When Sean Hayes came out as a transgender man, his employers were supportive — but that’s not always the case. He knows many who struggle to find jobs, or have remained unemployed, and not without trying.
“We want to work, we want to be able to pay our bills,” said Hayes, of Duluth.
A recent ruling may make retaining jobs easier for members of the LGBTQIA community.
On June 15, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the landmark decision that bans discrimination of lesbian, gay and transgender individuals in the workplace on the basis of sex.
It’s bittersweet news that comes weeks after the woman who started it all died due to kidney disease complications, said Hayes.
Aimee Stephens, of Detroit, Michigan, was fired from her job at a funeral home in 2013 after she came out as a transgender woman. Last year, she filed a lawsuit, which was the first civil rights case brought forth by a transgender person and heard by the Supreme Court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Stephens died on May 12.
“There was some sadness because Aimee isn’t able to be here to see this win, this victory,” said Hayes.
Whenever there are rulings and changes to law, Hayes gets questions from the community.
He’s the co-founder of Trans Plus, a grassroots organization that offers resources, connections, and anything transgender and nonconforming folks need in the Twin Ports and beyond.
People are happy with this Supreme Court decision, but there’s always some hesitation and caution “because we’ve seen decisions come and go,” he said, noting a 2019 reversal of transgender rights to serve in the military.
Also, last month’s Supreme Court ruling about employment came one week after the Trump administration reversed transgender health protections (over which LGBTQIA organizations have filed a lawsuit).
“People are winning some, losing some,” said Linn Montavon. “Mixed blessings and mixed emotions.” Montavon recently moved from Duluth to Milwaukee, and they are starting as a sixth-grade English teacher this fall.
“I was relieved to know as I enter my first career that I’ll have protections guaranteed by that federal law,” they said.
The ups and downs of recent decisions are frustrating to Montavon, but they called the ruling a “glimmer of hope.”
It’s a step in the right direction, said Blake Sawle of Superior.
He shared that when starting a new job, he is reluctant to “out” himself before getting a feel for company culture. “I don’t talk about my husband right away unless someone specifically asks.”
Sawle said he has been fortunate with inclusive employers, but there’s often fear of repercussions or worse within the community.
“People still get harassed. You have young people that are terrified to come out because of their family situation,” Sawle said. “Hate crimes are still a thing.”
In mid-June, two young black trans women were murdered, and transgender women of color are regular targets for brutality.
This adds fuel to the fire to continue advocating for the members of our community who are on the margins, Hayes said. Black and brown members of the community are still facing staggering and disproportionate levels of discrimination, homelessness, unemployment and violence, Hayes said.
There also needs to be work for those in the community with disabilities, Montavon and Hayes said.
The fight continues to get to a place where LGBTQIA Americans have equity and equality compared to cisgender, heterosexual community members, added Hayes. People interested in being allies locally can reach out to local organizations Trans Plus, Duluth Superior Pride, or Together for Youth, show up for marches, donate to organizations and get involved on boards.
Some companies conduct seminars and training on diversity and inclusion, but it typically lumps together race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. It’d be helpful to dig deeply and educate on these different areas separately, Sawle said.
Also useful is finding and encouraging more representation and support for trans and queer voices in film, books and media. “Seeing those people representing themselves has similar importance as those laws and those policies,” added Montavon.
Maternity leave for queer couples
Sharale Hansen of Duluth has always been employed in a male-dominated workplace.
“I had to prove myself, and honestly, it’s something that I love to do. I love to prove people wrong,” she said.
Hansen and her partner are starting to try to have children, and in her work as a grain inspector, there was nothing in place at her work for maternity leave for lesbian couples trying to conceive.
“We were driving to the Cities twice a month to pick up samples. It was too much.”
While her employer provided a work-appointed liaison, it was difficult due to distance and her employers being unfamiliar with the challenges of this process.
Hansen put in her notice.
She’s an advocate of “maternity leave for queer couples.”
It’s common for employers to not understand. “It’s a lot harder than heterosexual couples,” she said.
Asked what might help the LGBTQIA community in the workplace looking ahead, Hansen suggested employers have a plan or a formal guideline, such as a workbook, that documents an inclusive process that suits family planning.
Hansen is shifting her focus to expanding her family with her partner, but at her next job, she plans to be “upright and honest.”
She said in the past, she always felt like she was hiding, and being exposed might lead to job termination.
Hansen is positive about the Supreme Court ruling that says the 1964 Civil Rights act bans discrimination of race, religion and sex in the workplace extends to LGBTQIA community.
“I hope it sticks, and that we continue to move forward," Hansen said.