Carolyn Weiss, founder and president of Transgender Business Services, could not have asked for a more supportive work environment when she began her gender transition process in 2011.
At that time, Weiss was working for the City of Los Angeles and her boss hired a trans woman who specialized in trans awareness training for businesses, in order to give Weiss the support she needed and help her colleagues understand what she was going through. The experience was invaluable, for both Weiss – who like any one going through the difficulties of a gender transition process, needed all the support she could get - and her team. It inspired Weiss to set up her own consulting practice to give businesses the tools they need to in turn support employees who are transitioning, and provide knowledge to their staff.
“I realized, from my own experience, that training staff is critical to anyone's transition in the workplace and I wanted to try doing it myself," she says.
She launched her company in March with the intent of providing in-person training to employees of small-to-mid-sized businesses and has been working with a range of companies to help their staff “understand what trans gender people are about by demystifying the issues surrounding gender transition and breaking down the barriers."
Weiss has also trained nursing students, worked with mental health professionals and is scheduled to do a training program at a high school in her area in January.
And just a day after she launched her business, a local company that produces and markets e-learning courses and webinars contacted Weiss, asking her to partner on a video based on her training program material.
“Our intent is to try to get that out into the marketplace nationwide and instead of helping a few dozen businesses a year, we could use it to help hundreds across the country provide their staff with the training they need," she says.
But even if Weiss is encouraged by the openness of businesses, both large and small, to support their transgender employees and educate their workforce on transgender issues, her own, positive experience may be a unique story.
Many transgender people have a tough time in the workplace, she says, and they're often up against strong discrimination. Because of this, many are reluctant and afraid to transition while working for fear of losing their standing or their jobs.
That's exactly what happened to Ann Thomas.
She began transitioning slowly in 2000 but immediately ran into problems at work.
“I was working on an organic farm, the company was very conservative and told me not to do it but I did and I lost my job," Thomas says.
On a personal level, too, things were very tough for Thomas.
“I dressed kind of female during the week but during the weekend, I would have to dress male to see my kids. After my wife died in an accident in 2009, I went back to dressing 100% as male because my daughter had just lost her mom - she was 16, it was very hard and I had not come out to her as yet. It was the worst time in my life, though, and I felt like dying."
Thomas stuck to the course, though, and was finally able to transition three years ago and pursue new opportunities. After appearing in episodes of Glee (she sang with the transgender chorus featured in the show) and Transparent, she realized how keen the entertainment industry is in featuring transgender talent. While agencies do represent transgender individuals, there was a need, she says, for a dedicated enterprise, and so she set up Transgender Talent.
Just like any business that's getting off the ground, Thomas launched hers on a shoestring budget. Crowdfunding helped a bit, but she's still working a day job and “I'm hoping that I can land some bigger gigs for people from bigger businesses that would pay more," she says. “Overall, though, I have a very optimistic outlook for trans people in the entertainment industry, even if it's going to take another 10 or 20 years to change the rest of the nation."
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey carried out by National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population. Survey participants also said they also experience higher-than-average rates of violence and psychological distress, which many in the community fear may increase during the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Still, things are changing and business owners like Weiss and Thomas are hopeful for a better future for their community.
“The only time I can see when being a trans business owner would have problems with clientele is when they advertise, as I have, as a transgender-owned business," Weiss says.
“For me, it defines who I am and the services I provide but that is actually pretty rare, as far as I know. I could own a nail salon and no one would know until they got to know me, and by that time I would hope that it wouldn't matter."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.