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Friday, July 18, 2008 | return to: news & features


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Pride and prejudice: JVS involved in new program that empowers transgender job seekers

by stacey palevsky, staff writer

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Leo Hill's resume sparkles. He boasts a bachelor's degree in fine arts, an associate degree in culinary arts and a law degree.

And yet he's stuck in a low-level office job that squanders all those skills.

Last August, the San Francisco man said enough was enough, and decided to look for a job coach. He was hoping to revive a career that had derailed when he changed his gender.

Hill was born female, but now lives as a man.

For transgender people, finding and keeping any job — let alone a good one — is a huge problem. But it's slowly becoming easier in San Francisco.

A new, first-in-the-nation work force development program led by Jewish Vocational Service is helping transgender individuals find jobs. And not just any jobs, but jobs that support them financially and satisfy them spiritually.

The program also aims to educate employers about how to create a welcoming workplace for transgender individuals.

The program, a partnership among four San Francisco nonprofits, is called the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative (TEEI). "There's nothing else like it," says JVS program coordinator Natalie Stern.

JVS was asked to participate by the initiative's creators, the LGBT Center of San Francisco and the Transgender Law Center.

JVS jumped at the chance, said Abby Snay, the executive director at JVS, because TEEI fit with her agency's mission of promoting social and economic justice. She pointed out that the initiative assists all transgender individuals regardless of their faith, but that many clients are Jews.

"It's really important for us to address and meet the diverse needs in the Jewish community," she said.

Hill, for example, is a Jew-by-choice who walked into the JVS office in San Francisco last August. Four months earlier, he had started taking hormones to become a man. Facial hair peppered his cheeks and chin.

Had JVS not offered a program specifically for transgender individuals, Hill said he would never have sought assistance. He would have been too afraid.

"I wouldn't have had the guts to try the [JVS] training if it had not been a trans-specific service," Hill said.

No one knows exactly how many transgender individuals live in the Bay Area. But a survey conducted two years ago of 200 local transgender individuals found that for most, a change in gender meant professional turbulence.

"For the transgender community, one of the most difficult problems is finding jobs," said Reuben Zellman, a transgender rabbinic intern at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco. "They are denied opportunities at every level."

Like Hill, Renata Razza, 36, knows the fear many transgender individuals feel upon entering a new professional environment. A TEEI client since November, Razza considers himself gender queer, a term that for him means that he was born a woman, looks like a man but doesn't identify with either gender and is comfortable being referred to as "he" or "she."

Razza said people are often misinformed or uninformed about what it means to be transgender, or why someone would identify as such.

"Maybe all they know is what they've seen on 'Jerry Springer,' which is a frightening thought," he said.

If that's all you know, too, then here's a primer: Transgender is an umbrella term to describe anyone who identifies with a gender that is outside the male-female binary.

"People don't even realize the extent to which we have carved up our society into those two male/female boxes," Zellman said.

"Transgender" could describe people like Hill or Zellman, who both were born female but identify as male (a transman), or vice versa (a transwoman); it could be someone who identifies with neither gender, like Razza, or with both, or with a third gender. Some people choose to

physically change or modify their bodies to correspond with their inner identity, but some don't. Some have surgery, though most do not.

All of this has created huge barriers to employment for transgender individuals.

Often, trans people are treated unfairly

at work, fired during their transition and then cannot find another job — or health insurance. They also may be cut off from their family's emotional or financial support.

The 2006 survey found that only one in four transgender individuals was employed full time; one in three was unemployed entirely.

"Trans people are really considered freaks in a lot of ways in our society, and as Jews, we know that experience for ourselves, so we should be the first people to have empathy for outsiders, for groups who are being exploited and oppressed," said Zellman, who has referred a dozen or so people to TEEI.

"I feel really, really proud that the Jewish community is supporting the trans community in such a positive way."

The survey inspired San Francisco's LGBT Center and the Transgender Law

Center to create an initiative that would help transgender community members find good jobs, and would also educate employers about working with them.

They asked for funding from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and per the recommendation of Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is Jewish, brought JVS on board to provide the job training.

In the program's first year, 54 clients have come through the doors at JVS, ranging in age from 19 to 60. More are transwomen than transmen. Their skills and backgrounds vary: Some are educated, while others need to go back to school to get the job they want.

Stern, the JVS program coordinator, tells clients they should expect to spend 20 hours a week for about three months looking for a job. She said some hear that and never return, but most are eager to make the commitment.

Many of them need help with things that have nothing to do with their trans identity, such as writing a résumé and cover letter, interviewing, networking, searching online job ads and negotiating salaries.

But there are also trans-specific issues, Stern said.

"Do they want to be 'out' at work? How do their references know them? Do they need to come out to their references? What's on their identification documents? Does their name match their gender?" she said.

Razza recalled six years ago, when he was still presenting himself as a female, he interviewed for a corporate job in San Francisco. He wore a man's pantsuit.

When the recruiter called to offer him the job, he was told his dress was inappropriate and he would have to wear skirts on the job. Razza turned down the job offer.

"I didn't take it personally, but I did see it as manifestation of a rigid gender expression that didn't leave room for me," he said.

Since transgender individuals cite this kind of workplace discrimination as a huge deterrent to finding and keeping a job, the Transgender Law Center also offers free training for employers and human resource managers as part of the TEEI program.

"People are really hungry for the education," said the Law Center's Kristina Wertz. "Employers want to do right thing but oftentimes don't know how."

After the training, those organizations attend transgender job fairs coordinated by the LGBT Center. The center also matches TEEI clients with mentors, those transgender individuals who have successfully found employment.

The mentoring is important, Hill said, "because I wouldn't talk about this with just anyone."

Hill spoke to j. in April. At the time, his low-level office job paid the bills. But he wanted to find new work where he could apply his law degree.

Razza, meanwhile, has started his own business since working with JVS. Today he provides work and life coaching to a variety of people (including those who are transgender) and educating nonprofits about working with minorities and transgender people.

It's a job that not only allows him to pay his rent, but is also something he loves to do.

"I would never have started a business without JVS' help," Razza said.

It's unclear if Hill has improved his lot since that interview three months ago — he did not return repeated phone calls or emails asking about his current employment.

Still, in April, Hill did say he was grateful to have had so much help from the TEEI. He knew when he started his transition that life might become more difficult. But even though he was born female some 40 years go, he had felt like a boy since he was 4 years old.

"I realized it was time to live fully," he said.


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