Practical Advice for Transgender and Nonbinary Folks Navigating the Job Search
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
This post was originally published by The Muse, and was written by S.E. Fleenor.
The job search can be stressful for anyone. You have to find a company you like offering a position you’re qualified for (and will hopefully enjoy!), and then you have to submit your application, reach out to your potential references, clean up your social media, and (fingers crossed) prepare for an interview. You have to think about what you want and how you’ll convince employers you’re the very best person for the job. It’s enough to make anyone self-conscious, nervous, and even a little overwhelmed.
Transgender and nonbinary folks experience all of the above, of course—but with added layers of stress regarding how we’re perceived, evaluated, and treated.
(Content warning: Mentions of misgendering, harassment, discrimination, and anti-trans hatred.)
Transgender folks are all too familiar with workplace discrimination. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s U.S. Transgender Survey, 27% of transgender people who’d had or applied for a job the year of the survey said they were fired, denied a promotion, or not hired for a job because of their gender identity or expression. Transgender people of color generally experience even higher rates of discrimination.
There’s a lot that’s out of our control. It’s understandable to feel discouraged or afraid looking at the statistics. We deserve a better world, one where we can live and work in peace, but until then, we have each other.
If you’re applying or thinking about applying to jobs, especially if you’re doing it for the first time since transitioning or coming out, here are seven tips to help make your experience easier—from people who’ve been there.
1. Find Trans-Inclusive Jobs and Companies
To some degree, all job searches are about finding the right job at the right company in the right location. For transgender employees, though, the stakes are higher. Plus, it can be difficult to find employers who are truly inclusive and affirming, particularly in some fields and locations.
Where you search for jobs may be limited by needing to be in a place where you can access healthcare and find community with other LGBTQ folks. Or you may only want to apply to positions that allow you to work remotely while you transition, so you don’t have to deal with the pressure of “passing” in front of cisgender colleagues.
The health benefits offered by an employer can be a major indicator of their attitude toward transgender employees. The Human Rights Campaign maintains a list of businesses with transgender-inclusive health insurance benefits. You can also contact companies’ HR departments—typically after you’ve gotten an offer—to get the contact information for the health plan. You don’t need to disclose your gender identity at this point, but do tell them you’re looking to learn a bit more about the health benefits they offer. You can then call the health plan directly as a prospective member and ask about specific benefits, such as the exclusions policy.
It can take some time and work, but you can do everything in your power to identify an inclusive employer before you accept an offer.
2. Transition Your References
Retaining your professional references from any prior job is paramount—and your work experience counts even if it predates your transition.
You might have received glowing recommendation letters or LinkedIn recommendations from past bosses and colleagues. Sutton Sy Belyea, a graphic designer and illustrator who “happens to be transgender,” as he says, suggests reaching out and asking folks to update those with your correct name and pronouns. If you’re asking for a recommendation letter for the first time, make sure to let folks know the correct ways to refer to you as well. Don’t expect them to know or remember: Be explicit to make sure you get exactly what you want!
Even if you don’t have or need letters, there’s a good chance your search will require a reference check over the phone. If your references aren’t aware of your transition, reach out. “It can be really intimidating to call a previous employer and say, ‘I’m applying for jobs, you might get a reference check. So you know, this is my name now and these are the pronouns I’m using,’” says Michal Duffy, an education and program manager at Out Boulder County. “But I think it’s really important to have [this conversation] especially if you’re not out as trans,” and prefer not to be at that stage of your job search.
Ask the person providing your reference to write your name and pronouns down on a piece of paper. Duffy suggests telling them to “put it in front of their face while they’re having that phone call—while they’re doing that reference check—so they have a constant visual reminder.”
Finally, remember to explicitly tell them if you don’t want your gender identity mentioned during the call.
3. Align Your Name Across Legal Documents
You might want to refrain from disclosing your transgender identity during the job search. If that’s the case—and perhaps even if not—legally changing your name to match your chosen name can be helpful, for both logistical and emotional purposes.
“I really wish I would have sped up my name change process,” says Belyea. “I had a couple jobs where I got called in for an interview and they asked me to provide some information. When I started filling out the forms, I had to use my legal name…and then it was weird. I never got a call back,” he explains. “That happened twice and it really set me back.”
Andrew Miller, a health equity trainer at the Denver Health LGBT Center of Excellence, had a similar experience. “Applying for positions without my legal name changed felt very difficult,” he says. In fact, the job search is what prompted him to legally change his name in the first place. While the process at the time in Virginia was expensive, convoluted, and triggering, he is grateful to no longer live with “the fear and risk and trauma that comes with having to out yourself every single time you apply to something.”
If you’re not sure where to start to change your name, the National Center for Transgender Equality maintains a database of information for each state where you can learn about the process wherever you are. The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Colorado Name Change Project also provide support for transgender folks living in some states.
Be aware that if your employment is contingent on a background check, your deadname or former name might have to be disclosed. It depends on the level of background check, but generally those who work with children and vulnerable communities can expect to be asked to list previous aliases and former names.
4. Consider Your Online Presence
It’s not uncommon for employers to look you up on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, as well as any other websites you might appear on. So if you haven’t already, review your accounts and bios to ensure consistency both in how your name is displayed and in how you present yourself. This step is particularly important if, for any number of reasons, you don’t want to be out during your job search.
You can change the privacy settings on some platforms and remove photos of yourself that you feel could out you. But be aware that even if your accounts are private, some sites allow potential employers (and others) to view limited information and images.
5. Remember What You Bring to the Table
Interviews are often particularly stressful for trans and nonbinary job seekers. “Transitioning can undermine self-confidence because you don’t know why you’re being rejected or overlooked,” says Belyea. Not to mention that “the wider societal hatred of trans folks undermines our confidence and we get in our own heads sometimes about how we’ll be perceived.”
To help alleviate self-doubt, prepare for your interview. Make a list of the skills and experiences you have that align with the job. Then, do a mock interview with a close friend to help you practice showcasing your skills. You already bring a lot to the table—it’s simply a matter of keeping it top of mind and making the connection for employers.
Acupuncturist and former professional dancer Cristina Michaels knows how hard it is to remain confident in your abilities when seeking employment. From deadnaming to intimidation to being deemed “unhirable” as a dance instructor due to her transition, her experiences with anti-trans hatred have caused Michaels to be more reserved when networking. Before transitioning, Michaels would hand her business card to just about anyone, but now she is more cautious, citing concerns for physical safety.
To steel herself and ease her anxiety in professional settings, she uses three mantras that ground her: “Don’t take things personally. Believe in yourself. [You] no longer have to suffer.”
6. Be Your Own Advocate
No matter how confident you are, the unfortunate reality is that you may be misgendered or otherwise mistreated during an interview. But you can advocate for yourself in a professional way.
“If they mess up your pronouns, kindly correct them,” Duffy says. “Just because someone misgenders you doesn’t mean it’s not an inclusive environment. Maybe it does, but you can kind of tell from how they handle [being corrected].” You can try to reduce in-the-moment stress by preparing a few phrases you can draw on to correct them and shift the conversation back to what you bring to the table. It can be as simple as saying, “Actually, I use she/her pronouns,” and then moving on. Later, you can evaluate whether this seems like part of a broader pattern and is potentially a red flag.
If you feel like what you’re facing rises to the level of discrimination, make sure to document your experiences and consider reaching out to an organization that provides transgender legal services where you live. “Know your facts. Know your state laws,” says Miller, whose home state of Colorado has legal protections for transgender folks. “If someone has made you an offer and withdraws after the background check, ask why. Then, document their answer and everything else.” All of this information could be useful if you choose to seek legal recourse.
7. Prioritize Your Physical and Emotional Safety
The job search can be difficult and filled with triggering experiences for transgender and nonbinary folks. While there are some ways to mitigate harm, including reducing how often you see or disclose your deadname by legally changing your name, the truth is that the world is not always a safe place.
For some of us, being out during the job search is a deliberate decision. For others—particularly those who are early in their transitions or who are nonbinary—passing or concealing our gender identities just isn’t an option. But whether it’s by choice or not, being out can place us in dangerous and even life-threatening situations. While self-confidence is key to any job search, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that in some scenarios rocking a dress might put the wearer at risk of being harassed or worse.
Ideally, the world would be a safe place for all gender identities. But until that’s true, it’s important to protect ourselves by paying attention to how we feel. Trust your own sense of what’s safe and what’s not. For instance, if you don’t feel safe wearing a dress on public transit to go to your job interview, consider changing at a friend’s house, asking someone to give you a ride, or skipping the dress in favor of something more gender-neutral. While it’s horrible to have to change how you express yourself, showing up at a job interview shaking with fear isn’t any more fun.
When it comes to your emotional well-being, be aware of how microaggressions and other interactions during the job search (or otherwise) deplete your energy and impact your mental health, and make sure you take care of yourself. “When I know that my battery is being drained, I ask: ‘Who’s giving me that little bit of recharge to help me pull through?’” says Miller. Then, he makes time for connection with his transgender friends in spaces where he can be 100% himself.