This fall, the most expansive survey of transgender Americans ever revealed some startling statistics about the state of transgender equality in the United States – namely, that things simply are not equal. In the workplace alone, the U.S. Trans Survey found, nearly one in three transgender people reported in just the last year being fired, denied a promotion, or not being hired for a job simply because of their gender identity or expression.
That fact is not just a statistic for Brooke Thorne – it’s her reality, one that she has experienced in three separate, distinct jobs. The employment discrimination she faced in each situation differed slightly, but each instance had the same effect: It made her feel like less of a worker, less desirable. It made her explicitly aware that she was not receiving a fair and equal chance at success as her co-workers, friends, and peers. And it sent a message that the lack of laws prohibiting anti-transgender employment discrimination in Arizona and at the federal level is allowing rampant discrimination to occur, unchecked, against everyday Americans.
Brooke is a lifelong Arizonan, born on the Air Force base in Tucson, AZ. She’s in her 30s now – and in 2013, she began to transition from male to female, finally excited and assured to live as the gender she has always known herself to be.
Not much about Brooke has changed, beyond her gender and her confidence to be herself. “I still like all of the things I did as a boy,” she said. “I like fishing, camping, nature walks, anything outdoors. I like softball, basketball, baseball, frisbee, golf, soccer. I still like playing video games, I still like horror movies. I like going shopping, cooking, making my own clothing. I like talking with my friends about comic books, anime, and TV – everything from Keeping with the Kardashians to American Horror Story. Basically I still like doing everything I did before – I just do it as a female now.”
Another thing that didn’t change when Brooke transitioned was her work ethic – her commitment to working hard and doing her job well. In 2013, she was working at Truly Nolen of America, a pest control company that has a presence in many states, including Arizona. Brooke described the company as a “male-oriented environment,” a macho place that isn’t especially sensitive to individual employees’ concerns.
Still, she thrived at her job. She was awarded a Customer Service Excellence award, given to employees who go to great lengths to help customers. She won a “Call of the Week” award, winning a small gift certificate and praise for a job well done. And she received a letter specifically about her work from the Vice President of the company, referencing one of her “Above and Beyonds,” explaining that she was such an asset to the company and that they were glad to have hired her.
Brooke came out as transgender at work in September of 2015 and initially received affirmation from her supervisor, who said they were excited for Brooke and that they had friends who were also transgender.
And then a month later, even after a clear history of excellence, Brooke was fired.
“They said they were firing me because I wasn’t happy there anymore,” Brooke said. “I had won awards, gotten letters of recognition – and then I was told that I’m not happy with my job and that’s why they were letting me go.” Despite insisting that she was perfectly happy at the job, she was let go. And a few weeks later, she was receiving a tiny unemployment check.
“They said they were firing me because I wasn’t happy there anymore. I had won awards, gotten letters of recognition – and then I was told that I’m not happy with my job and that’s why they were letting me go.” – Brooke Thorne
“It made me feel like I wasn’t worth it or important – that I had no worth as a human being, basically,” Brooke said. “It just kind of sucks – because so often, it doesn’t feel like you have any rights.”
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This was Brooke’s first experience with employment discrimination because of her gender identity – but it wasn’t her last. After being unemployed for six months, she got a job at the retailer Old Navy. It was a part-time position, up to 25 hours each week, where Brooke was expected to come in during the morning, unload the truck full of products, and then work on the floor as a cashier, stocker, or other odd jobs.
“I got hired on while I was fully dressed in female clothing, with makeup and everything,” Brooke said. “They knew that I’m a woman. But as weeks and weeks went by, the hours just didn’t materialize. After two or three months, I had not been trained on cashiering or any of those more public-facing positions. Other people got hired after me and were trained on these positions before me – and when I did get shifts, I would get scheduled for one shift a week, for three hours at a time, or sometimes I’d be skipped entirely. Sometimes I would be sent home for the day after unloading the truck and other employees would get called in.”
At one point, Brooke asked if she had done something wrong to receive such few shifts. After all, she had bills to pay and needed to work – she couldn’t keep hoping to be scheduled only to receive just a few hours of pay. Her supervisor told her, “No, you’re an excellent worker – just give us time.”
Brooke kept giving the Old Navy time…but her hours didn’t increase, and her pay didn’t increase, and so, fed up, she put in her two week’s notice in at Old Navy, who promptly ignored her until two weeks later, when they sent her a termination notice (although she hadn’t been scheduled for the previous two weeks).
That situation had a huge impact on Brooke’s feelings of self-worth and pride. “It made me feel like I was good enough to come in when no customers could see me, good enough to unload their truck, good enough to stock their racks with merchandise – but I wasn’t good enough to be on the floor where customers could see me or I could help customers. It was like as soon as the store opened, they didn’t want me anywhere near.”
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Brooke was able to get another job shortly after leaving Old Navy, but even now, she is facing harassment because of her gender identity. She works at a behavioral health facility in Tucson and shortly after starting work there, she was approached by a coworker, who asked her, “Are your breasts real?”
Of course, Brooke was offended, but she tried to take a measured approach. She tried to laugh it off, in a way, referencing her great bras that fit her well.
Management at the company pulled Brooke into a private office and began blaming her for the incident and scolding her for referencing the fit of her bras, even though the conversation was provoked by a sexist, transphobic question that certainly crossed the line. Brooke tried to explain – but her words were dismissed and she was warned that she had to be more careful about what she said.
Employment discrimination happens again and again and again and again to transgender Americans – and after even the very first time, it has a truly negative, crushing impact on people. It makes people doubt themselves, question their worth, and on a very real and tangible level, interferes with their economic status, reputation, and ability to earn money.
Employment discrimination happens again and again and again and again to transgender Americans – and after even the very first time, it has a truly negative, crushing impact on people.
“Being transgender is hard enough,” Brooke said. “You’re considering whether you’re passable or not passable, and it’s already stressful and you’re already nervous as it is. Every day you get used to it more and more, but every time you go to a new place or a new setting, you get those feelings all over again.”
It’s clear that Arizona – and more than 30 states across the country – need comprehensive legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity (and in most of those states, sexual orientation, too).
“People in my community should be able to go to work and know that at least they’re protected at work – that at least their financial security is protected,” Brooke said. “Knowing that you have that working for you can make a real difference. It can make that bit of a difference to someone who’s barely holding on.”
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Brooke is ready to speak out about the need for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination and greater understanding of transgender people because she knows that when you give people a chance and take the time to explain to them, their minds change and their hearts open.
When Brooke came out to her family a few years ago, it wasn’t easy at first.
“The acclimation process can be overwhelming to friends and family and everyone,” Brooke said. “With me, in some ways for my mom it was the death of who I was and the rebirth of who I am right now, and parents sometimes take that as a real loss. You have to help them understand – and now, my family is pretty supportive. My stepdad took a while to get used to the idea, but now that he’s used to it, he’s the first one to say, ‘No, her name is Brooke. No, she is a she.’ He still says to this day, ‘I don’t fully understand it, but I support it.’ And I think that’s what anyone can ask for. I expect the world to support and respect me, the same way I would support anyone else.”
Brooke especially wants other transgender people to know that things get better – and with positive legislation and stronger education around who transgender people are, things will only improve even more.
“For me it was not an easy process – sometimes just getting it started seemed like forever,” she said. “But I’m still a believer, even though a lot has happened to me. I’m still a believer that eventually it will all work out – and there’s always something better out there, but sometimes it just takes time to find it.”
“You have to stay in good spirits,” she continued. “You have to take the bad with the good and the good with the bad. There are always going to be those dark, gloomy days. And when I get to those days, I take a step back, take a moment to breathe, and think about the good stuff I care about so far. Patience is a huge thing to learn when you’re transgender. Every day when you look in the mirror, you want to see the person you see in your dreams. But nothing is instantaneous, and as much as you wish you could wave a wand and say, “poof you’re female now’ or ‘poof you’re a guy now,’ it doesn’t work that way. Your transition comes with learning to accept yourself, learning to see that this is who you are, and this is eventually where you will be. You need to put the stepping stones there ahead of you. Because there is so much more out there. There is always a happiness out there. And when you find it, you’ll know.”