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Imagine for a moment that you’re faced with a choice: Hide your true identity so you can afford to survive, or risk everything from your job to your home in order to live as your authentic self.
For many transgender people, this situation isn’t imaginary. On top of all the societal and emotional hurdles trans individuals face, there are a disproportionate number of financial challenges. Even the most basic goals, such as saving money are often out of reacA 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 29 percent of transgender people live in poverty. The report also found that the unemployment rate among transgender individuals is 15 percent ― three times the national average at the time of the survey. Thirty percent have been homeless at some point in their lives.
“It’s a pretty grim landscape,” said Dru Levasseur, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal and director of the organization’s Transgender Rights Project. Levasseur noted that many trans It seems the transgender community is being recognized and celebrated in popular culture and entertainment, but the financial future remains bleak.people must rely on a “survival economy” to get by.
The NCTE survey above found that 30 percent of respondents who were employed during the previous year said they had been fired, denied a promotion or experienced mistreatment because of their gender identity or expression. Seventy-seven percent of respondents took steps to avoid workplace mistreatment, including delaying their transition, hiding it or quitting their job.
“I was fired from a job once in a retail store when a new store manager took over and was cleaning house of all the various employees that didn’t fit his ideals,” said Riley Silverman, a comedian, writer and trans woman.
Silverman was early in her transition at the time but would wear eyeliner at work. It wasn’t against the dress code, but her employer clearly didn’t like it. “I got fired for something unrelated, a completely trumped-up customer complaint. When they want you gone, they find a reason.”
Now working in a creative field, Silverman said she wishes she could pursue comedy and writing exclusively. However, the security of her day job is tough to give up. “It’s harder for me to feel comfortable leaving a steady job that keeps a roof over my head and helps me pay for health insurance,” Silverman explained.
“I’ve had the phrase ‘Jump and find the net as you fall’ repeated to me so many times by cis straight people who don’t have to fear not even being able to go to a temp agency to make a quick buck,” she said. “I can’t leap and find the net because I have no reason to believe there will be one.”
Levasseur noted gains have been made in making workplace discrimination laws more inclusive of transgender individuals. For instance, a federal appeals court recently rejected the Trump administration’s position and ruled that transgender individuals are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex.
Despite this, discrimination is still an all-too-common problem, according to Levasseur. “The reality is that a lot of people don’t know the law. They don’t feel like they can exercise their rights.”
For many trans individuals, though not all, transitioning physically is often an important ― and expensive ― step in the journey to living as the gender they identify with.
The cost of gender-affirming surgery can easily cost $100,000 or more, Less complex procedures, such as facial electrolysis, run about $20,000. And there are other medical costs associated with transitioning, such as counseling, which can cost around $100 a session.
Often people who transition are left to foot the bill themselves. Mary McDougall, a wealth management adviser at Merrill Lynch, has worked with trans clients who were preparing to transition. Often it meant sacrificing other goals or taking on debt.
“You just had to figure out ways to pay for it,” McDougall said. “Someone would basically spend their entire retirement savings in order to accomplish this. But it was such an important thing for their lives.”
Today, more health plans cover surgeries related to gender. However, McDougall noted, even when a trans person is able to get surgery covered, there are still additional costs. “If you don’t have the family support, you may not have some of the financial support that you need or some of the care post-surgery or some other therapy that you might find beneficial,” she said.
And, of course, it’s tough to get low-cost health insurance without a full-time job that offers it ― something many trans individuals struggle to obtain.
What’s perhaps the most unfortunate reality is that some people are unwilling to accept transgender individuals for who they are, even if those people are family. That means many members of the trans community are rejected by their own parents, siblings or other relatives, sometimes ending up on the street.
A 2012 study found that running away because of family rejection over sexual orientation and gender identity was the top contributor to homelessness among LGBTQ youth. Second was being forced out of their family homes after coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Unfortunately, homelessness can compound the discrimination trans people may already face when looking for work or launching a career.
Find a support network. “I would say that the No. 1 thing that helped me to keep my head on straight when I’m not having access to things and just really struggling financially is having a support network,” said Lawter. This can include friends, support groups, online communities and even Facebook groups where trans members are able to ask questions without judgment and know they’re not alone.
Plan ahead. McDougall said that no matter your financial goal, whether it’s paying for surgery, sending a child to college or retiring, you have to start planning for it as soon as possible. “It really is just a math problem,” McDougall said, noting that you might have to put off retirement and work longer to make up for the costs. “But even then, people are happy to do that because it means that they’ll be so much happier in their life.”
Give back if you can. It’s also important for those in the community that have the means to give back when possible. Levasseur has encouraged transgender seniors to leave at least a portion of their estate to the Jim Collins Foundation, an organization he co-founded that funds gender-affirming surgeries. “We were able to do 20 surgeries in 10 years because, in part, multiple trans people passed away and left their legacy to the foundation.”
Know that it’s OK to be pissed off. Finally, while it’s easy to tell people to be positive, “it’s also OK to have bad days and be upset about your situation and the state of the world,” said Lawter. “We deserve equal pay, we deserve to be employed … we do deserve all those things, and your situation is not your fault.”
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