Donna Rose writes, speaks, and is an advocate for transgender and transsexual issues. Her personal memoir is called Wrapped in Blue and as one review describes, “takes on the beautiful mythic proportion of the hero’s journey.” From my perspective, Donna is probably the most recognizable face of the trans movement because of her efforts around workplace issues.
Of course, when we talk work, the topic of money naturally comes up. Transgender people face challenges in coming out and living openly. This often applies to the workplace. Donna explains how this can impact earning potential and employability. Read her money talk below…
1. Why is under-employment such a significant issue facing transgender people?
It’s actually a very simple answer. Discrimination. Transgender people often make others uncomfortable so they’re not given opportunities to do jobs they’re well qualified to do.
Our society has expectations for men and women – how they look, act, and are supposed to “be” – and it doesn’t treat ambiguity in that regard kindly. Often, transgender people necessarily challenge that binary and have difficulty fitting into these neat little molds. This often manifests itself in unfortunate decisions that are made when it comes to hiring or retaining qualified talent.
I have many friends who held significant corporate roles prior to announcing their transition who ended up unemployed for many months to several years afterwards. Look at the case of Susan Stanton, the 18-year City Manager of Largo, FL who was fired after it became public knowledge that she was transgender. That was 18 months ago, and she has been unable to find a similar position anywhere in the country since then. In order to make ends meet many of us find ourselves forced to take jobs (if we can get them) that are significantly below our skill level, at a significant reduction in pay. The impact that this has, not only on our ability to pay our bills but on our overall psyche, is often devastating.
What can be done to change this? Education. Gradual cultural acceptance. Continued visibility. Persistence. All are important to spotlight what is happening and to lower the barriers of discomfort that prevent many of us from realizing our career potential as transgender individuals.
2. How do you define work these days?
I am still in IT Consultant. Specifically, I manage large Information Technology projects for Fortune 500 companies. Although I’m hopeful to find new challenges I’m stuck right now for a couple of significant reasons. First, I continue to pay my a significant amount of money on spousal support each month so moving into something I’d find more fulfilling and interesting but might also involve a pay cut isn’t really an option right now. Second, being a consultant allows more flexibility to travel and do the things I do as an advocate. That said, however, I’m actively looking for something that would align my passions as an advocate, my Diversity experience, my people skills, and my corporate background.
3. RuPaul and Mara Keisling both declined my request for an interview. Why do you think money is a taboo subject for so many people?
That may be the first time Mara and RuPaul have ever been used in the same sentence! That’s funny.
I can’t give reasons why others would deny a request for an interview – that’s their business. However, money is one of those touchy subjects like religion and politics that seems to best remain unspoken, especially if you don’t have much of it.
4. How often do you hear of trans elders having issues accessing Social Security benefits?
That’s an area I haven’t come across yet. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen as I’m sure it does. One of the significant concerns in our community is aging, as that opens a whole new set of concerns. What happens when we find ourselves in senior citizen housing or other situations where we may not quite fit? What about Social Security, or Medicare? What are the long-term health implications of being transgender? There are a number of concerns around aging that are just now getting visibility and need serious study.
5. What is your most significant memory about money?
I was an entrepreneur from a very young age. My father was an academic and I learned that from a young age I could color pictures and sell them to my dad’s colleagues for a nickel or a dime. Money has always been a means to an end for me, rather than a destination. As I approached 40 years old I was riding a very successful career and my wife and I had more money than we could imagine. We owned two homes. We bought cars with cash. We rarely worried about money. These days I, like millions of others, live paycheck to paycheck with very little savings. This journey has taught me quite a bit about letting go of things, and certainly letting go of some of the notions I had about money and security are two particular areas I’ve had to come to peace with.
6. How does money play a role in activism and are financial resources the best way to create change?
Finances play a huge role in activism. In fact, I could argue that activism is as much about money as it is about creating change. The sad fact of the world is that things “cost”, so to be able to travel, to be able to make the proper connections, to be able to hire staff, publish materials, pay for the day-to-day expenses of doing business – it all takes money.
I am typically on boards and often organizations look to their board members as their most significant source of funding. Sometimes that involves a specific give/get financial obligation (for the Human Rights Campaign it is $50K annually) which often sets the bar impossibly high for all but the most creative or affluent. There are expenses with attending board meetings and other events. All in all, I sometimes question whether I can actually afford to be on boards any more. I just don’t have the money to make all the ends meet.
There are, of course, other roles for people to get involved in activism that don’t involve quite so much money. But fund-raising is a constant challenge for organizations so raising money is often very much part of the day-to-day workings.
7. What is the most common workplace challenge for transgender employees?
That’s a very broad question and I don’t know that there’s any one right answer. Some would say getting a job in the first place is the most common challenge. For those who are transsexual and who transition on the job things like which bathroom to use and general acceptance can be substantial challenges. I’d say that the workplace is actually full of significant challenges for transgender people that each of us will most likely experience to one degree or another.
The good news is that there are efforts to educate and tools to help overcome some of these challenges. I like to believe that we’ve come a long way in that regard. But we’ve still got a long way to go.
8. How did you teach your son the value of a dollar?
From an early age my son learned that things cost, and that to get them involved saving. My son is 22 years old now, and is very frugal. I think that one of the main jobs of being a parent is teaching your kids how to handle money. Thankfully, my son seems to be doing that pretty well. Of course, he always complains that he doesn’t have enough of it but that’s a complaint that I think most of us can make.
9. Can you name three companies that have made the workplace better for their transgender employees?
Actually, I can name dozens of them. Corporate America is far ahead of other areas of our culture when it comes to recognizing the unique challenges faced by transgender people. Companies like American Express, IBM, Microsoft, and others go so far as to cover Gender Reassignment Surgery for employees under their health insurance plans. These are significant expenses many of us traditionally pay for out of pocket, putting it out of reach for most. Workplaces are doing education, they are creating guidelines to support workplace gender transitions, they are removing exclusions in their insurance packages to allow transgender people to take advantage of them, they are explicitly adding ‘gender identity and expression’ to their EEO policies to prevent discrimination. Corporate America is leading the way in this regard.
All is not as rosy as it might seem, however. Transgender people are still not getting hired for jobs that they’re qualified to do. These policies are wonderful for transgender employees who already work there, but if a company isn’t hiring transgender people or if there are none there in the first place these policies are more window dressing than they are substance. Also, bad things still happen even in supportive companies. There is often a disconnect between the policies that are established by senior management and those who need to enforce them. As a result transgender people still lose their jobs, they still find themselves facing subtle and not-so-subtle harassment, they still find themselves passed by for promotion.
10. If cost didn’t matter, what’s something you would buy right now?
That’s a good question. Actually, there’s not much in the way of material stuff that I need to “own” right now. The thing I’m more excited about these days are life experiences that I hope to have. For example, I’ve never been to Europe. I’ve never even been out of North America, and Lord knows that I could use a vacation. My 50th birthday is coming up and I’m hoping to be able to do some kind of a European vacation that involves a cruise through the Greek Isles, so if I had a big chunk of money I think I’d set that up.
More about Donna Rose
Donna Rose is a nationally recognized author, speaker, and advocate for transgender and transsexual issues.
Donna’s leadership role in GLBT advocacy is extensive. She serves on the boards of several national non-profit organizations (HRC, GLAAD, NGLCC). She has an active media presence, including features in The Advocate, USA Today, Marie Claire magazine, and in CNN Money. Most recently, she participated in a 3-part series on Transgender on Entertainment Tonight.
Donna is invited to speak around the country at schools, businesses, conferences. Her website, www.donnarose.com, is a popular source of information and support for and about the transgender community.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive. Other trans candidates include Jamison Green, Christine Daniels, Alexandra Billings, Jennifer Boylan and Helen Boyd of My Husband Betty fame.