and comfortable?

"I’ve known some super gay people who feel like they have to clam up and act a little tough at work. I think that’s a gradual thing that will take a lot longer in certain industries. It’s about exposure."

One of the things you talked about was the astronomical cost of transitioning. Getting surgery if you want it can be even more difficult considering that trans people are among the most under- and unemployed people in this country. What was the importance to you of having a good-paying job to help with that? Or did most of the money come from gambling?

"Most of the money came from my job, and that’s a huge thing. When I think of the people that were in my little support group in Ohio, most of them had no money.

"There was one girl who transitioned, this would have been in 2007, and her brother was a doctor and gave her the money to go to San Francisco. She got facial feminization, which I think cost $41,000 at the time. After she did it, I was very much like, Oh, I want to be able to do that. Fix my nose and maybe fix my hairline, and on and on. That’s the first thing I saved up for. I saved for two years, which I guess isn’t that bad, but I also put a decent chunk of it on a credit card that give me six months to a year with no interest. But that was a huge thing."

What has been the most meaningful thing that a coworker or manager has done to support you? Or what would you have wanted someone to have done for you?

"It’s cool that we have our little diversity group, and we have an executive sponsor for the group. In general at work, I do wish there were situations when people would take a stand more overtly. For example, I'm having sort of a fight with a person I’ve never met, who will put the TV in the break room on Fox News. When I go in there, I’ll put it on CNN or PBS and watch people do crafts.

"One time, I walked into the break room and Fox News was on, and I was really shocked at the sense of panic it almost gave me: Here I am, and here’s the TV talking about Trump wanting to ban transgender people from the military. Fox News is going on and on about what a burden to the healthcare system we are, and at that point, I almost passed out. Now that this is on the news, it’s polarized; everyone has an opinion. Suddenly, I’m the problem with healthcare and I’m the reason healthcare premiums are so high. But it’s not like I’m going to defend myself in front of the TV and say, 'No, that’s bullshit. I have to pay for all my stuff out of pocket.'

"If somebody [at work] would have come out with a statement saying, Hey, there are plenty of trans veterans out there. We as a company support the military and we support our trans veterans as well, that would have been awesome. But they didn’t really take a position when Texas was pushing the bathroom bill, for example, and that sucked."

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