Imagine for a moment that you’re faced with a choice: Hide your true identity so you can afford to survive, or risk everything from your job to your home in order to live as your authentic self.
For many transgender people, this situation isn’t imaginary. On top of all the societal and emotional hurdles trans individuals face, there are a disproportionate number of financial challenges. Even the most basic goals, such as saving money or investing in a 401(k), are often out of reach.
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 29 percent of transgender people live in poverty. That’s more than double the 14 percent of the general U.S. population. The report also found that the unemployment rate among transgender individuals is 15 percent ― three times the national average at the time of the survey. Thirty percent have been homeless at some point in their lives.
“It’s a pretty grim landscape,” said Dru Levasseur, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal and director of the organization’s Transgender Rights Project. Levasseur noted that many trans people must rely on a “survival economy” to get by.
It seems the transgender community is being recognized and celebrated more than ever in popular culture and entertainment, but the financial future remains bleak.
Discrimination in the workplace leads to lower earnings.
The NCTE survey above found that 30 percent of respondents who were employed during the previous year said they had been fired, denied a promotion or experienced mistreatment because of their gender identity or expression. Seventy-seven percent of respondents took steps to avoid workplace mistreatment, including delaying their transition, hiding it or quitting their job.
Further, 8 percent of respondents said they had no individual income. Nearly a quarter reported earning less than $10,000 per year, versus 15 percent of the general U.S. adult population.
“I was fired from a job once in a retail store when a new store manager took over and was cleaning house of all the various employees that didn’t fit his ideals,” said Riley Silverman, a comedian, writer and trans woman.
Silverman was early in her transition at the time but would wear eyeliner at work. It wasn’t against the dress code, but her employer clearly didn’t like it. “I got fired for something unrelated, a completely trumped-up customer complaint. When they want you gone, they find a reason.”
Now working in a creative field, Silverman said she wishes she could pursue comedy and writing exclusively. However, the security of her day job is tough to give up. “It’s harder for me to feel comfortable leaving a steady job that keeps a roof over my head and helps me pay for health insurance,” Silverman explained.
“I’ve had the phrase ‘Jump and find the net as you fall’ repeated to me so many times by cis straight people who don’t have to fear not even being able to go to a temp agency to make a quick buck,” she said. “I can’t leap and find the net because I have no reason to believe there will be one.”
Levasseur noted gains have been made in making workplace discrimination laws more inclusive of transgender individuals. For instance, a federal appeals court recently rejected the Trump administration’s position and ruled that transgender individuals are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex.
Despite this, discrimination is still an all-too-common problem, according to Levasseur. “The reality is that a lot of people don’t know the law. They don’t feel like they can exercise their rights.”
The cost of transitioning can reach six figures.
For many trans individuals, though not all, transitioning physically is often an important ― and expensive ― step in the journey to living as the gender they identify with.
The cost of gender-affirming surgery can easily cost $100,000 or more, according to Reuters. Less complex procedures, such as facial electrolysis, run about $20,000. And there are other medical costs associated with transitioning, such as counseling, which can cost around $100 a session.
Often people who transition are left to foot the bill themselves. Mary McDougall, a wealth management adviser at Merrill Lynch, has worked with trans clients who were preparing to transition. Often it meant sacrificing other goals or taking on debt.
“You just had to figure out ways to pay for it,” McDougall said. “Someone would basically spend their entire retirement savings in order to accomplish this. But it was such an important thing for their lives.”
Today, more health plans cover surgeries related to gender. However, McDougall noted, even when a trans person is able to get surgery covered, there are still additional costs. “If you don’t have the family support, you may not have some of the financial support that you need or some of the care post-surgery or some other therapy that you might find beneficial,” she said.
And, of course, it’s tough to get low-cost health insurance without a full-time job that offers it ― something many trans individuals struggle to obtain.
Access to medical care is limited and expensive.
Health care is another arena in which transgender Americans are largely left out.
Kellan Baker, a doctoral candidate in health services research and policy at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in LGBTQ issues, told NPR that it’s difficult for a lot of transgender patients to even find a primary care provider who’s willing to work with them.
And even in states where extensive transgender discrimination protections do exist, some people still have to jump through many hoops to get the care they deserve. Levasseur recalled a groundbreaking 2011 case in which Lambda Legal sued the state of Oregon as an employer on behalf of a transgender man, Alec Esquivel.
“He needed a medically necessary hysterectomy, and the plan denied that,” said Levasseur. “So we brought an employment claim [against the state] saying that you’re compensating cisgender women more and compensating Alec less because he’s transgender ― because you’re not covering his health care.”
Myles Lawter, an LGBTQ career services specialist at the University of Chicago who goes by they/them pronouns, said, “Ever since I graduated from graduate school, I’ve actually been employed full time with a salary, with benefits, and have still struggled tremendously in terms of accessing medical care.”
Lawter, who has been pursuing what is casually known as top surgery, said they’ve faced numerous financial roadblocks. “For example, I consulted with a surgeon outside of the state because he was able to take patients sooner, but insurance only covered so much,” Lawter explained. “And so there was going to be about $2,000 to $3,000 left over that needed to be paid. And he wanted all of that up front.”
When previously living in South Carolina, Lawter would have to drive an hour and a half away to visit a facility where they qualified for free hormone treatments. “Then I had to drive another hour and a half the opposite way to see one of the only therapists in South Carolina that would willingly work with [trans patients].”
Friends have encountered similar challenges. Lawter said one of their best friends from high school moved from South Carolina to Connecticut with no job and no plan, solely because the state expanded its Medicaid coverage to include top surgery at no cost. It was “at great personal sacrifice,” said Lawter. “They gave up literally everything they’ve ever known.”
Homelessness is a huge problem.
What’s perhaps the most unfortunate reality is that some people are unwilling to accept transgender individuals for who they are, even if those people are family. That means many members of the trans community are rejected by their own parents, siblings or other relatives, sometimes ending up on the street.
A 2012 study found that running away because of family rejection over sexual orientation and gender identity was the top contributor to homelessness among LGBTQ youth. Second was being forced out of their family homes after coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Housing discrimination is also a major contributor to homelessness among trans people. The NCTE found that nearly 23 percent of respondents experienced housing discrimination within the past year, including being evicted or denied an apartment because they were transgender. GLAAD reported that close to one-third of people who are homeless and trans are turned away from shelters.
Unfortunately, homelessness can compound the discrimination trans people may already face when looking for work or launching a career.
Don’t lose hope.
There’s no doubt that these statistics and personal experiences paint an incredibly stark picture. And the current presidential administration isn’t doing anything to improve it.
“We had so much success with the Obama administration, and a lot of the work that we had done in terms of changing policies and laws has been undone,” said Levasseur. “Trans people are in the crosshairs of this administration.”
Levasseur added that, although it’s great that there’s progress being made in terms of changing laws to protect trans people, “I think there’s a lot of work to be done.”
So how can transgender Americans work toward their financial goals when the cards seem to be stacked against them?
Find a support network. “I would say that the No. 1 thing that helped me to keep my head on straight when I’m not having access to things and just really struggling financially is having a support network,” said Lawter. This can include friends, support groups, online communities and even Facebook groups where trans members are able to ask questions without judgment and know they’re not alone.
Plan ahead. McDougall said that no matter your financial goal, whether it’s paying for surgery, sending a child to college or retiring, you have to start planning for it as soon as possible. “It really is just a math problem,” McDougall said, noting that you might have to put off retirement and work longer to make up for the costs. “But even then, people are happy to do that because it means that they’ll be so much happier in their life.”
Give back if you can. It’s also important for those in the community that have the means to give back when possible. Levasseur has encouraged transgender seniors to leave at least a portion of their estate to the Jim Collins Foundation, an organization he co-founded that funds gender-affirming surgeries. “We were able to do 20 surgeries in 10 years because, in part, multiple trans people passed away and left their legacy to the foundation.”
Know that it’s OK to be pissed off. Finally, while it’s easy to tell people to be positive, “it’s also OK to have bad days and be upset about your situation and the state of the world,” said Lawter. “We deserve equal pay, we deserve to be employed … we do deserve all those things, and your situation is not your fault.”