MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And there's another movement we want to talk about - the one for the rights of transgender people. With celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, transgender people probably have more high-profile advocates than ever before. Even so, challenges remain for men and women who physically change, or as many prefer, confirm their genders. A particular challenge is employment. Transgender men and women face high rates of joblessness and can be fired in many states for being transgender. Even in California, one of 19 states with employment protections for transgender people, finding and keeping a job can be a major struggle. Gloria Hillard reports.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: This neighborhood in Fullerton, Calif., with its historic buildings and tree-lined streets, is reminiscent of a small Midwestern town. It's where Jiselle Neel and her dog Gigi take long walks.
JISELLE NEEL: Very protecting and she's been my solace.
HILLARD: The last few years have been hard for the 43-year-old Neel.
NEEL: Even before I'd heard some horror stories like, yeah, prepare to lose everything â well, until it actually happens you have no idea what it actually means to truly lose everything. I mean, I lost the shirt off my back; I lost every position; I lost my family.
HILLARD: In 2012, Neel began her transition as a woman. She wears basic black, small gold earrings and her blonde hair pulled back. A college graduate, Neel held many professional positions. But when her looks began to change, so did her prospects for employment.
NEEL: You knew you have all the qualifications and you have the work ethic and you're - you know, you've been polite and respectful and they tell you all these great things and yet I could not convince anyone to take that chance.
HILLARD: According to a 2011 national transgender discrimination survey, titled "Injustice at Every Turn," the unemployment rate for trans people is twice the national average and for trans men and women of color - four times.
VICTORIA RODRIGUEZ-ROLDAN: The promise of the American dream is being denied to the trans community, which is having a job, having a dignified employment, an income.
HILLARD: Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan is with the National LGBTQ Task Force.
RODRIGUEZ-ROLDAN: Ninety percent of trans people nationwide have experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So I'm going to talk little about resumes, mostly about job interviews skills.
HILLARD: This employment skills workshop is sponsored by the LGBT Center in Orange County. Heather Fuentes is an attendee.
HEATHER FUENTES: I already have my degree in business. I'm hoping to just move up.
HILLARD: Fuentes, a trans woman, is now working at an Amazon warehouse and acknowledges that the company has been very kind to her. But before landing this job, it was a different story.
FUENTES: You can read it on their face. They're just like oh, well, sorry. This is not what we were expecting.
HILLARD: Also at Orange County's LGBT Center, 28-year-old Chloe Page. She knows she's one of the lucky ones. She has a job she loves.
CHLOE PAGE: I teach special ed, moderate-severe, so students with more significant disabilities kind of like my brother had, so that's what inspired me to do it.
HILLARD: Last March, she decided to tell the principal of her school that she would be starting her transition as a woman.
PAGE: I was very scared to speak with her because that was a very vulnerable moment to be in with the history of discrimination and especially in employment and especially in education. And thankfully, she set the tone I think for the rest of the people at school to be open and accepting.
HILLARD: But sometimes more subtle, unspoken barriers remain. Our interview was not conducted on her school campus, and she requested that we not mention the name of the school.
PAGE: I don't want to cause any trouble for them.
NEEL: Careful honey. Stay with mama.
HILLARD: Back in Fullerton, Jiselle Neel is finishing her walk with her dog Gigi. Neil has gone back to school to become a paralegal so she can work on immigration issues. Neel says when she first transitioned and lost everything, it was the Latino community that helped her.
NEEL: Who took me in and put me, patched me back together and gave from their modest means and welcomed me into their homes and, you know, made sure I never went hungry.
HILLARD: As her way of saying thanks, Neel hopes as a paralegal she'll be able to help others achieve their own American dream. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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