The Joy of Having a Job

In ruling anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination illegal, the Supreme Court lessened one of the central worries of trans life.

Transgender activist Aimee Stephens sits in her wheelchair outside the U.S. Supreme Court building.
The late transgender activist Aimee Stephens outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 8, as the court holds oral arguments in cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Saul Loeb/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On Monday, the Supreme Court rendered its long-awaited decision in Bostock v.
Clayton County: Anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The importance and significance of employment protections for transgender Americans could not be overstated even if you tried. Incredible! Remarkable! Amazing! Unthinkable! Historic! Trans people are joyful, giddy, surprised, awestruck, wondering, and perhaps most of all, relieved. The relief comes from already having all but given up after a brutal week under a brutal administration in a brutal year. Court watchers largely thought we were supposed to lose this one, given the conservative majority. We’d just about lost hope and suddenly, here it is again, at last, our old friend: hope.

To understand our joy, you have to understand that to be trans and care about trans people until now has meant seemingly endless worry over jobs. One friend is on her 10th interview; she keeps being rejected even though she’s qualified and then some. Another is being given a hard time at work, but he can’t quit—where would he get another job? A third’s been out of work so long she’s stopped looking, and her depression is getting bad. Your fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth trans friends are part-time, underemployed, with advanced degrees all going to waste. Your ninth trans friend just lost her job and wants to know if you have any connections that could help. Your 10th trans friend just graduated, and she’s so hopeful that you’re keeping your worries to yourself. Your trans friends who are employed are letting the ones who aren’t crash on their couches, you’re letting someone crash on your own couch, some friends of friends do sex work out of desperation, and there are too many GoFundMe pages to give money to. It goes on, and on, and on.

“I went into a store and asked the lady if they were hiring,” my friend and housemate Mandy told me when I asked her to talk about looking for a job in her home state of Tennessee. “She said they weren’t, but if I cut my hair and stopped wearing nail polish, I might have some better luck. But I don’t want to talk about Tennessee,” she added. “It makes me sad.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as saying that with Bostock our struggles are all in the past—even the Supreme Court has limitations on its power over the real world where we live. But federal employment discrimination protection is a darn good start. By ruling that Aimee Stephens, a woman who was by all accounts a model employee, was fired illegally for transitioning at work, the court gave recourse to the thousands of trans people who have struggled to find and keep a job due to widespread discrimination against people who don’t conform to gender norms. Beyond that, they sent a message to employers that being transgender is not reason enough to refuse work to a qualified applicant, or to terminate the employment of a competent employee.

While not everyone has a spouse or a desire to be married (with all due respect to Obergefell, 5-years-old this month), almost everyone has a job or needs one. The struggle to find and keep employment touches almost every trans person at one time or another. A 2013 survey found that the trans community had twice the rate of unemployment as the general population, 44 percent were underemployed, and 15 percent of trans people had a yearly income under $10,000. Changing that without federal protection from discrimination at work was like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it.

There is one bittersweet aspect to the story that was not forgotten in the trans community’s joyous response. The plaintiff in the case, Aimee Stephens, did not live to celebrate her victory in court with us. The woman who once wrote to her co-workers, “The first step I must take is to live and work full-time as a woman. I will return to work as my true self,” setting in motion a chain of events that would one day change the world, died in May after a long illness.

Stephens is in our history now, and in our hearts. We only wish she could also be with us to see what she fought for come to pass, as transgender Americans finally take their place in the workforce as equal, valued, and protected employees.

Pride Is Gonna Look Different This Year, and We Couldn’t Be Prouder

Bryan Lowder, Christina Cauterucci, and Rumaan Alam are joined by Bob the Drag Queen and Mark Joseph Stern to discuss the Black Lives Matter protests, HBO’s “We’re Here,” the fifth anniversary of marriage equality, and the Supreme Court’s momentous Title VII employment discrimination decision on Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast.