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Friday, July 28, 2006

The gritty reality behind trans employment discrimination

Today's blog is a little different from the usual discussion of corporate HR issues and legal theory. It addresses why transgender anti-discrimination policies and laws are important to more than the few openly transgender people who owe their employment to them, why such policies and laws are important for the larger society. It address the social forces that have converged on the Ponce neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia.

Two weeks ago, an article appeared in the Southern Voice, a newspaper directed to gay readership, about a police crackdown on transgender prostitutes in Atlanta. It and the letters to the editor in response demonstrate the gritty reality behind employment discrimination against transgender people, the infighting between the more privileged gay and transgender population and those less fortunate, and the simplistic thinking that fuels the social problems.

The article details a meeting on July 10 held at Mary Mac's Tea Room, where Atlanta Police Department Vice Squad Investigator Orrick Curry promised the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance that the APD would would step up its enforcement of prostitution and vagrancy laws throughout the Midtown area for the next 30 days - concentrating on the areas between Ponce De Leon Avenue and Piedmont Park. This area includes an upscale gay neighborhood, a result of the gentrification of a formerly poor area.

While committing to the crackdown, the police official acknowledged that it would not solve the issue because it is merely "a band-aid" for the real problem. He noted that defendants can obtain bail and the maximum penalty for midemeanor solicitation is 6 months in jail. He didn't mention the broader social problems that contribute to the creation of transgender prostitutes: family intolerance that results in young transgender people being denied the support they need, the intolerance of the educational system that stigmatizes young transgender people, the willingness of many adult men to pay young transgender people for sex work but not to work in their offices, and the drugs freely available to young people who are placed in this drab reality. He did not mention the problems that occur whenever neighborhoods move upwards economically, mixing rich and poor realities. Many of these transgender prostitutes are people of color, who face additional stigma based on race and ethnicity. In addition, this problem appears not just in Atlanta, but in many major cities, such as New York, San Fransisco and Boston, indicating that the problem is not based merely on the laziness of a few transgender people in Atlanta.

It's not surprising that the officer didn't bring this up, because to do so would be simply to state the obvious and he is not paid to be a social scientist, but to protect the local population to the best of his ability. Unfortunately for the police, however, the local residents seem to think that it is insufficient police enforcement that causes this problem, rather than broad social forces converging in Ponce that can't be changed by a police crackdown. I don't blame the local residents either. Has anyone with an understanding of social issues bothered to include them in a discussion of why they are being subjected to this urban blight?

The magazine was perceptive enough, however, to raise these issues on its own. It quoted Dee Dee Chamblee, the exective director of La Gender, Inc., a local nonprofit social services agency that addresses the needs of transgender individuals "who often find themselves in the court system, with counseling, career development, job training skills, leadership and spiritual enlightenment."

"But without broad social change, transgender sex workers will continue to work the streets simply to survive," said Dee Dee Chamblee, executive director of LaGender Inc., a transgender education and advocacy group. "It don't ever occur to them that this is a human being who needs to eat, and earn a living, and find a place to sleep, she said." Because transgender men and women who adopt a sexual identity other than their birth sex face discrimination at school and the workplace, for at least some, sex work is often perceived as the only viable way to earn money, Chamblee said. "When you do have the qualifications to get a job, you are not judged on the qualifications, you are judged on your appearance and that's the end," she said. Chamblee noted that prostitution is dangerous also to those involved in the trade, saying she has heard of participants as young as 13 who have contracted HIV. She advised residents who are troubled by the presence of sex workers in their neighborhoods to present an alternative. "Have any of them offered any of the people jobs that are working over there?" she asked.

Chamblee's discussion of the social problems contributing to the creation of transgender prostitution outraged readers. In response to the article, a gay reader wrote to the paper:

Trans prostitutes don't bring empathy to their cause
Re "Atlanta police crack down on trans prostitution" (news, July 14):
As a gay man, Midtown homeowner and member of the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance, I applaud the recent sting efforts by Atlanta Police against prostitution and vagrancy in our neighborhood. No offense to Dee Dee Chamblee of LaGender Inc., but her rationalization was pretty pitiful. Every transgender person who tricks on my street just makes me all the less empathetic to their cause.

This reader rejects Chamblee's point that work towards social change fueled by a sense of humanity is necessary to stem the social forces causing the problem. Instead, he will have less empathy for any transgender person's cause because there are transgender prostitutes in his neighborhood. Interestingly, this man's sexual orientation would have been pushing him in the same direction fifty years ago. He has benefited from the vigorous social action of tens of thousands of gay people who put lives and careers at risk to protest the marginalization of gays over the past fifty years. His lack of historical perspective leads him to conclude that transgender people are not worthy of his empathy. Perhaps if he understood that transgender people are in the same position gay people were in fifty years ago, he would have more empathy.

The following letter appeared this week from an equally misguided transgender reader:

Trans activist smears fellow trans people
Re "Trans prostitutes don’t bring empathy to their cause" (Sound Off, July 21):
Please do not think that most transgender citizens are prostitutes because we are mostly law-abiding citizens like everybody else. DeeDee Chamblee's suggestion that sex work is inevitable for transgender citizens is an insult. Why doesn’t she find alternatives to prostitution for these people? Only we can find a better life for us instead of a dangerous life on the streets.
I can appreciate the frustration regarding transgender prostitutes working in someone’s neighborhood. As you might expect, La Gender Inc.’s defense generated a less than warm response from the local safety group: "Some activists in the community feel that residents affected bear the responsibility for finding jobs and other alternatives for the prostitutes in our neighborhood." Let’s be honest, adding "T" to "LGB" doesn’t make the fight for gay rights any easier. So let’s not make it all the harder with lame-ass excuses for illegal activity.

This transgender person wishes to dispel the notion found in the previous articles that most transgender citizens are prostitutes, asking "why doesn't she find alternatives to prostitution for these people." However, the point is diminished by the disclaimer of any responsibility for the matter, stating that the upscale residents in the gentrified neighborhood bear no responsibility for finding these alternatives. The writer charges Chamblee with making the fight for transgender rights harder, though it is, in fact, Chamblee who is devoting her time to solving the problem of transgender prostitution. The letter writer is obviously well educated and has received some privileges from society. I have often noticed a substantial gap between well-educated middle-class transgender people and less-educated poor transgender people, and the former often think that, since they are succeeding, more or less, all transgender people can do so. This is a thought that can only be held by someone who has thrived on the privileges of society and has not been subjected to the invisible discrimination in which others dwell.

There is also a letter from the vice president of the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance:

Trans prostitutes nuisance to themselves, neighbors
To the Editors:
Re "Atlanta police crack down on trans prostitution" (news, July 14):
There are jobs available for these prostitutes if only they would get off the crack and crystal meth. The alternatives already exist: Either they get off the drugs and find jobs on their own, or there are plenty of work details in jail. Either way the nightly terrorizing of Midtown residents by this transvestitute gang must stop unconditionally. Pre-trial and post-trial diversions are possible during the prosecution process. Even better would be to pursue this route before getting locked up. An arrest might even present an opportunity for some of these prostitutes to pursue a better life for themselves. Nobody has a right to be a public nuisance or to force a community to endure criminal activity. Prostitution is not good for us, and it is certainly not good for them.

This writer acknowledges that the problem of drug abuse contributes to "transvestitute" prostitution, but simplistically thinks that those who are involved in drug abuse and prostitution could get a job by simply applying to the local McDonald's. He fails to understand that it is usually too late to save those who have already succumbed to the social forces created by prejudice and discrimination. Pre-trial diversion is not going to make this a Horatio Alger success story because it cannot address their lack of education and qualifications, their drug abuse, their lack of work ethic, and their ability to get "easy money" -- easier anyway then persuading any employer to give them a decent job for decent pay. Do you think they'd rather have dangerous work as a streetwalker than your job? Again, there are larger social forces at work here that cannot be solved in a day.

I sysmpathize with those in the Ponce neighborhood, both the prostitutes and those who have to encounter them daily. This is why transgender anti-discrimination efforts are important to society -- to reduce at least one of the multiple oppressions that push the vulnerable in our society towards prostitution. Anti-discrimination efforts are not going to solve the problem in the Ponce neighborhood -- it's too late for that. However, the ultimate success of anti-discrimination efforts will avoid future Ponces, and the personal disasters resulting for all of those involved in this sad story. This is the gritty reality behind transgender employment discrimination, and I would ask those who read this to resolve to be part of the solution.

I am making a donation to La Gender, Inc., and I ask that you consider it as well.

1 comment:

Nerissa said...

The employment situation for transgendered individuals in the Atlanta area is terrible. I've experienced problems which your blog documented at
http://jweissdiary.blogspot.com/search?q=Nerissa . I eventually gave up on getting a decent job and am now in nursing school. After I graduate I'll leave this area and move somewhere more tolerant of transsexuals who actually want to make a decent living.

In regards to the prostitutes, sadly the Atlanta police department has no interest in doing anything to resolve the underlying problem that induces so many of the MTF T*s to work the streets.

For example, the police department has a lesbian officer hired at a GLBT liaison, Darlene Harris. See http://www.sovo.com/2006/10-27/news/localnews/crimes.cfm .

Darlene mentioned to me a few months ago that the department wished to have a job training conference for transgendered individuals. I volunteered to help. She has never contacted me.

She knows me well enough to know that I'd seriously make an effort to do something. If the department has a conference at all it will be all about image building for Darlene and other officers.

In Darlene's defense, however, the unemployed T*s in this area appear to have virtually no interest in doing anything to help themselves. LaGender sponsored a job training session two years ago and in the entire city only two trans individuals attended. One being me.

Where is the motivation for Darlene or Dee Dee Chamblee of LaGender Inc. to help people not willing to help themselves?

IMO employment for trans individuals requires support by employers and society as well as trans people willing to do their share.

Doing our share for those of us who are employed and transitioning, or will be employed as I will once I get out of nursing school, requires us to be professional in our behavior in the workplace. What people see of us is what they will imagine the next T* will be like.

Nerissa Belcher