Jorge Rivas

Landing a steady job in today’s economy isn’t easy. But if you’re transgender, it’s nearly impossible.

Just look at the numbers: More than 44% of transgender people are unemployed. And those lucky enough to have a job are four times more likely than the rest of the population to earn less than $10,000 a year, according to a 2013 report co-authored by the Movement Advancement Project.

For Mary Angel Hernandez, a 25-year old trans woman, this is reality.

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In 2012, her Catholic parents kicked her out of their home, a not-so-uncommon experience for queer youth. Of the millions of homeless youth in the U.S., about 20% identify as LGBT.

Losing her home was especially heartbreaking for Hernandez, given everything she’d been through to get there.

At 15-years-old, Hernandez had packed a small backpack and made her way from her home country of Honduras—the most dangerous country on the planet—to Mexico by jumping trains and taking buses, all while knowing that at any moment she could be caught by the government and deported or even worse, extorted and killed by gangs.

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“You know that if something happens to you in the street no one will stand for you because they think you deserve it,” Hernandez said. “I thought, ‘Should I die under the hands of people who are just going to view me as something less than human or die trying to move forward to a better future?’ So I decided to come here as any other immigrant and cross the border.”

Somehow, eventually, after trains, buses and a strenuous three-day trek in the desert, she reunited with her parents who were living in Houston, Texas, and life perked up a little bit.

She excelled in school, becoming the first transgender college-elected school president at Houston Community College and the second in the state of Texas, and graduating on the dean’s list with an associate's degree. School was a breeze, but because she was poor and later homeless, she always needed to work.

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She applied to telemarketing and office jobs, but the only ones that would actually call her back were restaurant employers. This worked out in terms of flexibility with school scheduling, but each time they told her she was not allowed to express her gender identity.

Hernandez’s employers said her trans identity was offensive and wrong. One manager even told her that not allowing her to express her gender was for her own physical safety. He didn't want to be responsible for conservative, drunk patrons beating her up. So time and again, she complied.

“They always would tell me, ‘Whatever you do outside of this, we don’t care but when you’re under this roof, you will [present] yourself as a man,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t know better and I never felt comfy about it, but I needed my job.”

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This experience is widespread among trans employees across the nation. More than 1 in 4 transgender people have lost a job due to bias, and more than three-fourths have experienced some form of workplace discrimination, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“It has to do with a lack of awareness,” said Drian Juarez, program manager at the Transgender Economic Empowerment Project. “One in 5 people know someone who is LGB, but only 1 in 10 know someone that is trans. Transgender feels very new to a lot of people, so they have a lack of understanding of what trans means and what transitioning looks like on the job.”

Although only 20 states in the U.S. have adopted workplace protections for transgender people based on gender identity and expression, conservative Texas was not one of those states.

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So when her fiance got accepted into a college in Los Angeles, Hernandez’s bags were already packed. But again, even in California, despite countless applications, a year later she was still jobless.

“Here in California, it’s a little easier,” Juarez said. “It’s one of the best states to be in if your trans—there’s lots of healthcare and housing—but there’s a lack of jobs. Here people are protected, but there’s also lots of people coming to California for that reason and that makes the competition harder.”

It wasn’t until Hernandez attended a transgender employment fair at the L.A. LGBT Center that luck finally hit. After the keynote speech was delivered by a local entrepreneur, Michaela Mendelson, Hernandez was the first to raise her hand and ask questions.

Michaela Mendelsohn gives the keynote speech during the first annual Transgender Day of Remembrance held in Ventura earlier this year.
TROY HARVEY

Mendelson, also a transgender woman, owns a string of six El Pollo Loco restaurants across Southern California, and had owned as many as 18 restaurants prior to the economic recession.

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“The words that came out of her mouth that made me really want to [work for her] even more was, ‘You will not be given special treatment, but you will be treated equally and with respect’,” Hernandez said. “I knew this was going to be the first job in my entire life where being transgender was OK.”

Mendelson hired her first trans employee four years ago and she’s never looked back.

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“After I heard the [first trans employee’s] story it made me want to help more,” Mendelson said. “After that, it was easy to hire more trans people.”

That employee’s story included being sexually assaulted after being forced to use the wrong gender restroom while working at another fast food restaurant. The employee, who did not want to be named in this story, stayed at the job even after being assaulted because she needed the paycheck, but was eventually fired after a customer complained about her gender expression.

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The same employee now runs Mendelson’s busiest restaurant in Los Angeles, and is part of the 8% of Mendelson’s workforce that’s comprised of transgender people—much higher than most other companies.

As Mendelson continues to grow her business, she’s also made it her sole purpose to make the case to other businesses for hiring transgender employees.

“It’s been the most difficult time in the last 20 years to find employees for restaurants,” Mendelson said. “No one can afford to exclude a class of people, especially when there’s high turnover in this industry and you’re going to bring in more people who will be loyal and stay with you. It’s just good for business.”

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Meanwhile, the employees at El Pollo Loco are enjoying their work family and the security that comes with a job. Hernandez is gearing up to go back to school to become a nurse, but she plans on staying at her current job for a long time.

“It’s the first time that I feel safe in my job,” Hernandez said. “It was such a struggle going around and trying to get food at the food banks and asking people for money. The only thing that separates women like us and anyone else is opportunity. It took a transgender employer to see my potential. I wish it did not.”

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If you or someone you know is transgender and looking for a job, check out the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality index for a list of trans-friendly employers.

This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.

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Michelle Zenarosa is the project coordinator and co-editor of the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism fellowship at Fusion.