Many of us have heard of the glass ceiling that Second Wave feminists talked about. For those who don’t know, the glass ceiling is a metaphor sometimes used for the struggle (white cishet) women face trying to procure employment. They can look up and see all these opportunities above them and they watch as some people (usually white cishet men in this case) ascend to those opportunities. When they try to ascend to the opportunities above, they hit an invisible wall.
[Description: A comic depicting two corporate white men staring at the ground which consists of a multitude of women reaching up unable to breach through the invisible/glass floor/ceiling. The caption says, “A ceiling? All this time I thought it was a floor.”]
I’ve spent the past decade trying to find paid employment. Most of my resume is volunteer/honorarium work. I was part of what I like to call the first generation of queer youth who had access to queer youth space. I developed a skill set and interest in queer youth social service work. I’d like to say that I’m skilled and have highly valuable insights. But finding employment has been a struggle. I see some of my former classmates who are making $80,000 a year doing work that I’ve done for free. I also can’t help but notice that I have twice the skills and experience of said former classmates (who are incidentally white and cishet). I don’t see very many people like me or other marginalized folks in positions of power. The only times I have found employment, it’s been where they were explicitly looking for someone with my identities (or were hiring en masse). If I was born a cishet, white, able bodied man like my dad, I wonder if I would be running an organization by now. I’m highly ambitious and have a lot to give, but employers don’t seem to want to value my skills with money. Although if I want to give them my knowledge for free while they pay someone with more privilege than I do, they’ll gladly have me around. No matter what I do, it feels like I can’t break that barrier between “(f)unemployed” and “gainfully employed”. I’m not Laverne Cox. I’m not Temple Grandin. I’m not so exceptional that I can defy all odds. The glass ceiling isn’t just there, it’s re-enforced with titanium so that it’s not actually breakable. Update: This has everything to do with respectability politics.
I could go on and rant about how difficult it is for me to get jobs, but it’s not a productive conversation. Yes, discrimination exists. It’s not useful for me to prove if individual employers discriminate because it’s so pervasive that it’s nearly impossible to tell. It would require far too much energy to prove the point and would only burn bridges with people that are my community or will still be prospective employers for years to come.
What I do find useful is talking about the structures (titanium) that enforce the glass ceiling that I face. Or in simpler terms, why jobs and the whole system of employment is designed for someone like me to fail. I argue that the way employment is structured is a form of violence.
As a disabled person, I experience the world differently from other people. The system of the world was not designed for someone like me. I love to say that I navigate the world blissfully ignorant of a lot of what’s going on. I don’t read or don’t pay much attention to the non-verbal things around me. (I’m usually thinking and processing a million things, there’s no space in my brain to process such petty things as non-verbal language…) I can’t always hear what people say especially in loud spaces. I don’t act or react to things “appropriately”. I’m not respectable in how I take up space in the world. And because of this, I’m understood as less capable, less skilled, and less valid of a worker. Why hire someone who is odd and alien when there’s someone who’s skinny, transmasculine or cis, or has a normative body and brain patterns? It also doesn’t help that many people apply for one, maybe two jobs and so employers are forced to choose who is most worthy to be paid.
My experiences are far from alone. My primary barrier is stigma which blocks me from developing networks to gain skills and paid employment. In real life terms, my disabilities don’t limit me from much. I’ll never be able to work a job that requires hearing depth perception (not common) but I find ways to cope. I’ve been disabled my whole life and have developed a lot of coping mechanism to deal with ableist structures.
I knew someone who can’t work in fast-paced environment because it triggered their anxiety. I know someone who can’t work an 8 hour work day due to spoons. Then there are folks whose skills are undermined because they have a learning disability or use a chair. Or a host of other disabilities that aren’t addressed or stigmatized by traditional forms of employment. It’s no wonder that less than half of all disabled people aren’t employed.
I’ve considered sex work as an alternative to traditional employment. But due to my history of being trafficked and all my gender dysphoria/body trauma/Aspie brain things, it’s not the wisest of ideas. I’ve considered domination seriously and may still consider it. Sex work always looms as a form of survival work for many trans/cis women especially those on the margins. It’s no surprise that there is an overrepresentation of trans women/POC/disabled folks doing sex work. We are the outcast, mostly ones who can’t fit in this violent system of employment. It’s very telling about whose skills are being valued, who’s skills are being encouraged and build, and who are falling between the cracks.
In order to get where I want to go in life, it feels like I’d need a whole community there for me ready to go to bat. To block out the voices that think I’m not useful and replace them with affirmations, to help create a safe space where I can forge a path and do what I want to. I need people there to work with me, that need me to go to bat for them and to help care for them while they help me process the world around me. It’s only through intentional community making and working together that I feel like change can happen to dismantle violent employment systems.
This is only a beginning of a conversation. Much needs to change and change won’t happen immediately. In an ideal world for me, all people would have all their basic needs met for food, housing, etc. All kinds of work would be recognized as valid. People could work however/whenever they want because we all depend on one another to make things run. But this isn’t an ideal world. We have to find direct ways to survive.
Here are my suggestions:
Invest in people – Communities are made up of individuals. Being open to hiring/having diverse folks is not enough. Like older feminist/POC movements, we see that many folks cannot gain the skills to be hirable in the first place. Yet cishet normie white boys (and some girls) get paid work, training, and opportunities to gain skills because of their, “potential”. We need to intentionally build relationships with marginalized folks who experience barriers and share/build skills. Marginalized youth become marginalized adults many of whom still need to access services because the system fails them. Once again, we don’t see the kind of “diversity” that we as a queer community talk about and champion.
Work with people – Since I was a baby queer, I’ve been asked to give workshops to various service providers on how to better work with queer/trans (and other identities) youth. In that time, I’ve rarely seen an openly queer person, few visible POC, no visibly disabled people, and no trans women at these trainings. It feels like all I’m doing is giving my expertise to people who have careers so they can be less awful. Yet I still feel like I’m not gaining any skills to try to do the work they do. In the last point, I talked about developing relationships. People who have established careers could very well learn from queer/trans/POC/disabled etc. folks while working with them.
Mutually develop skills – In building intentional relationships with folks from marginalized identities, career people can gain knowledge on how to best work with marginalized folks through feedback, support, and hands on experience. The career people should in turn give opportunities, feedback, mentorship, and support in developing skills for the marginalized person they’re working with. The purpose is for the marginalized person is to gain skills so they can be employable more sustainably than a one time workshop and for folks with careers to have opportunities to gain more skills than a one-time workshop. This should of course be a paid opportunity with a regular income because survival is incredibly difficult especially in cities like Toronto where the cost of living is so high…
Intentionally make people part of your communities – Many marginalized folks don’t have much community support. I’m privileged for the knowledge and mastery I have over finding the right people. I’m privileged for passing for white and having a very high degree of education/language. But I have friends for whom they have only a couple people who have their backs. And having people who have your back really helps when shit goes down and it will go down at some point. This means developing relationships where you depend on the other person hopefully just as much they depend on you. This takes time and you may not always get it right. There are also people who are too toxic or hurting or just don’t jive with you. You aren’t being forced to have anyone that isn’t right in your communities, but I encourage everyone to see the commonalities between different populations. But this also means that you aren’t a hero or a saviour having friends who are marginalized in various ways. They are your friend, not your trophy to tell others that you’re not bigoted.
Dating – In addition, many marginalized folks may not get many dates. Once again, no one is forcing you to date someone you don’t want to, but it’d be great if you took a moment and evaluate how your learned behaviours may impact who you find sexy. I read a study done on OKCupid, a popular dating app and it showed that all racial populations were willing to respond to messages by white people regardless of gender and sexuality but were least likely to respond to messages by black people. All other racial categories were somewhere in the middle. I hear phrases within queer communities, trans communities, POC communities, and disability communities that someone wouldn’t date a trans woman. Disabled folks are rarely on the radar of desirability outside of disabled communities. This isn’t a thing about preferring certain bodies, this is about how some bodies are understood as, “wrong” as, “not worthy” as, “not human”. And who you’re willing to date has something to say about who you’re willing to hire or make community with.
We are all complicit and all responsible to oppression in all aspects of our lives. This isn’t an attack on any one person, but it is something I want everyone to think about. In what ways am I complicit in oppression? What can I do with the privileges I have to educate myself on these oppressions? What can I do? I hope that this changes how people think somewhat.
Really awesome article I found that I wanted to link to: clicky