Wearing a floor-length sequined green dress, her carefully-styled brown curls cascading over her shoulders, Arely González held the attention of a crowd as she lip-synced a love song in Spanish.
“Look at me, I am not the same person I used to be,” she mouthed into the microphone, one hand thrust in the air for added drama.
González, 36, was performing in early October at a fundraiser for a new beauty business – a worker cooperative in Queens that she will run with seven other transgender Latina women. Their business, the first of its kind in New York City, aims to provide stable and dignified jobs for the women and to serve as a model to other transgender workers who have faced employment discrimination.
According to a 2011 nationwide survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 47 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals said they had been fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of their gender identity.
On Thursday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced an executive order introducing statewide legislation that would ban harassment and discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, in both the public and private spheres. The move comes months after the New York Senate failed to pass the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA) despite multiple attempts since 2003.
Workplace problems are familiar to the co-op members, who all belong to PRYDE, Make the Road’s LGBTQ support group. They were inspired to form their own business after learning of a similar venture run by transgender activists from Argentina.
“The girls got immediately excited by the idea of creating a business where they would be the sole owners, where there wouldn’t be any bosses verbally and physically harassing them, and where they could earn a dignified wage to survive,” said Daniel Puerto, worker cooperative developer at Make the Road New York, the nonprofit incubating the co-op.
The women are considering several business models. Some are more traditional, such as opening a salon or renting chairs in an existing establishment. More innovative options include running a mobile salon or offering on-site spa services to city office workers.
In the meantime, the eight women are studying cosmetology at Parisien Beauty School in Woodside. Their training costs $6,850 per person for the yearlong course. Make the Road, which has previously started two other worker cooperatives, launched a campaign on Go Fund Me October to raise $50,000 to help cover the costs. As of mid-October, it had raised $3,706.
A 2013 Make the Road survey of the LGBTQ community in Manhattan and Queens found transgender and gender non-conforming individuals face the highest rates of unemployment among those surveyed. Forty-three percent of transgender respondents said they were looking for a job; 40 percent said they had experienced some form of discrimination based on their gender identity when being considered for a job or promotion; and 44 percent said they had been forced to quit a job because of discrimination they endured in the workplace.
González, who came to New York City from Mexico in 1996, began her transition in 2002 and said she did not experience employment discrimination at her restaurant jobs until she began looking for work in Queens in 2012, three years after she and her husband moved to the borough.
She sought a position as a cook at a restaurant in Corona, but despite having experience in the service industry and the required license, González said she was told the position had been filled. A help wanted sign stayed up for another week, she said.
“It hits you because it’s a Latino restaurant,” she said in Spanish. “They are Mexicans. They look at you up and down and tell you no. It’s our own Latino community that discriminates [against] us the most.”
Since 2002, New York City Human Rights Law has prohibited discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit and education. Statewide, existing anti-discrimination law protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of sex. Cuomo’s recent executive action would extend this legal protection to include gender identity, transgender status and gender dysphoria.
Cristina Herrera, president of the Translatina Network, a leadership group of Latina transgender women, said these legal protections are valuable but “limited,” as high legal costs often prohibit transgender individuals from exercising their rights. The priority should be to enhance employment opportunities, Herrera said.
“One of the major barriers is that if they don’t have jobs, then they don’t have access to housing, medical care, education,” she said. “They need to have access to better paying jobs.”
The law can also be difficult to enforce given the intangible nature of gender identity based discrimination. “Under the law, an employer cannot tell you ‘I’m not going to hire you because you are a person of color or because you are transgender,’ ” Puerto said. “But he can deny you a job because he doesn’t like you, and that ‘like’ can be based on your gender expression or because you are a LGBTQ person.”
Discrimination can lead to poverty and psychological distress. And many transgender women in the Latino community are immigrants who lack access to medical and social services.
According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 16 percent of transgender respondents reported entering the underground economy for income.
That’s what one 45-year-old co-op member who only wanted to be identified by her last initial, M., did after fleeing police brutality in Mexico approximately 12 to 14 years ago. Unlike other transgender women who struggle to find jobs, M. said she was offered work in beauty salons on Roosevelt Avenue washing customer’s hair or sweeping the floor, but only if she would “come as a man,” she said. “Once they even told me, ‘If you could wear a bandage around your breasts or strap up that would be even better.’ ”
Unable to find a well-paid job that did not require changing her appearance, M. resorted to sex work to support herself. “You have to adapt,” she said. “One way or the other you have to survive.”
Both González and M. hope the cooperative will improve their lives and those of other transgender Latinas. “This is why we are here,” González said. “To fight for a better future for ourselves, for a better world for our transgender community – and for future generations, too.”
— Valerie Dekimpe