Few people find it more difficult to find steady and rewarding jobs than transgender men and women. Facing a complex and daunting combination of transgenderphobia, homophobia and gender discrimination in the workplace, many transgender adults accept low-level and low-paying jobs or—worse yet—turn to sex work to survive.
But a new program launched this month by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center is helping transgender women and men—especially those engaged in sex work—develop the skills and confidence to find satisfying jobs with employers that have cultures and policies that are friendly to transgender people.
The Center’s Transgender Job Placement Program, one of only three such programs nationwide (the others are in New York City and San Francisco), offers a wide range of services that aim to prepare transgender people for the job application and interview process, including how to address questions and issues related to their gender identity.
“For example, a client may be transitioning from male to female, but have a work history under a male name,” says Lynn Bridges, a transgender woman tapped to head the Center’s program. “Others might not have documents they need for work—like a driver’s license or Social Security card—that reflect their current gender identity. What we do is sit down with each of these clients and discuss various options with them—ranging from seeking employment at businesses we know to have supportive policies to possibly putting off their transition until they’re securely employed. We even coach them on how to respond to interview questions about their gender identity or transitioning process.”
But the program also extends well beyond job-placement assistance, including offering case management services and referrals to numerous support services both inside and outside the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.
"Sometimes before we can even begin talking about resumes and job interviews, we need to get clients medical care at our HIV/AIDS clinic, into a drug treatment program or even find a place to live,” says Bridges. “Others need help from the Center’s Legal Services Department to legally change their birth names. And others may just need help polishing their resumes and tips for job interviews, and we’re ready to provide that as well.”
Funding for the program came from a first-of-its kind grant from the City of West Hollywood aimed at reducing HIV and STD rates among transgender sex workers. Helping transgender people get off the street and into programs that build their skills for the workplace directly—and immediately—lowers their risks for contracting HIV, says Susan Cohen, director of Health Education and Prevention at the Center.
“The HIV infection rate among transgender sex workers is already alarmingly high, so anything we can do to help transgender men and women who aren’t infected lower their risks is extremely important,” explains Cohen. “And if clients are already HIV-positive, we can still help them build self-esteem and improve their lives by helping them give up sex work and get rewarding jobs—and get them into HIV medical care at the Center.”
Bridges knows firsthand the health risks that come from sex work—she contracted HIV during her many years as a transgender sex worker in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and also spent time in prison on charges related to sex work.
“Although I had a good education, I foolishly accepted the notion that the only work available for me was prostitution or working in a drag show,” says Bridges, who after being incarcerated has worked in a career development program from the Clark County, Nevada, School District and in L.A. as a program director at the Center for Health Justice. “I worked the streets for years. And now I know that there were other options for me—just as I know that there are other options for transgender women and men in our community.”