Work Woes 

Study finds evidence of statewide gay, lesbian, and transgender workplace discrimination.

While training to become a pharmacy technician, Memphian Ellyahnna Hall was denied several positions. In one of the interviews, Hall was told that she wouldn't be hired because she was a transgender woman.

"They told me they wouldn't know how the other employees would feel about working with a transgender person, so they couldn't hire me," said Hall, a slender African-American male-to-female trans woman.

Though the new county ordinance designed to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) county workers wouldn't have helped Hall, her story is an example of the job discrimination LGBT people face throughout Memphis and Shelby County.

At a County Commission meeting earlier this month, University of Memphis professor Sharon Horne presented findings from her 2006 study that showed 25 percent of LGBT Tennessee residents had reported discrimination in housing, services, or employment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Our Tennessee discrimination numbers are right in line with the national percentages of discrimination," Horne said.

That counters a claim made by Shelby County commissioner James Harvey during the recent discrimination ordinance debate. Harvey claimed that a study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law, found no LGBT discrimination complaints in Tennessee.

"Tennessee is not listed in this report, so we don't have any issues here," Harvey said.

The report Harvey cited only looked at the 21 states that already have laws in place protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination. Tennessee has no such law and therefore was excluded from the study.

"To be fair to Commissioner Harvey, he didn't have our data until the County Commission meeting," Horne said. "But there'd be no reason for statistics to show up in Shelby County before this ordinance passed. If you went to a lawyer with a complaint, they'd tell you there was no recourse for you."

According to Horne's studies, which are based on online survey results, 39 percent of gay men and 23 percent of lesbians in Tennessee have reported workplace discrimination.

"In general, there's greater discrimination against gay men," Horne said. "Some straight men have a harder time accepting gay men than they do [gay] women. It's definitely stigmatized for men to be perceived as more feminine."

According to data from the 2000 census, gay men also tend to earn 10 to 32 percent less than straight men.

"The median income for [same-sex] couples is 15 percent less than that of married men, which goes against the stereotype that gay men tend to be rich," Horne said.

The University of Memphis study did not include any data on discrimination against transgender people, but the Williams Institute found that about 60 percent are unemployed because they cannot find jobs.

Though the county resolution protecting gay and transgender workers doesn't extend to private businesses, Jonathan Cole with the Tennessee Equality Project believes it's a start. Next, the gay rights group will be working on getting the same protections for Memphis workers.

"The city has a draft of an ordinance before them, and now we'll go forward with that," Cole said. "This whole debate has really sensitized the community to the need for workplace protections for LGBT citizens."

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