Outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, a memorial has taken over the whole huge front lawn. There are flowers wilting in the heat, printed photos of the victims, and dozens of rainbow pinwheels spinning in the wind. People wind through slowly, looking overwhelmed.
I’m here to meet Katherine Gonzalez and her friend, Paige Morgan Laisch. Gonzalez says since the Pulse tragedy, she hasn’t been getting out much.
“Fear has kinda taken over me a little bit more than it should have. I’ve been at home a lot more often. I say 'I love you' to my partner a ton more than I should.”
She laughs as she says this, but the truth is, the massacre of 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June brought back up all the difficulty she’s experienced as a Puerto Rican transgender woman growing up outside Orlando.
“My first experience of transgender discrimination was when I was at the early point of my transition,” she said. She went into a telemarketing job interview as herself, Kat, and she nailed it. “It went fantastic until I had to show identification.”
Her ID documents still had the sex she was assigned at birth and her old name on them, and the interview became suspicious when she presented her info. They actually momentarily seemed to think she’d stolen her own social security number and ID.
“Then once I showed the ID, that’s when it kinda broke in, settled in for my interviewer that I was a transgender individual. At which point she retracted the job offer immediately. Said that it would be a danger to other women at the job site. And then had me escorted out by security.”
This incident led to a terrible time for Gonzalez: because she couldn’t get work, she moved back in with her family, who were insistent that she live as male and remain in the closet. She was depressed and sought out hormones on the black market, doing web-cam modelling, work she says she’s "not proud of," to pay for the hormones. Then, she had a life-threatening car crash. While she was on the hospital bed, she was mocked by nurses and interns.
This situation of persistent and intense harassment isn’t unusual. Queer and trans people aren’t protected from job and housing discrimination under federal law, or the laws of many states, and discrimination in public accommodations is also legal in most places. Florida is one of 31 states without inclusive anti-discrimination protections on the books.
“It is a very, very pervasive thing,” said Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, who heads the Trans and Gender-Nonconforming Justice Project at the National LGBTQ Task Force. She says the vast majority of transgender people report harassment or discrimination in the workplace; in a 2011 survey, 90 percent said they’d been harassed or forced to hide their identities in some form. LGBTQ people overall are also more likely to live in poverty, and about one in three black and Latinx (a gender-neutral term for Latino/Latina) trans people live in extreme poverty, making less than $10,000 a year.
Ashe McGovern with the Center for American Progress says these realities are part of a vicious cycle. Trans people, especially women, may be excluded from school, from shelters and housing, and from jobs — and each point of exclusion leads to further marginalization in the job market.
“Black trans folks experience unemployment at about 28 percent,” they said (McGovern uses the pronouns they and them). In a 2014 survey cited in this report, the unemployment rate for trans people overall was 14 percent. And, McGovern says, lots of people turn to underground economies to survive.
Carlos Guillermo Smith with Equality Florida says his organization is working on the discrimination aspect.
“We’ve worked with local and municipal governments to pass those protections locally,” Smith said. Florida has dozens of local laws, and they’re pushing for a statewide anti-discrimination bill in lieu of passage of a federal bill known as the Equality Act, which has been mentioned several times on the floor of the Democratic National Convention this week. He says lot of people here found it hypocritical when local and national politicians who’ve opposed these bills made speeches about the Pulse tragedy. “Now there’s some anger in the community.”
Even when it’s possible under local, state or federal law, there are still many obstacles to pursuing claims of discrimination. Cities like Orlando have a human rights department that will assist people, but many queer and trans people of color are already living in poverty, in fear of deportation or in fear of negative police interactions, and are unlikely to go to authorities. Gonzalez is one such person; she says in her Latino family growing up, there was an attitude that you wouldn’t go to authorities for help on something. Why, I ask? “Years of oppression,” she said.
Consider her family's reaction after the car crash.
“No more than a week after the incident my mother came up to me and said, I don’t know what was worse, the fact that you were dying on the table, or the fact that everyone was calling you my daughter. And that resonates so deeply.”
Gonzalez has worked on and off since then, in retail and as a truck driver. But she’s struggled to get a consistent gig. At the moment, she is looking for a job.
Lewis wrote a blog post about his time in Orlando, and how to absorb the grief and generosity that follows a tragedy. Read it on Medium.