When being bilingual, having a diploma and a good resume aren't enough to find a job: Dionne Kettl
TRANSending Barriers co-founder, Dionne Kettl, talks about her experience growing up in the south and the employment disparities she has face.
Have you ever tried wearing high heels to a high school in the south, when everybody thinks you should be “dress like a boy”?
I am an African-American woman originally from Texas but raised in Louisiana. Growing up, I knew I was a girl, but I didn't know how to conceptualize that into words.
By high school, I went to a big career school with 5,000 students or so. I was the only openly transgender person.
I wore girl clothes, high heels, and left my home looking fabulous. It was 2006, and my teenage self was all about self-expression.
But it was the south, so needless to say my individuality was not well-received.
They called me a faggot. They called me a cross dresser. And on top of that, I was sent to the principal's office.
Man was he angry! He called my outfit a class disruption. He told me that I needed to cut my hair and wear boys' clothes or else I was going to be expelled.
I get the dress code, but I just don't think it was necessary for that figure of authority to also call me a faggot in the office.
When disapproval comes from the head, it is easier for everyone else to believe it is okay to disrespect you or hurt you.
Students talked to teachers about hurting me and the teachers found it funny. One time, I had an altercation with someone in school and I asked a teacher for help. He said that I brought it upon myself for being too feminine.
I've had drinks thrown on me by other students while teachers just looked. They thought it was okay, after all the teachers joked around with them about me being transgender, in front of my face.
People don't realize how cruel the world can be to people who are transgender.
I have had teachers say that I am going to hell, that I'm a disgusting person, a clown for wearing girl's clothes, even wondered how my parents are not ashamed of me and asking, “How do you have the audacity to walk around and just be alive?”.
At one point, the school called my dad. They said that I was gay and that they wanted to make sure that he knew what I was doing and how I dressed.
My dad already knew, and he was not okay with it. I was sort of a pariah.
No one in my family seemed to be okay with me. We would go to church and someone would ask, “Is this is your niece?”, and my uncle would be like, “No, this is my nephew, he's a boy!”, in front of everyone. I remember feeling so embarrassed.
They were very adamant about me being more masculine. Pretty much everyone in my family tried to have me do what they called “boy activities” and things like that.
One time, they found my MySpace account. I had a picture wearing girl's clothes—it wasn't provocative or anything, but my family called me a transsexual prostitute.
I feel like a lot of trans youth have to deal with the same things I've dealt with, and some have had it even worse. I was fortunate to not have been kicked out of my house when I was still in school, like others I know.
But that was probably because my dad was never home due to his job. We had a couple of instances where he would throw me out, but I was still able to kind of come back.
That changed when I turned 20 years old. He kicked me out and I didn't have anywhere to go. My first reaction was trying to contact other family, but they told me no.
I contacted friends, and was fortunate to have one friend whose parents did let me stay at their house for two months. That was enough for me to be able to keep working and stand on my own two feet.
Soon I landed a job as a teller at a bank and moved to North Carolina. That really helped me become more financially stable.
But I could not get a promotion to save my life. I could not understand how people so often complimented my work and experience, but I did not make the cut to be promoted. At some point, I realized it just was not going to happen.
Normally that is the point where people start looking somewhere else, but for trans individuals getting a job is twice as hard.
I was applying to be a personal banker, and despite the fact that they did not require a person with a degree, I had one. Yet I had to go meet the recruiter, then the store manager, followed by the district manager, and then the sales manager. I even met with the regional president.
Everyone who works in this industry can tell you that for the position I wanted, that is not a standard procedure. When someone is transgender, there are more hoops and hurdles.
Including this one, I went to over 80 interviews with different companies. Applying for jobs and getting the interview was never hard. The real problem occurs when I am brought in for an in-person interview.
I actually have even been laughed at during one of those meetings.
After passing all the filters and even making a store manager cry from happiness—her branch was struggling and she thought I had all the requirements she needed to flip things around—I was sent to the district manager.
She asked me the standard questions and agreed with me that I was the right person for the job. But then she asked, “What do you think has hindered you from getting a job?”. I tried to be as general as possible without being specific.
“Sometimes people have difficulty obtaining jobs just due to, you know…”, she interrupted me, and just laughed at me. It took me by surprise.
I left that place and kept trying. Until I finally landed a job as a financial services representative and account manager, but it was in Atlanta.
I packed everything and moved. For almost two months, I was beyond happy, but some clients were not satisfied with having a transgender representative in the office. At some point, they even closed their accounts.
I am not fully aware of the full scope of why my contract ended, but Georgia law does not protect people against being fired based on their gender identity.
After that, I could not find a job in my field. I lost my apartment, my car—I lost everything after only a month and a half of moving to Atlanta.
Luckily, I found a job at a pharmacy and met my now best friend, Zahara Green. We became close fast, and she learned about my situation. She had only known me for a month, but she let me live with her and that helped me to get on my feet.
Her brother worked at a processing plant, and soon I started working there, too. Most of the people were very uneducated about transgender people. And I dealt with a lot of transphobia.
But the job gave me a chance to become financially stable and I was given more opportunities.
Over time I became a manager, and the fact that I speak Spanish came in handy, since they have 3,000 employees and 2,000 of them were Hispanic.
Some of them were transgender, some of them had transgender family members. I remember I would get a lot of questions, because they didn't understand how to talk to their transgender relatives and friends.
Those questions, my own journey and Zahara have helped me learn more about my community. And together we started the organization TRANScending Barriers.
It’s a non-profit that operates in Atlanta and empowers the transgender and gender non-conforming community in Georgia through community organizing with leadership building, advocacy, and direct services, so that lives can be changed and a community uplifted.
That has allowed me to meet people from all walks of life. Some had to survive in an underground economy. We help them build a community and provide them the resources to uplift the Metro Atlanta area and ultimately nationwide.
I think a lot of people do not realize that living life as someone who is transgender, surprisingly, there's a lot of similarities to anyone who is cisgender.
You might think we live in a different world than you do, but I'm here to say that as transgender people, we do the same things.
We are all in this together. What affects you affects me, and vice versa. We need to be able to all live together in a cohesive, supportive community. It doesn't matter if you are Latinx, black, white, Asian, cisgender, transgender, we are all facing a lot of things here in today's society.
Lost of challenges in my life have been based around employment and discrimination, and that is why I decided to tell you my story through this lens.
I have a bachelor's in finance, I am bilingual, I'm currently in school for human resources, have worked for several banks as a teller, banker, financial services representative, and account manager, dealt with budgeting, inventory, supply chain. I was an office manager, and I have my own nonprofit organization. Yet, to this day, I still have issues getting a job.
But there are people who I know who have had it worse. Society needs to understand that transgender people are forcefully pushed onto the margins of society, because of people's misguidance.
Just this year, I actually realized that everything in my life that I thought I had to go through because of being transgender should not have happened the way it did.
Now that I am older, I realize that everything I went through was a direct or indirect cause of me being transgender.
But “Never give up” has always been my credo. When someone tells me no, or when it doesn't go my way, I just keep going, keep applying, keep interviewing. Because someone is eventually going to say yes.
If you are reading this, keep applying, be honest with yourself and be kind to people, because you don't know what they might be going through. More than anything y'all promise me one thing: You will never give up.