Category Archives: Employment

Not to be discussed

The cold fluid ran down my shin as I lay on my back on the examination table, my foot drawn back and my right knee raised. Having chilled my knee to numbness with the liquid, the doctor made no effort to dry the drips. Instead he lapsed into a patter of small talk – something about his upcoming holiday plans for Portugal – as he readied the needle. His distraction drew me back to fond memories of my one time in Lisbon, almost 40 years ago; the sharp prick of the needle entering my knee interrupted those musings, but it wasn’t so bad. The pain was already subsiding as he slapped the Band-Aid over my kneecap. “See you next Friday”, he said, already on his way down the vinyl tiled corridor to his next patient.

I’d been through this routine once before, two years earlier. Injections of some magical gel into my right knee, spaced out over three weeks, thereby attaining full and relatively pain-free movement of my right leg. It would do for now; although I was keenly aware that there would come a time when more complicated measures would be needed to keep this body’s aging at bay. Despite my disciplined dedication to staying fit and healthy, enjoying continued unfettered mobility was no longer a given. I took a modicum of comfort knowing that it could all be much worse; I’m approaching 70 but I’m far more active and able than many people my age. Hell, I’m more fit than many people far younger than me – or so I like to think. Yet despite my relatively good fortune with my health, and the benefits of all those years of being a regular at the gym, there’s one painful reality that we cannot assuage with a visit to the clinic: getting old in America isn’t for the fainthearted.  

Hey, I’m tough, resilient, and generally upbeat too. Still, finding myself balancing on the precipice of “elderly” as a single woman, and a transgender woman at that, has given me pause. Even the best cared-for bodies and minds will gradually wear out, although so far I’ve held the worst at bay. What most occupies me now isn’t physical – it’s how difficult it’s become to push back effectively against the tightening encirclement of three overlapping powerful social biases: ageism, sexism, and transphobia. In my combat against all three, my once robust counterpunches now appear more like pointless flailing; I am feeling this battle slipping away from me. Yes, I’ve always known that the inexorable forces of aging will prevail against me, but succumbing to social stigma and discrimination is another thing altogether.

What will it mean for me to lose this struggle – how will I keep my spirits up, my rent paid, and both me and my cat fed? What would my surrender to any or all three of these biases mean to my own dignity and purpose? Am I deluded in clinging to the notion that I have so much more to give, and do, and be in this world?

Years ago, when I first returned home briefly after two years of what was ultimately to become fifteen years living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, I had so much to talk about. Africa had changed me. My unsolicited lessons in life had sprung from seeing firsthand and all around me the juxtaposition of intense opportunity and grinding poverty, from the warmth and sparkle of the Kenyans I had come to know, and from sensing firsthand the corrosive weight of systemic corruption, exploitation, and ignorance. Africa had opened my eyes and transformed my entire worldview, and I was so eager to share my perspective with friends and family back home. I was quick to learn, however, that very few in the States really wanted to know. My life in Africa wasn’t where they were at. I soon stopped trying to share.

Getting old isn’t where most Americans are at either. Younger America isn’t inviting our perspectives; economic and social survival for elderly Americans certainly isn’t something the general public wants us to discuss. We have our Social Security and Medicare, don’t we? Even if those entitlements barely keep us alive, the message isn’t ambiguous. “Stop your complaining”, say those who are burdened with severe student loan debt, mortgage payments, and the cost and multiple demands of young families to raise. So, wise to the knowledge that they have a good point, we shut up. We’ve had our chance at life; we’re expected now to quietly find our peace with the consequences of our lives and our past choices. We must play the cards that we’ve been dealt, even if we now hold only a few cards. Society wants us out of the spotlight, to give the next generations some space. Our time is past; our turn is over. Deal with it. We’re on our own.

No.

What if I refuse to see myself as irrelevant, as no longer worthy? What if I remain engaged in mind and spirit, and in body too as much as my joints will allow? What if I consider my experiences and capabilities as still being of value – perhaps even essential – to solving some of the challenges that we all share within our current environment? What if I still have hopes and dreams? Spunk and grit, idealism and energy? I’m not ready to take that step back into the shadows. Yes, I recognize that it’s a step whose time inevitably will come, and I do hope to meet that time with grace and awareness. But not now. Not yet.

You see, some of us have a little problem. It’s a problem guaranteed to attract negligible attention from policy makers or the public, from potential employers, and from those who are immersed in the affairs, adventures, challenges, and prospects of youth and middle age. But for us, our problem is very real; we are failing in our efforts to solve it on our own. Such failure is undignified; it’s best not to speak of it.

But I will speak.

You see, some of us actually want to work. We delight in work. And some of us also have to work. I have to work, and since it’s about my survival, I guess it’s important. I know; you have other pressing concerns to attend to, but…

It’s not written down anywhere (that would be illegal), yet I’ve learned to my chagrin that I’m no longer “positioned” to apply for most jobs that are advertised – even jobs I’m imminently qualified for. The HR office at any employer, by coincidence or conspiracy, has quietly come to function as an effective gatekeeper against resumes that are too long, graduation dates too far back, and publications written back in the 1980s (even if some of them are still a damn good read). Unless someone well placed within an organization is acting as our champion and taking strong measures to get our candidacies reviewed fairly, applying for jobs is now nearly always a waste of time. The unwritten message is all too clear: applications are not welcome from men over 60, women over 50, or from anyone over 40 who is transgender.

Were it only a waste of time, that might be countenanced. My problem is more personal. When I see a job posted that I know I would do exceptionally well at – for an employer whose important mission I know would truly benefit from the deep resources of experience, networks, and wisdom that these years have earned me – I get invested. I can’t resist placing myself in the picture: there I am doing that job, and everyone is delighted with my performance, my sharp wit, and my congeniality.  And I am enjoying their engagement, and the sense of community in a vibrant workplace that embraces diversity of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. So, I sit down and write my heart out – well, in a properly reserved manner. After all, I know how to write those cover letters. For years I’ve been the one reading them at the other end.

Still, my investment is fruitless; my cover letter will go unread, and my resume will be placed in the “other” stack (a digital stack, these days). No one will be moved, or impressed, or intrigued. They won’t even write back. Nothing, silence; the door is closed. At my age all the doors are closing around me, and those whom we have relied upon on the inside to keep those doors slightly ajar for “that remarkably experienced and capable applicant” are rapidly leaving the workforce.  Who is left to advocate for someone “old” like me?

Fair enough. We know that patience among those of younger generations for listening to the woes or more gritty interjections of elders is very limited. We confront all those closed and closing doors mostly on our own, wondering with increasing anxiety how we’re supposed to pay our bills and survive into whatever our futures hold for us. For those like me – and I suspect many transgender people of my generation – the notion of a comfortable retirement just around the corner is a tantalizing yet unreachable prospect. We watch our more affluent but similarly aged cohort of friends and siblings plan their cruises and move to their comfortable, sunny retirement villas, secure in the coverage of their extended-care old age insurance policies. There’s nothing for us to say about it all, and no one to listen were we to do so. We’re left to wish them well in their hard-earned retirements. God bless them.

Transgender lives like mine are almost never characterized by such affluence and security. We’ve had to pay and pay for our “condition”; my transition took place when all health insurance providers routinely and expressly excluded transition-related services. I paid for my womanhood, in costs that drained any savings I had ever accumulated, and which left me indebted for years to come. My expensive new body saved my life and brought me untold meaning and peace (if not a boyfriend), but I am still shouldering that very high price tag for that physical, psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual transformation.

The medical, practical, and counseling costs of a gender transition aside, transgender lives are also frequently marked by disruption. It’s not just the big and often messy splash of coming out and reconfiguring one’s personal, family, bureaucratic, and intimate arrangements; transgender people face a nearly unscalable wall of discrimination in employment and in so many other aspects of our lives. Our resumes are replete with periods of “consulting”, if we are even that lucky. Finding and keeping a job is frequently a monumental challenge in the midst of such pervasive transphobia and bias, and getting older exacerbates this challenge exponentially. For us, the prospect of easing into a comfortable retirement is the bittersweet stuff of fantasy.

With doors closing, the bank balance diminishing, and the face in the mirror acquiring ever more wrinkles, our options are few. Often there isn’t really anywhere or anyone to turn to. Being old and without substantial means of support in America is rough. Our personal narratives do not attract a caring readership. Not only do old people’s complaints generate little sympathy or action, but who among the young and middle-aged demographics want to entertain the future prospect of their own aging? Who wants to think through our journeys to form conjectures about their own possibly dim pathway ahead?  We’re therefore expected to stay quiet, to soldier on somehow, and find a way to pay our bills and retain our dignity. How? That’s our problem. And we’ll do our best, often isolated and alone.

But know this much: this is really, really hard.

Distracted.

It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

Feisty canaries, and this election.

canary-in-the-coal-mine

With election day just three weeks away, people like me have more cause than many to be wary. American society stands at a vulnerable place, characterized by one political campaign that is built on fomenting anger. Anytime that such deep discontent is viewed instrumentally as an incendiary resource to be ignited to political ends, many unrelated dimensions of societal ignorance are also made kindling to the flames. Intensified exclusion, persecution, bullying, and violence have their roots in that ignorance – and what happens next in that context matters greatly to us.

Ignorance about people who are like me, however, isn’t limited to those of one political party, or to any specific socioeconomic class. There are many with advanced degrees and distinguished careers, people who are successful in business and in government – in short, people who are respected by their communities – who are ignorant about my small group of people at the fringe. Perhaps they can afford to be ignorant; we’ve been kept in the shadows – or far worse – throughout human history, and we’re so few in number that what society does with us really doesn’t seem to matter very much to the majority. As for those few awkward times when – for whatever reason – we can no longer be ignored, our very existence makes ignorant people squirm with discomfort, or look for ways to dismiss the very idea of us. Off-color, hurtful jokes seem to work for some, and self-righteous indignation for others, but it remains a fact: people like me – or at least the idea of people like me – frighten many Americans. I know that ignorance gives birth to fear. Still, I don’t think of myself as particularly frightening.

Such fear is out there, however. I’ve seen the manifestations of both that ignorance and the ensuing fear far too frequently in my interactions with some of my fellow citizens, at least when they have had reason to Google me.   It isn’t pleasant…like when I’ve applied for a job with someone’s organization, and the promising dialogue suddenly goes quiet. Next applicant…!

This is the political season, and political leaders are successful to the extent that they can read the hopes and dreams, worries and fears, of the people whose votes they depend upon. If they are truly transformational leaders, they are busy building or at least refining a vision that will excite, motivate, and inspire their followers. Hopes and dreams are the stuff of such visions and become the grit that electoral agendas depend upon for traction, yet some astute if less principled politicians also know that ignorance and fear can be played to their advantage too, even if at the cost of someone else. Visions need not always be virtuous, or even benign.

Right now, I and those who wear a similar label know that we will never be a “big issue”, yet how this election turns out will have a profound impact on our futures. We know that we’re few, and that we are at the fringes. But in heated, fractious school board meetings around this country, and on far too many places in social media, we are the topic. Some – in fact more than a few – local and state leaders recognize that, and across this nation there are numerous bills that await consideration by legislators and town councils that have but one purpose: to move us back into the shadows from which we have had the audacity to emerge. At times like this, marginalized groups appeal to a higher authority – the state or the federal government – to step up and be counted. And sometimes, even for people like me, they actually do.

Still, it’s not always good news. In Texas, Republican state attorney general Ken Paxton’s idea of stepping up is to exploit ignorance and fear by making it part of the political agenda. He filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of more than a dozen states to contest how a different political leader – President Obama – has met the leadership challenge of ignorance and fear. President Obama and his administration knew that they had neither the time nor the resources to educate or foster empathy among the entire American electorate, but they recognized that they could at least take measures that protect us, and demonstrate respect for our inherent dignity.

Even if we are transgender. Continue reading Feisty canaries, and this election.

Honorable – and transgender.

honor-roll

I have quite an honorable week ahead of me, and it’s giving me pause.

On Tuesday evening, after the genuine honor and delight of teaching my “ethics and international development class” at the University of Maryland, I’ll make my way to a gathering in Washington that is admittedly a political fund-raiser, but also a moment of deep solidarity among Hillary Clinton LGBTI supporters and our allies, organized by the Foreign Policy Professionals for Hillary. I’ll be on the speakers’ panel with some truly distinguished folks – an activist who was once the openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Romania, the former senior LGBTI staffer at the White House, the former Special Advisor on Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, the Executive Director of Gender Rights Maryland, and a Research Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. These are smart, committed, thoughtful, caring, determined, and honorable people, and yes – it will indeed be an honor to be counted among them.

Later in the week, on Thursday night, I will again be in Washington at Center Global’s 4th Annual reception and fund-raiser. This organization works very hard (on a too-modest budget) to assist, welcome, care for, and stand in solidarity with LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers from around the world. Such refugees and asylum seekers often arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, and with their hearts and minds bruised and burdened by histories of deep trauma, persecution, and even violence. They need to heal. Center Global provides the essential welcome and safe refuge for that healing to begin, as well as much practical guidance to ease them through their adjustment to this new country. Among the Annual Reception’s three awardees that evening will be one who never expected to be there, and who is – quite frankly – overwhelmed at this recognition and enormous honor: the recipient of the Global Advocate Award.

Me.

The following day I will fly to Rhode Island, where on Saturday morning I will give a talk at the annual American Electrology Association‘s Convention. Electrology? Yes – for many transgender women, electrologists are an essential resource on the gender transition journey, and this profession has been at the forefront in accepting, welcoming, and providing quality services to transgender women. Given the fact that facial hair removal can easily exceed 300 hours of (painful!) treatment stretched out over many years, we often develop very good friendships with these caring and professional frontline service providers – our valued allies in the transition process. Still, being honored by this invitation from a national association is remarkable, and I am humbled.

There’s a certain irony to all this honorable attention. While I’m very comfortable in public speaking situations, and believe that my relatively unusual journey as a transgender person has bestowed upon me some important messages that warrant sharing, I’m also by most prominent economic measures a failure. Why would I be honored? Like so many transgender people in the United States and around the world, I cannot find full-time employment. Continue reading Honorable – and transgender.

Squeamish and freaked-out

job-application

The application went in, and in relatively short order I was thrilled to be invited to an interview. The international development consulting firm in the suburbs of Washington, DC is well-established, large, and successful, even if it is headquartered in another state. It would be wonderful to work there. In due course the interview took place, and it was all smiles. I was warmly received, but was told that there would need to be one more interview. A formality, really. More smiles. It would be scheduled shortly. I was cordially escorted to the door, and the body language looked terrific. Yes!

That final interview never happened. I waited and waited, and when I finally inquired, I was told that I was no longer a candidate for this position. No reasons were offered, and none given – even when I asked. They never are, of course.

This wasn’t the first time that such experiences – or uncomfortably similar episodes – have taken place in my now 22-month job quest. There isn’t any way to prove discrimination in what is happening, but it probably isn’t ageism since in each of these episodes I have already made it past that filter – itself quite an accomplishment. That isn’t to diminish how many times I wasn’t invited to an interview because of my age. Despite having great qualifications and exercising a lot of care in the selection of only the most appropriate job opportunities to pursue, even getting to the interview is rare.

Being cast aside after an interview is a curious experience for me. I’m really good at interviews. In some perverse way, I actually enjoy interviews! So why the poor success rate post-interview, all those smiles notwithstanding? My guess is that they subsequently did their more comprehensive digital research and came up with a fact about my “history” that hadn’t surfaced in the interview or in the application process to date.  Something that they would not have known about me just from talking with me at an interview…

They found out that I am transgender.

It is a rare job indeed where that status is an asset in terms of recruitment, and having a “gender history” is relatively difficult to conceal on-line. For those of us who’ve been very active in LGBTQ advocacy and – in my case – have held high-level positions associated with LGBTQ issues, it is integral to who I am. I’m neither proud nor ashamed to be transgender. Those are the cards I was dealt, and I get on with it. And while I don’t ever pin the label to myself in my resume, and seldom in my cover letter, that “truth” is but a few Google clicks away.

My mind plays out several scenarios about how that information is received by a potential employer when it is unearthed through their due-diligence background checks. I have ample scenario-material to draw upon, as I have seen how many people in the typical senior executive bracket (i.e. mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight, and always cisgender) react to the whole notion of transgender women. I think the word “squeamish” describes it well, but “freaked-out” also works. When such senior executives get close to a decision on a candidate, it doesn’t do my cause any good if they are either squeamish or freaked-out! That final interview or job offer never happens. Continue reading Squeamish and freaked-out