Transgender employees face high rates of workplace harassment

Although they are protected by law, discrimination continues unabated

Gita November, an activist for transgender people and a former sex worker, has had to face many battles in the workplace.
Gita November, an activist for transgender people and a former sex worker, has had to face many battles in the workplace.
Image: Supplied

Transgender employees say they are facing increasing levels of harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace.

This is according to Leslie van Rooyen who runs Youth For Change, an organisation for LGBTIQ youth, and several transgender women who spoke to Sowetan about their workplace experiences.

Van Rooyen said he was bullied at work for being a transgender man in the health sector where he worked as a counsellor. “It was really hard to work in hospitals because when I wanted to use a toilet [for men] I could not use it. I was always isolated and always by myself. There would be gossiping daily about me,” he said.

Van Rooyen ended up having to use the disability toilet as a result, he eventually resigned to start his mental health organisation.

Gita November, a transgender woman, said she had faced discrimination in the workplace in various industries such as retail stores, fast food outlets,  as well as in the academic space.

“I used to work in a call centre [for a bus company] and I told my employers I want to work on the bus as a hostess. Gita was already manifesting who she is and everyone could see it and embraced it until the owner decided that it is against his religion. He said when I get on the bus, I must be a man, I was forced and had to conform to his beliefs, which he said were based on the Bible,” she said.

November, who is the founder of organisation Trans Tec SA, has had to face many battles to find acceptance even after working in environments that are expected to be more welcoming, such as academia, where she does research to decriminalise sex work.

“I was in a transgender programme where cisgender people were in control of the decisions made of how transgender women need to be treated and how services need to be rolled out. It took me three months to get over the experience where I was treated as if I don’t know what is best for my own kind,” she said.

“This academic space comes for you to tell you that you do not have the capacity and do not have the knowledge but it is my lived experience. This is my struggle in the workplace.”

She said even funding organisations and research programmes, headed by people who were not transgender, trying to get funding did not prominently involve transgender researchers.

Jane*, a beauty therapist, said she had battled with being respected in her workplace.  “I am not respected and taken seriously as a woman. I am undermined and sometimes referred to as ‘him’ even though my ID says female. They just want to make me feel less of a woman,” she said

Jane said she was often transparent about being transgender when applying for a new job but was treated differently. 

“They think you have some sort of advantage being trans, which makes no sense. Sometimes you are told that you can carry something that is heavy because you have male power and have more muscles and more power,” she said.

Thuli*, who has been out as a transgender for over 20 years, said she battled to stay in jobs because of the harassment and humiliation.

Another transgender woman, Joyce*, said she had been unemployed for three years and had anxiety about finding another job.

“I have anxiety of moving jobs because I don’t know if I will be accepted or not. You need to explain to them who you are and what you are, and some people are not okay with it,” she said.

Co-founder of 1,000 Women Trust, Tina Thiart, said though SA protected transgender rights, harassment and bullying in the workplace remained high. As a result, her organisation has had to equip transgender women, particularly with tools to stand up for their rights.