I am a transman. I transitioned from female to male several years ago, while working at my last job. My manager and coworkers were all very supportive of my transition. However, the company recently had to downsize dramatically, and I was one of many employees to be laid off. Now I’m looking for a new job, and I’m wondering how to handle references. Other than my last job, all of my prior employers know me as Sarah, a female employee. Now, I’m Samuel, a male employee. Should I tell prospective employers about my transition? I don’t really want to, but it might be confusing otherwise. Also, I don’t want to look like I’m trying to hide something.
This is a tricky issue for transgender applicants, especially those who are not interested in being “out” as transgender and would rather simply be another man (or woman) in the workforce. You can go to court to get an order changing your name, which allows you to get new government identification documents with your correct name and gender. Many states also allow you to get a new or amended birth certificate, reflecting the gender with which you have always identified rather than the gender you were assigned at birth. (Typically, though, you must show that you have undergone sex reassignment surgery.) However, from a practical perspective, there’s not much you can do to change people’s memories of you before you transitioned.
Legally speaking, whether you are protected from discrimination based on your transgender status and gender identity depends, in part, on where you work. Almost one-third of states and many city and local governments protect employees and applicants from transgender discrimination. If you work in one of these areas, prospective employers may not refuse to hire you or consider your application because you are transgender.
If you work elsewhere, however, your protection might be less certain. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination, has said that transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, because the employer is making job decisions based on its stereotypes, preferences, and expectations about gender. Some federal courts have agreed, finding that discrimination against an employee or applicant who is transgender constitutes illegal sex discrimination. However, many courts have not yet ruled on this issue. Because federal law doesn’t explicitly list gender identity or transgender status as a protected trait, courts have some leeway to decide this issue as they see fit, unless and until the Supreme Court weighs in.
Practically speaking, you are correct that failing to clarify your name change and gender transition could lead to confusion. A potential employer could call a prior employer, ask for information about “Sarah,” and be told that no employee by that name has ever worked for the company. This isn’t going to help you land a new job, especially if your former employer would have given you a good reference. Even if you would prefer not to reveal your transition, it’s a practical necessity here.
To figure out how and when it’s best to have this conversation with a prospective employer, you might want to check out some of the great online resources for employees who are transitioning at work or looking for work during or after a gender transition, such as Transgender at Work, the Transgender Law Center, or the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative.