(WOMENSENEWS)--As the recession takes a deeper toll on jobs, income and wages, more Americans are filling out forms for jobs, unemployment insurance, Medicaid and food stamps.
It's a labyrinthine process for anyone. But for transgender people, it often comes with a particularly upsetting price: outing themselves.
Riley, a 28-year-old transman working as a teacher's aide in New York, who asked that his last name be kept private, began his on-the-job transition without any grand announcement.
He simply turned up for his first day of work at school looking, he thought, like a man.
The children agreed, but the teacher under whom he was working kept calling him "she." Having to explain to his adult boss something the children understood instinctively was just the start of the small humiliations.
Unemployment brought new ones, when he had to appear in person to apply for his card for Medicaid. His paperwork was inconsistent.
He had recently updated his New York State license to identify him as male, but his Social Security card identified him as female. That's because he didn't meet the federal requirement of having undergone permanent surgery.
His birth certificate also said he was female because his home state of Georgia won't allow him to change it under any circumstances.
'I Knew I Had to Explain'
"The guy who was processing my paperwork was some old guy, so I just sort of threw my papers on the table and stared at my knees, knowing I was going to have to explain," said Riley.
In the end, Riley said, he allowed his interviewer to determine his gender and ended up with a Medicaid card that, unlike his picture identification, identified him as female. Without an insurance card that identified him as female, he would not have qualified for gynecological services that he still needed. Only people whose insurance cards identify them as female are allowed to have their insurance pay for gynecological services.
Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality, based in Washington, said that until recently the Social Security Administration was inadvertently outing transgender people to their employers as part of the employment verification process.
When employers would submit I-9 forms to verify a jobseeker's identity, they often checked an optional gender marker on the document. If the new hire's presented gender didn't match the one in the federal records, the employer would receive a warning notice. This had the double-whammy effect of both outing people and making them technically ineligible for work.
The Social Security Administration reports it has ended the practice of sending no-match letters to employers over gender markers and the National Center for Transgender Equality reports a drop-off in reports of such incidents.
Passports Cause Border Confusion
Keisling, however, notes that the gender indicator on passports can have the same effect: "Passports are increasingly a gateway document. Identifying the gender has no national security justification, but it causes confusion for employers and at the borders."
For that reason, the National Center for Transgender Equality applauded the State Department's announcement on June 10 that it would begin to allow passport applicants to have the gender marker on their passport reflect their identity with a doctor's certification that they are receiving "appropriate clinical treatment."
Until this policy change, which also applies to birth certificates the State Department issues to U.S. nationals born abroad, federal law didn't acknowledge a transgender person's transition unless it involved "permanent, irreversible gender surgery." This often meant transgender people could not change any federal identity documents, leaving their identities open to questions.
Despite the State Department's policy chance, the Social Security Administration still requires surgery to allow people to change their gender in its records.
In some cases, the government's squeamishness about defining what counts as gender surgery has left some wiggle room for transgender people who don't have genital reassignment surgery and the surgeons who work with them: any secondary sex characteristic that can be modified through surgery, such as breast implants or removal, might count.
But such procedures are often considered elective, which creates a chicken-and-egg problem. While transgender people might prefer to seek jobs in their new identities, their lack of employer-sponsored health coverage often prevents them from having the required procedures and surgeries to make that possible.
Workplace publicity and confusion often intensifies the problem of seeking and holding on to work.
Jetta, a transwoman who asked that her last name be kept confidential, began her transition quite openly at work. She knew that her job in tech support at a state university, which she asked not be named, provided protection against discrimination for transgender people.
The Elephant in the Room
"Everyone started tiptoeing around me," she said in a recent interview. "It was almost worse than the awkward, intrusive questions I get asked. No one likes being the elephant in the room . . .The motivation behind not making any comments, behind not talking to me, is that they were afraid if they said something and I went to HR and said I'd been made to feel awkward, they'd be forced to attend a seminar. They were more afraid of that, a seminar on tolerance, than even losing their jobs."
Eventually, Jetta left her job and moved to the Bay Area, expecting her employment situation to get easier. But, it didn't. In this economy, she said, it seemed like employers were constantly looking for reasons not to hire people.
"Every job interview becomes a poker game . . . They always ask about your private life . . . You either have to lie to hide your identity, and I cannot lie about who I am, or you tell them and find out that they didn't want to know," she said.
In 2009, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued the first comprehensive report on, among other things, the impact of the recession on transgender people. Its study of nearly 6,500 individuals showed that transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed as other Americans, and face even higher rates of unemployment if they are people of color.
In 38 states, it remains legal to discriminate against transgender people in the workplace.
Researchers also found that harassment on the job was nearly universal, even in states that offer employment protections based on gender identity.
One piece of legislation that could help transgender people not only prove discrimination but do something about it is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was introduced by Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., in the House and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in the Senate. In response to the divisive passage in 2007 of a nondiscrimination bill that excludes transgender people, both bills are transgender inclusive. However, recent reports indicate that they are far from perfect when it comes to how employers may be allowed to differentiate and treat transgender employees.
Both chambers of Congress held hearings last year and Frank continues to insist the legislation will pass the House, but most observers now think that it is too late in the year to get the legislation through the Senate.
Megan Carpentier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in RH Reality Check, the Women's Media Center, the Washington Independent and The Guardian's "Comment is free." She recently served as the editor of news and politics at Air America and was an editor at Jezebel.com.
For more information:
National Center for Transgender Equity: