Chanel Haley: Transitioning to a discrimination-free workplace

In 1998 I began my journey to transitioning while at the same time graduating from manicuring school as a nail technician. This turned out to be a bigger mission than I could have ever thought or imagined, filled with excitement and hope, later realizing I would have a life with more lows than highs. 

I was immediately hired to work at Premier Salon International inside the Macy's in downtown Atlanta. Every day, after I had finished with my clients and networking, I would go into the salon restroom and change into more comfortable clothing. "Comfortable" for me meant women's clothing. Unfortunately, prior to being hired I had not had enough courage to tell my boss that I had just started my journey toward being a woman.

Luckily for me, I had an attentive boss who noticed my transformation after work. He sat me down and had a conversation with me about it. I will never forget him asking me, "Do you really go in the bathroom and change every day?"

"Yes," I replied. He told me that was "unacceptable." I was thinking, "Oh no, I'm about to be fired." 

But to my surprise, the contrary was true. He suggested holding a staff meeting before I came into the salon the next day to explain to them that my name was "Chanel," that I was a woman and to expect me to look differently that day and every day thereafter. 

That day went smoothly, and the days after at that salon went just as smoothly. I did not imagine transition on the job could be so easy and so well accepted.

I was 18 then, and I am now 35. In my pursuit of other careers and jobs I quickly learned that the next 17 years would not be that easy for me or for any other transgender woman living in Georgia or the United States.

Every day, transgender men and woman are faced with the uncomfortable, degrading situation of workplace discrimination. Workplace discrimination for a transgender person can include being terminated for transitioning on the job, denial of access to workplace facilities accessible to other employees, being required to use a restroom not consistent with their gender identity or presentation, harassment, allowing harassment by other employees, and/or negative employment actions not consistent with company policy that are taken because the person is transgender. And of course, all of this happebs only if the transgender person can make it past the hiring process. And usually they do not.

The ramifications of being denied work simply for one's gender identity are severe. One must work to make money. People who can work can have housing. They can have food. They have a shorter path of access to healthcare. And there is a sense of pride and self-respect that comes with being able to provide for one's self, which improves mental health. These are every Georgian's basic everyday necessities of life, and part of the American dream.

There are so many transgender men and women who are skilled, qualified, eager, able-bodied and ready to work given the opportunity. If only the playing field were leveled. Passing The Equality Act of 2015 would ensure workplace protection for all Americans. And all Georgians would benefit from a comprehensive statewide nondiscrimination law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity to ensure protection from being fired from a job or judged for anything other than the merits of their work performance. 

Chanel Haley is the transgender inclusion organizer for Georgia Equality. She is also a senior legislative aide to Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) and serves on the City of Atlanta's Human Relations Commission.