Being Transgender And Looking For A Job In The Valley: ‘I Could Tell It Wasn’t Going To Work Out’
Mikayla Argain squeezes liquid out of a tube of peach-colored foundation onto a makeup sponge and starts brushing it on in front of a small mirror.
“This is what my ritual would be when I get home from a day being 'masculine me' and working to fix the computer issues of the day,” Argain said.
It’s 6:45 p.m. and Argain just got home from work. Argain, a Clovis resident, works in tech and identifies as nonbinary, which means one is not exclusively masculine or feminine. Argain’s preferred pronouns are “they,” “them” and “their.”
“I go by 'they' 'them' pronouns primarily because it feels the most comfortable in my situation as presenting both masculine and feminine,” Argain said.
Argain, whose gender was assigned male at birth, takes hormones and has facial hair removed with a laser to look more feminine. Transitioning has made Argain feel more like themself, they said. However, in the past, identifying as nonbinary and dressing in a feminine manner has made it more difficult to find work.
Nationally, more than one in four transgender people have lost a job because of discrimination against them, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality and more than three-fourths have experienced workplace discrimination.
When Argain was searching for a job about a year ago, they got a final interview with a local company. During that time Argain noticed 26 recruiters from the company viewed their LinkedIn profile. Argain looked feminine in the profile picture, but was dressed masculine in the in-person interviews.
“When I went into the [final] interview I just felt that the conversations and the tone felt a little different,” Argain said. “I could tell it wasn’t going to work out. I don’t know, I could be wrong, but I was being kind of observant and that’s how I felt.”
Argain didn’t get the job.
“It was kind of crushing in a way because you can’t really say for certain [it was because of my gender],” Argain said, adding that they met the qualifications and had 12 years of experience in the field.
There are large economic disparities between transgender people and the rest of the population, a 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found, which is the largest survey of its kind. Out of the nearly 28,000 transgender people surveyed, 29 percent are living in poverty compared to 12 percent of the U.S Population. One of the main contributors to the high poverty levels among the transgender community is the unemployment rate, the study said.
About 3,400 of the people surveyed for the report were from California. The study found 15 percent of transgender Californians were unemployed, 33 percent were living in poverty, 26 percent were fired or denied a promotion based on their gender identity, and 22 percent reported mistreatment based on their gender in the workplace.
For transgender people in the Valley, sometimes problems start even before the job interview, said Dana Galante, the transgender program coordinator for The Source LGBTQ+ in Visalia.
“Most trans people are afraid to even go start looking for a job especially around here because there’s a pretty high percentage who are not going to be accepting of who they are and how they look and what their names are,” she said.
Some companies in bigger cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, Galante said, are more open about hiring transgender people. “The specific words, ‘We are safe. We are trans-friendly,’ that takes away a whole level of fear for these kids and adults,” Galante said. “I think it makes a big difference.”
But in more rural areas, businesses might be hesitant to do that because of the potential backlash from consumers, she said.
The San Joaquin Valley is known for being more conservative than other parts of the state, Galante said, and “any problems that trans people face in big cities is going to be multiplied and magnified here.”
Galante said she knows of transgender people who have moved out of the Valley because it’s easier to find jobs and acceptance elsewhere. It’s one of the reasons why bigger cities have a higher transgender population, officials at the National Center for Transgender Equality said in an emailed response.
“Transgender people know quite well the feeling of having their application ignored, if not being harassed, humiliated, and demeaned by employers who do show interest,” the email added. “This prejudice and bias has created several barriers to employment for transgender people that lawmakers and employers must address.”
At least one transgender woman from Fresno took the workplace discrimination she experienced to the courts. She filed a lawsuit in the Fresno County Superior Court last month against Starbucks and one of its store managers, Dustin Guthrie.
Maddie Wade, 29, alleges she was harassed and discriminated against because she's transgender, according to the lawsuit.
“This is a first impression case,” Wade's attorney Arnold Peter said. “There’s no state or federal case that specifically addresses the question in this case, which is ‘Does intentional misgendering constitute as harassment and discrimination under the employment laws?’”
Wade said she was working as a supervisor at the Milburn and Herndon Starbucks in Fresno for about a year before she told her coworkers and store manager about her transition. She said she asked people to call her Maddie and use “she," "her” pronouns. Everyone but Guthrie, she said, respected that.
“He continued to call me ‘Matt,’ ‘dude,’ and ‘bro,’ Wade said. “Not even once called me ‘Maddie’ or ‘her’ or anything like that.”
Wade said Guthrie told her he had a hard time wrapping his head around her transition.
“Although he (Guthrie) expressed initial support for Plaintiff’s (Wades) decision to transition to a female, Guthrie held strong religious and political views against the very concept that a male could realistically transition to female,” the lawsuit said.
Guthrie started cutting her hours and stopped training her to be a store manager, Wade said. He also tried to pressure her to step down from her supervisor position. She said she tried talking to him about it multiple times.
“During those conversations, he kind of just brushed off my concerns and nothing ever changed,” Wade said. “So eventually I just asked for a transfer to another location.”
Wade said she tried to talk to the district manager and her new store manager, but nothing was done.
“From there on I realized nobody was taking it seriously at all and shortly thereafter I resigned from my position,” Wade said. “My mental health was just kind of deteriorating.”
Starbucks is known for its progressive views and policies put in place to protect its transgender employees. The company's health insurance plans include gender reassignment surgery, breast reduction or augmentation surgery, facial feminization, and hair transplants.
“Particularly in this case, it’s really ironic and unfortunate that an otherwise extremely progressive employer such as Starbucks wasn’t able to live up to not only their own policies and procedures but just generally an individual’s right to express their gender,” Peter said.
Wade doesn't have health insurance through Starbucks anymore, so she said for now her transition is at a standstill.
Earlier this month, Judge Kimberly A. Gaab issued a tentative ruling saying Starbucks did not intentionally discriminate against Wade because of her gender and there is no evidence of severe emotional distress. Peter made a counter argument and the judge decided to review the evidence again. As of Friday, a ruling hasn’t been made.
Starbucks Spokesperson Reggie Borges said the company has a long history of supporting the LGBTQ community. The company agrees that intentional misgendering is a form of discrimination, he said, but there’s no proof that Guthrie discriminated against or harassed Wade.
Guthrie and his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Wade said she hasn’t been able to find another job yet, but she plans to go to community college in the fall.
“It can be pretty hard for transgender people to find work to begin with let alone also having sued your previous employer,” she said. “It definitely doesn’t make it any easier.”