The Struggle to Change Your Gender While Keeping Your Job

Many of the 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. are forced to make careful calculations about what to say—and how to look—at work

One morning last December, Autumn Barksdale, a receptionist at a dog grooming salon, asked a dozen colleagues to gather near the fur-trimming tables so she could explain how she would change in the weeks ahead.

Barksdale’s coworkers listened as she explained that the person they knew as a man named Adam would shift to become a woman named Autumn. She had started taking estrogen pills, which would give her breasts and a rounder face. She wanted to begin wearing women's clothing, makeup, and nail polish to work. Barksdale arranged this "trans 101” session, as she called it, because she feared that people would react negatively when her identity began to change visibly. That turned out to be a fair assumption.

In the eight months since she opened up about her transition at Scenthound, a West Palm Beach, Fla., salon, Barksdale has answered questions from confused and endlessly curious customers. One regular noticed that Barksdale was wearing lipstick and eye shadow and “asked me if I was 'transgendering,'” Barksdale says. The owner of a Yorkshire Terrier-Poodle mix named Guinness asked if she was “was making the big switch.” A middle-aged woman invoked a new term, suggesting she was “Bruce Jennering.” “They made Bruce Jenner a verb,” she recalls. “I swear to God I am not making this up.”

Autumn Barksdale
Photographer: Melissa Lyttle/Bloomberg

Barksdale's most unsettling exchanges have been with people who ask if she plans to surgically change her genitalia—something she says happens about once a week. “That always throws me for a loop, trying to figure out why people feel like they have the right to know exactly what’s going on with my body,” she says.

Thanks to such famous figures as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, Americans may be more aware than ever of what it means to be transgender. That awareness, however, has not necessarily made people experts on what America's 700,000 transgender people experience—or the right way to talk to them about it.

The courts, too, are still adjusting how they address the rights of transgender people at work. Federal law does not explicitly protect trans workers from prejudice they may encounter on the job.

“The law [is] evolving as part of society’s evolving understanding of who transgender people are,” says Jenny Pizer, an attorney at Lambda Legal, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, legal advocacy organization. Still, she says, “there is an immense reservoir of trans-phobic attitudes.” Those attitudes lead to what she calls a “pervasive climate” of discrimination.

“Some people might ask those questions, but most wouldn’t. It’s really not OK.”

A survey conducted in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found that trans people were twice as likely to be unemployed as members of the general population. Forty-seven percent of the 6,450 people surveyed said they had experienced such adverse job outcomes as being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their gender identity. Ninety percent of respondents said they had been harassed at work for being trans, or had taken actions such as disguising their identity to avoid such treatment.

Fear of mistreatment at work, or even just a string of awkward conversations leaves transgender people with the question of how much to disclose about their identity, says Lambda Legal's Pizer. What makes that decision particularly difficult for trans people is that many people they encounter have never talked to someone like them.

People feel entitled to explanations of things they don't understand, Pizer says, including a person's medical history. “If a coworker had breast cancer and had surgery, do coworkers say, ‘So what was the process? Did you have breast reconstruction? I’m really curious to know what’s going on with your body parts right now,’” Pizer says. “Some people might ask those questions, but most wouldn’t. It’s really not OK.”

Kimberly Gumaer
Photographer: Ryan Pfluger/Bloomberg

Kimberly Gumaer, a transgender woman, has also encountered confusion from colleagues and potential employers about her recent gender switch. She suspects it may be nudging her off a once-stable career path. For five years, when she was a man named John, she held steady jobs as a sound engineer in New York. Her last position, at a post-production studio called Crew Cuts, ended after she began transitioning into a woman.

Nancy Shames, an executive producer at Crew Cuts, says Gumaer was fired for her performance. “He had long hair and a pony tail, but we weren’t aware of any gender changing until weeks after” she was fired, Shames says. Gumaer says her image changed more dramatically. She started working at the agency in 2010 with a “Bruce-Lee-like fighter body,” beard, and shaved head. Three years later, she had shed 20 pounds of muscle and started the painful process of permanently removing her facial hair. Her wardrobe shifted to tighter-fitting clothes as estrogen treatments made her breasts grow. It’s not clear, according to Gumaer, whether her newly androgynous look had a role in her firing.

Even if Gumaer believed her evolving appearance had cost her the job, it is unclear what legal recourse she would have. The Supreme Court has not yet addressed whether laws that protect people from sex discrimination apply to people who change genders. In July, Democrats in Congress introduced the Equality Act, a bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act so that LGBT people are named as one of the groups explicitly protected from employer discrimination. With no Republicans sponsoring the bill, LGBT advocates say it could take years for it to become law.

Several courts of appeal and district courts have ruled that punishing people for not looking or behaving in a way stereotypically associated with their gender is a type of sex discrimination. There is indeed a large and growing body of case law that protects trans people on the job. But until the Supreme Court rules on the issue or Congress passes the Equality Act, says Pizer, other courts could say that the existing laws do not protect trans workers from discrimination.

Gumaer, who is looking for work, suspects that the professional contacts she meets are confused by her gender identity. When one studio called her in for an interview, she faced a dilemma: Should she arrive looking more like a man or a woman in the eyes of a potential employer?

At that point, she was not always living as a woman in public. In her LinkedIn profile photo, however, Gumaer appeared more feminine, and she had started removing every reference to her old name, John, in online credits for her work. In the end, she decided to show up looking like a man, mainly for practical reasons: She had shaved her face a day earlier, and doing it again so soon would result in a face full of bloody red spots. She opted for stubble instead.

The meeting took an embarrassing turn, she says, when the manager introduced her as Kim to a former colleague who happened to be working at the studio. The colleague looked perplexed, Kim remembers, and said “Hi, John,” in response.

The interview did not yield an offer. Later, Gumaer’s mother called to make a timid suggestion: Perhaps a professional photo that didn’t match the person they saw in real life unsettled people. “She was like, you know, ‘Maybe this is confusing for people that are looking at two different things.’”

Riya Patel
Photographer: Ryan Pfluger/Bloomberg

Riya Patel, a 31-year-old trans woman from New Jersey, knew early in her working life that she wasn't comfortable inviting coworkers to watch her transition. She started working after she graduated from high school, when she was still presenting as a man. One of her first jobs was with a company that steam-cleaned the hoods of steakhouse ovens. One morning, when she was changing into her uniform alongside the men she worked with, they noticed her light pink women’s underwear. “I tried to play it off as men’s underwear,” she says, but no one believed her. “People saw me and said they wouldn’t work on my shift anymore,” she says.

When asked at what point she knew she was a woman, Patel leans back and smiles. “They always ask this,” she says. “It’s a way for you guys to get that, ‘Oh yeah, I tried on my mom’s heels’ story, because everybody loves that story.” She doesn't know how old she was, she says, just as she couldn’t tell you what her first thought was. Patel, who was Gumaer's roommate in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for two years, is not the type to let people get away with stupid questions.

Patel has supported herself since she left home at age 18. When she was 24, she decided to move to North Carolina, where she planned to start a business and amass enough wealth that she could afford sex reassignment therapy and live as a woman on her own terms.

“I wanted to make sure that I was financially set, so that way—when I did transition—I wouldn’t be struggling looking for work or dealing with discrimination at work,” she says.

Patel started working as a cashier at a gas station and convenience store and eventually saved enough to buy that gas station and others and then to afford her own home. With a financial cushion, she began to build a large collection of women’s clothing; in 2011, she started taking estrogen pills and testosterone blockers. That cocktail put a damper on her hair growth, softened her skin, and made her less muscular.

As her appearance shifted from bulky to svelte, some gas station customers were nosy, but most respected her authority as the owner. “They knew I was in charge there, so nobody could tell me to stop talking. So people kept their opinions to themselves, unless they were drunk,” she says.

In 2012, she decided to have her genitalia changed, one of the final steps transgender people take in transforming their bodies. She sold her stores and used some of the money to pay for sexual reassignment surgery in Pennsylvania. She moved to Brooklyn once she had been recovering and going to therapy for around six months—and she decided against entering the job market. The idea of showing up to an interview as a woman terrified her. She was mainly self-conscious about her voice, which she worried sounded too manly.

Patel also dreaded offensive asides from authority figures, against whom she couldn't defend herself. “Why do I want to have to submit myself to that when there is no financial necessity looming over my head?” she asks. Patel says rental income from the property she still owns in North Carolina, along with the money she got from selling the gas stations, has left her with savings to support herself without working for a while.

“When someone calls me [Adam] or calls me ‘he,’ it takes away everything, it makes me feel so invalidated.”

For dog salon worker Autumn Barksdale and plenty of others, avoiding the traditional boss-employee setup isn't an option, so Barksdale's strategy for preempting harassment has been transparency. Shortly before her December talk—about a month after she started taking estrogen pills—she wrote an e-mail to her boss, Tim Vogel, saying that she was making the transition to being a woman. The next week, Vogel drove to the salon, told Barksdale he was proud of her, and suggested the employee sensitivity training session.

“It really was about understanding the vocabulary, the distinctions, and how to address someone using the correct pronouns,” says Vogel, a 44-year-old with an undergraduate degree in psychology.

Barksdale told the assembled group that she was a trans woman, meaning she was born with male genitals but had a female gender identity. From then on, she asked to be referred to as “she” or “her.”

Vogel says doing the workshop jibed with the company’s ethos of welcoming all types, dogs and humans alike. “We advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves—the dogs,” he says.

As part of Barksdale's talk, Vogel and other managers came up with repetition-friendly slogan that employees could use whenever a client piped up with an inappropriate comment: “Autumn is a valuable member of our team, and we don’t discriminate.”

The memorized response was put to good use, as when employees had to gently correct dog owners who had known Barksdale for a while and continued to call her “he” or use her old name.

Barksdale knew she had to handle customers’ feelings with care so that they wouldn’t walk out for good, while at the same time correcting false assumptions. That balancing act took so much energy that she was often exhausted at the end of the day. Still, letting ignorant comments go uncorrected wasn't an option.

“When someone calls me [Adam] or calls me 'he,' it takes away everything, it makes me feel so invalidated," she says. “These people are literally refusing to see me as a person, except for this construction that they have in their mind.”