City Summer Jobs Programs Are a Key Front in the Fight Against Anti-LGBTQ Discrimination 

A May 2016 rally for New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program. In front, from left to right: the author; Council Members Daniel Dromm, Margaret Chin, Antonio Reynoso, and Mathieu Eugene; advocate Justin Hardy; and Eugene’s chief of staff, David Suarez.*

Lindsay Perry

New York City is nearing the conclusion of its budget season, and the city council has made its priorities very clear: Members want substantial new investments in youth employment programs, especially the Summer Youth Employment Program, which offers government-subsidized summer jobs for 14- to 24-year-olds.

This is good news for all the city’s young people, but it is especially important for LGBTQ youth.

First, about me: I am a policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses, the member organization of New York City settlement houses, which provide social services to more than a half-million New Yorkers of all ages in the five boroughs. Part of UNH’s work is advocating for funding streams that our members use to benefit their communities. I specifically advocate for increased investment and programmatic improvements in SYEP, which is administered by several UNH members.

I am also a transgender woman, and I am happy to see programs that benefit my community.

The need for expansion of youth employment programs is enormous. On the broadest, non-LGBTQ-specific level, more than 110,000 youth applied to SYEP in 2015. That year, a record year for city investment in the program, funding was available for 54,263 young people to have a paid summer job, which means that fewer than half of the kids who applied for a city summer job were able to get one. There is clearly a ways to go in funding a job for every youth who wants one. Then again, the city council has made funding youth employment a top priority, and, as I recently argued in a report, there are practical administrative steps that can be taken in the coming months to ensure SYEP meets demand.

From the LGBTQ perspective, a recent survey report—which, full disclosure, happens to have been researched and co-authored by my spouse—showed that 42.2 percent of transgender respondents across New York state reported not being hired because of their gender identity or expression. In another study featuring controlled experiments where some job applicants indicated they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual and others did not, outcomes revealed evidence of sexual orientation discrimination in the hiring process.

This problem feeds on itself, of course. Lack of work experience makes it harder to get future jobs. If employers are more willing to discriminate against people for being LGBTQ during the hiring process, those negatively impacted by these biases need a way for public policy to circumvent such discrimination. But how do you stop an interviewer from exercising, however discreetly, their discriminatory behavior?

There’s a relatively easy answer to that dilemma, and it’s something that policymakers in New York City are pushing for on the youth level: Provide a job to every youth who wants one.

Most of the youth who participate in SYEP do not have to go through an interview process. They apply to the program, and they’re placed into a job by one of the community-based organizations that administer SYEP. (There’s a small component of the program that involves a competitive application and interview process, but that served only about 2 percent of last year’s participants.) That means one route by which potentially discriminatory employers may “read” a youth as LGBTQ and not hire them—the interview process—is eliminated.

The government agency that oversees SYEP and other youth employment programs, the Department of Youth and Community Development, is very direct about its LGBTQ equality mission. The agency has been actively recruiting for its youth employment programs at LGBTQ resource fairs across the city. DYCD demands LGBTQ sensitivity from the contractors, frequently referred to as “providers,” who place youth in jobs. Specifically with SYEP, DYCD requires that providers should “be sensitive to participants’ cultural heritages and traditions, life experiences, sexual orientations, and gender identities.”

DYCD has arranged for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an agency serving LGBTQ youth, to conduct trainings for SYEP providers on working with LGBTQ youth. The trainings are meant to address how to respectfully work with LGBTQ youth at every point in the SYEP process.

But there also are much deeper protections for LGBTQ youth built into youth employment systems. Nonprofit providers of employment programs recruit youth employees and worksites, but they can also act as troubleshooters when worksites don’t quite understand how to relate to young LGBTQ people, or when young LGBTQ people face problems in figuring out how to represent their sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.

Reshard Riggins, director of career services at The Door, a nonprofit youth development organization, said she has given guidance to employers on the complexities of gender identity. The Door is not an SYEP provider, but it is a provider of several DYCD youth employment programs, and it has deep credibility in the LGBTQ community. Riggins advises companies “to be respectful and mindful inasmuch as if the person comes in and they’re identifying as a female, and one day they’re dressed a little more typically male, you still have to address them as female, because that’s the pronoun they prefer. They have to be mindful and respectful of pronouns in this day and age.”

While a company might have a nondiscrimination policy regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, staff may be resistant to new LGBTQ hires. This is where nonprofit organizations working in youth development, like The Door, are particularly helpful. An agency like The Door works informally, and formally—through their Professional Training Institute—to train community members to understand people who are LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming.

As Riggins said, “Our Career and Education Services Department takes a multi-level approach to addressing and helping prevent any uncomfortable situations that may arise by leveraging our employer relationships to train their staff at the front end, and by simultaneously teaching our young people to be strong advocates for themselves, including how to navigate potentially difficult situations in the workplace.”

Baldino Baldeo is a bisexual-identified high-school student who, as part of the Citizens’ Committee for Children’s YouthAction program and Project Reach, a program of New York’s Chinese-American Planning Council that organizes youth to end discrimination across institutions, has been a vocal supporter of expanding SYEP and safe spaces for LGBTQ youth. He participated in an SYEP lobbying day in Albany, the state capital, and testified on the importance of expanding SYEP to the New York City Council. He has also taken part in anti-discrimination trainings.

The connection between LGBTQ justice and SYEP is obvious for Baldeo. “SYEP is amazing for LGBTQ youth, because it gives the opportunity for people to be themselves and still be in a professional environment,” he said. “You can make your own money as the person you really are.”

The New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio are currently finalizing the city budget. There is unprecedented energy among council members to expand SYEP to meet demand, and there are clear steps the city can take, such as funding the program to support 60,000 jobs this summer and funding providers to cultivate new worksites in the fall and winter, which will move the program toward meeting the goal of serving 100,000 youth by the summer of 2018.

There is also energy to create a year-round employment program, which could similarly lower barriers for LGBTQ youth attaining and retaining jobs. These programs support all city youth, and they improve the chances for LGBTQ youth to avoid discrimination and achieve economic justice. We have real opportunities to create and expand job programs for our young people. Every city—including New York as it finalizes its budget—should take them.

Correction, June 3, 2016: The photo caption originally identified the rally as having happened in April.