Squeamish and freaked-out


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.

Finding a new job is almost always unpleasant. There is all that web-surfing to do, trying to find some permutation of a job vacancy description that you can fit your concept of self into. There is the pragmatic assessment – call it intuition perhaps – about which job prospects are within your competitive range. There is the networking and references and search for an “inside friend” who can help your application at least be considered amid the flood (tidal wave?) of applications from other job seekers.

One category of applicant who cannot slip in under the filtering (yes, discriminating) radar is the person of a “certain age”. While the application process in the United States no longer requires listing one’s date of birth (unlike the international employers I also pursue), just the listing of past experience discloses that one’s long and stellar narrative of accomplishments is, well, long. The stellar part gets left off.

“Old people” (i.e. over say 50 or 55) are slow thinking, resistant to new ideas, low in energy, out of touch, not adept at new technologies, prone to forgetfulness, not terribly motivated, even a bit quaint. Such are the unspoken biases that remain officially unspoken, but which are damning for any prospect of fair consideration of an older candidate’s actual merits. Ageism is technically illegal in the United States. Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), those who are crossing into the once honored but now dreaded threshold of grayness (40 and older) are officially protected from discrimination in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment. Trying to prove such discrimination – especially in the very nontransparent and confidential processes of hiring – is nearly impossible. There are very few prosecutions under this law, especially in the context of recruitment.

Discrimination against LGBTQ persons in the United States, and really anywhere in the world, is very hard to gauge because there is so little data available. Given the maturity and political clout of Americans who identify under the “LGB” letters, and the growing level of social acceptance of lesbians and gays, it may well be that hiring discrimination may now not be as bad for them as it was in earlier years. Of course, many gays and lesbians have no reason to disclose their sexual orientation during the recruitment stage – or at any point in their work life if they get the job. It isn’t relevant information. Yes, some recruitment experts will delve deeply into an applicant’s digital footprint and discern associations with gay or lesbian social or political groups, but to an ever-greater extent being lesbian or gay no longer is considered scandalous or even noteworthy, at least in most Blue (liberal) states. Thank goodness.

So what about transgender folks? Even if one’s gender presentation is entirely persuasive, it is a challenge to avoid references to having had a life in a different (assigned) gender in one’s prior employment records, earlier awards or publications, or even online images from “before”. If such applicants make it to the interview stage, there is the risk of being perceived as transgender at that stage. For some transgender women who struggle to overcome having a “too-male” voice, or a “too-male” face, or a too tall and square-shouldered body, such a job interview may be disastrous. Squeamish and freaked out, again. Society has a long way to grow before “too male” attributes assigned to women are the source of disqualification, or even worth noting. As transgender people we are who we are, and it doesn’t affect how hard we work or how qualified we are.

For now, the situation is grim. The data that we do have largely is limited to transgender employees, not applicants. For such employees, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey indicates that 26% of transgender people have lost a job due to bias, and 50% experienced on-the-job harassment. It gets much worse if the transgender person is a person of color, and racism gets added to the mix. As bad as all of this is, we just don’t have any way to analyze transphobic bias during the application process.

My “analysis” is experiential. I’m remarkable well qualified, hale and hearty of health, and in most ways I am at the very peak of my career capabilities. Still, it’s been 22 months and counting of intense job search.

It would appear that getting past “squeamish” and “freaked out” has yet to happen. But I will persist…after all, few transgender persons have sufficient resources to retire on!

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