Commentary Human Rights

Advocacy Organizations Must Not Ignore the Wage Gap for Transgender People

s.e. smith

The National Women’s Law Center's new video could have been a fantastic opportunity to highlight inequality; instead, it demonstrated a lack of clear understanding about the transgender wage gap.

For women in the American workplace, equal pay is a pressing and urgent issue that both highlights the persistent sexism that women continue to endure and contributes to further social inequalities. On average, women make just 77 cents to every man’s dollar. The statistics are even more grim for women of color: Black women earn 64 cents to a white man’s dollar, while Latinas earn 53 cents. Meanwhile, trans women make 32 percent less than they did pre-transition; this, again, is an average that doesn’t highlight the even wider wage gap for trans women of color.

In response to this grotesquely tilted playing field, organizations like the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) have played an important role in research and advocacy work to identify and fight wage gaps. Which is why the Equal Payback Project, launched this week by the NWLC, is so disappointing: What could be a fantastic opportunity helmed by a well-known comedian to highlight inequality is actually a jumbled hodgepodge of transphobia—with helpings of whorephobia and ignorance about racial issues, to boot.

Along with a throwaway joke about sex workers and a broad avoidance of mentioning women of color in the project’s introductory video, Sarah Silverman explains that she intends to get gender confirmation surgery—phalloplasty—in order to access the wage privileges enjoyed by men. This isn’t just a disdainful treatment of the trans community’s views on gender and transition; it also demonstrates a clear lack of understanding about the trans wage gap, which is a serious issue that many people aren’t familiar with.

In the video, Silverman claims that being a man will allow her to earn more money. Technically, she’s right. Overall, transgender men make approximately 1.5 percent more after transitioning than they did before—which, it’s worth noting, still puts their wages well below those of cis men. (If a Latino trans man, for example, is making just under 54 cents to every white man’s dollar, that’s hardly anything approaching equal pay. Even a white transgender man would still be making a little over 79 cents to the dollar.)

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Thus, we can see that while trans women suffer an especially huge blow after transition, trans men still face significant obstacles. For that matter, transition hardly confers instant male privilege, contrary to popular belief, which also often skips over the racial nuances involved. Transgender men still face discrimination issues in society as a whole, and a conversation about gender-based wage gaps should include their issues, too, rather than suggesting that they don’t experience wage discrimination.

For that matter, what Silverman also skips over in her tidy fantasy (that gender confirmation surgery is equivalent to a quick nip-and-tuck) is the substantial employment discrimination experienced in the workplace by the very community she’s apparently regarding as privileged. Beyond issues of wages alone, transgender people in the workplace have yet to be protected by federal law, which means they are in a very precarious position. Fewer than half of U.S. states explicitly outline gender identity in their employment protections; 90 percent of trans workers report discrimination on the job, including firing, being passed over for promotion, harassment, and workplace vandalization. Notably, 26 percent of the employees in the above study reported being fired explicitly because they were transgender.

Until very recently, the government had taken a largely hands-off stance to cases like these. That’s slowly begun shifting: Some courts, for example, are considering the sex discrimination clause in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as applicable to transgender people as well as the cis community. In turn, these courts are making it easier for transgender people to bring suits for harassment, wrongful termination, and other workplace issues. Some federal agencies and unions—as well as companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Google—are also starting to add explicitly trans-inclusive anti-discrimination clauses to their contracts and policies.

In addition, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced last month that it was making a groundbreaking move in the fight for transgender equality in the workplace with a suit against two firms that allegedly terminated transgender employees, both women. The case marks the first time the federal government has directly intervened in a transgender workplace discrimination case, suggesting that government agencies may be paying much closer attention to transgender employment issues in the future. That’s good news for members of the trans community, who have had to either rely on advocacy groups like Lambda Legal and the ACLU with assistance in filing cases or try going it alone—which can be difficult when facing down a company with substantial amounts of money in its coffers.

Still, one of the biggest pieces of legislation proposed in recent years to protect trans employees across the nation, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), has been frustratingly and repeatedly stalled in Congress. Furthermore, a number of civil and gay rights groups just withdrew their support for ENDA in light of the notorious Hobby Lobby decision, concerned that the religious exemptions in ENDA would become grounds for similar suits, effectively rendering the law useless and perhaps even setting transgender rights back.

Had a tack based on something other than erasing the plight of transgender people in the United States been taken with this video, and had it included discussion of the wage gap faced by people of color and trans people, it could have sent a powerful message to viewers. More than that, it would have been informative and educational for those who haven’t explored the nuances of the wage gap. And it could have been actually funny, too.

Paradoxically, in a non-apology for the video in response to criticism, NWLC co-founder Marcia D. Greenberger said, “We know transgender people receive no pay premium; in fact, they almost universally report harassment and mistreatment on the job.” Despite this knowledge, though, a campaign mocking transgender people as a way to “raise awareness” about the pay gap still got the NWLC’s apparent go-ahead.

The wage gap hurts everyone except those at the very top of the privilege hierarchy. So let’s make sure that everyone is included in discussions about how to rectify it and make the workplace safe for all. It’s time for people of all genders—not just men and women, but those who identify outside the binary umbrella, too—to make the same wage and receive equal pay for equal work. And it’s also time for members of the transgender community to know that they are protected in the workplace and subject to the same laws that protect members of other minority groups who are potentially vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. All this is what advocacy organizations should be pushing for—and producing media and campaigns that support it in kind.

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