A transgender woman's difficult job search

Prejudices compound the struggle to find employment

click to enlarge STILL SEARCHING: Julie Yoo, the former transgender owner of the Tarpon Diner, on the job hunt. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
STILL SEARCHING: Julie Yoo, the former transgender owner of the Tarpon Diner, on the job hunt.

In July, Florida topped the nation in job losses for the third month. The state's unemployment rate is the highest in 13 years. And, with over 16,000 jobs lost over the last year, the Tampa Bay area has taken the brunt of the economic downturn. The market is flooded with laid-off workers, all competing for an increasingly shrinking piece of the employment pie.

Then there's Julie Yoo.

A year ago, CL profiled the Dunedin resident as she began her transition from male (her name used to be Jim) to female (See "Tall Order, Sept. 12, 2007). At the time, she was the owner and cook of the Tarpon Diner in Tarpon Springs, and her main concern was keeping up with the breakfast orders and getting comfortable with her new gender.

But in December, disagreements with a new co-owner and a desire to get out of the restaurant industry drove her to sell the Tarpon Diner and search for a new career.

Eight months later, she's still looking.

"I just figured I'd be at the diner my whole life, and it'd be fine," Julie says over an English muffin and iced tea at a Dunedin restaurant. "Then, everything changes and I'm no longer at the diner anymore."

Despite nearly 30 years in the restaurant industry, Julie, 49, doesn't want to cook. She has problems with her right leg, damaged in a car accident years ago. Plus, sweating over a hot grill all day is no work for a lady.

"I don't know which way to go or which way ahead," she says. "I just want to be the girl, just get along and have a job."

She tried WorkNet Pinellas, an employment services and training agency. But their funding was slashed before they could place her, and other job prospects never materialized. So, last week, she began her job search anew.

It won't be easy.

"Doors don't even open in the beginning," explains Dr. Kathleen Farrell, a gender therapist who has worked with the transgender community since 1985. "There isn't a lot of receptivity."

Even the first steps of applying raise problems. During transition, legal names and driver's licenses sometimes don't match, which automatically requires explanation on applications. And when prospective employers call references who know nothing about the change from Jim to Julie, trans persons' entire work history can be thrown into question.

"Usually they're not called back for interviews," Farrell says.

And even if they do land an interview (or a job), the trans job seeker may face discrimination.

Exhibit A: Susan Stanton. Eighteen months since being fired from her position as Largo city manager, she still hasn't found employment. She's planning on moving out of state.

"Most of the individuals that I see try to stick with the employment they have currently and see if the current employer accepts them," Farrell says. "Almost all eventually leave because there isn't an effective way for individuals in the workplace to respond to the transition."

A 2006 survey of San Francisco trans people found only 25 percent had full-time jobs in that city and more than half lived below the poverty line. And that's in San Francisco, a famously tolerant city with local nondiscrimination laws.

On a recent afternoon, wearing a new black blouse, blue jeans, hoop earrings and peach-colored nail polish, Julie embarks on another job hunt. She plans to hit up Ross clothing store and a bar on Dunedin's main street.

Last week, she applied for jobs at Ferman BMW on U.S. 19 and Wal-Mart. She hasn't heard back from either. Desperate, she even asked the owner of a diner she frequents if he needed another cook. He's never called her, even after hiring two new employees recently, she says.

"I don't think anybody wants to go down that road," she says.

On the drive to Ross at the Clearwater Mall, Julie smokes a cigarette to calm her nerves.

"I have to get in a mental mode now," she explains. "Work on getting my voice higher."

She clears her throat.

"When you go out you have to bury yourself," she continues. "You try to present the image, but I still have doubts about how I come across in public. If somebody is just wondering, I speak and that kills it. When I'm dealing with people I don't know, I just say a few words and I can put on a softer tone."

Immediately after she walks into the discount clothing store, heads turn. But the employees are nice enough. They hand her a one-page application, background check form and questionnaire.

She fills out her name on the application: "James AKA Julie."

"This is the part I don't like," she whispers. "The scrutinizing part. Everybody knows everything about you right off the bat."

The process takes Julie an hour. She hands her paperwork to the manager, who wishes her a "nice day."

On the way home, she stops by Kelly's, a funky bar on Dunedin's main street. Last night, Julie came here for Drag Bingo Night and made a few friends. She'd like to apply for cocktail waitress.

"Even though last night was my only time here, I'm comfortable with this place," she says.

Several of the employees recognize her and give her hugs. One server brings her a pint of Yuengling. Another hands her an application.

"I was just hoping to get a regular job, but I don't really see that happening," she says after a sip. "That's why places like this are mentally so far ahead of the world. Cross your fingers for me."

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