As a trans woman with a successful career in tech, Rachel Clark knows she’s the exception rather than the rule — as many in the trans community face discrimination that keeps them from even getting hired. She’s speaking out to change that.
By Shelley White
When Rachel Clark speaks to organizations about her experiences as a trans woman, she says that audience members are often surprised to hear about the barriers that trans people face.
“I say, ‘Here is what I experience being a trans woman: I have a very low chance of success in the workplace. I am more subject to violence, not just physical but emotional and verbal violence. So it can be a very stressful and difficult life at times,’” says Rachel, whose day job is technology strategist for TD Bank in Toronto. “And the first thing they say is, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea that things were so tough.’”
As a trans activist and advocate, Rachel has been involved with numerous organizations over the years, from Pride Toronto to Amnesty International to the Liberal Party of Canada. And whether it’s an LGBT-focused organization, a feminist collective or workplace advisory council, her primary objective is to ensure trans voices are heard.
“If I can be one representative voice for trans women, at least there’s that perspective in the room,” says Rachel. “Without me talking about it and without me being visible, how would anyone understand the trans experience? We’re not able to support what we don’t know about.”
As a child growing up in upstate New York, Rachel says she knew from a very young age that she was female.
“But back in 1985, had I expressed to anyone that I was feeling this way, there’s a very good chance I would have been locked up, or taken to military school,” she says. “So you learn to become a good actor and you play a role that’s not really your life. It’s a survival mechanism.”
Rachel was trapped in that role well into her adult life. She spent eight years in the U.S. military, then worked as an IT professional in several cities throughout the U.S. After moving to Toronto for work in 2003, she wrestled with extreme stress and depression.
“Can you imagine waking up every morning and having to play this 16- or 18-hour part in a play?” she says. “I would go see a psychiatrist and try to get help and say, ‘I am a female,’ and they would say, ‘This is a common thing and you’ll grow out of it.’” Rachel was repeatedly
misdiagnosed and prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants she didn’t need.
Everything changed the first time she was prescribed estrogen in 2013, says Rachel.
“My psychological state changed 180 degrees. I felt free, I felt more in tune with my body, more in tune with life around me,” she says. “There was clarity and my body was soaking it up, that’s what it had been missing for so many years.”
But while transitioning was a personal revelation, the impact on her career was devastating. Rachel had previously been an in-demand IT professional, but suddenly she was unable to find work.
“I’d call on the phone and say, ‘I need a job,’ and they would say, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’” says Rachel. “Then I’d get there and it would be, you’re underqualified or overqualified or whatever the reason, and eight months later, I’m losing everything.”
Facing this kind of discrimination from employers and unable to make income, Rachel lost her house and her car. Outside of the workplace, she faced sexual harassment and assault — at one point, she was forcibly pulled into a car at gunpoint.
“It’s not just a glass ceiling for trans people, it’s getting in on the ground floor.”
Rachel was able to pull herself out of that downward spiral and get her life and career back on track. “But I’m an exception, not the rule,” she says.
Rachel notes that in Canada, transgender people are now protected by law from discrimination in the workplace. “However, when you look at trans unemployment, the numbers are pretty dismal,” she says. “There are policies in place that say, ‘We support our trans employees,’ but that’s easy to do when you have no trans employees.”
A 2011 survey from Trans PULSE, a community-based research project in Ontario, found that of 433 trans people surveyed across the province, 13 per cent had been fired for being transgender, 18 per cent had been turned down for a job, and 20 per cent were unemployed — compared to the overall unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent. And while a high percentage of Ontario trans people have some kind of post-secondary education (71 per cent), the majority are living below the poverty line, with only 7 per cent reporting personal annual incomes over $80,000. (The survey also found that trans people experienced higher than normal rates of harassment, violence and depression.)
In order to help trans people reach their full potential in the workplace, Rachel says she would like to see more organizations bring in recruitment and sponsorship programs. As she points out, it’s not just a glass ceiling for trans people, it’s getting in on the ground floor.
“The only way we will do better is to bring people into the organization and mentor them and sponsor them,” she says.
In terms of her personal career journey, Rachel says she’s been very influenced by the idea that inspiration is the most powerful thing you can bring to the workplace.
“We can make all the rules in the workplace, in society, everywhere. But if we’re not inspiring people to change, they’re never going to change,” she says. “I always look at it as, how am I going to inspire people to help me to overcome these barriers?”
At TD, Rachel is involved in several LGBT advisory panels, including the trans advisory council, which is staffed by trans people and allies who work at TD. “We get together once every two weeks and go through how can we make things better for trans people at the bank,” she says.
Rachel says she’s been heartened by movements promoting gender equality like #MeToo and #TimesUp and the change in culture they reflect. But she notes it’s essential that the voices of all marginalized people are heard when it comes to these kinds of movements.
“Women and trans people and people of colour and indigenous people, they’ve been so used to being under the thumb of patriarchy, and I think people are fed up with just accepting it,” she says. “Together we can accomplish an enormous amount of good things, and I think this is complete proof of that.”
When she’s not inspiring others at work or in her activist endeavours, Rachel is studying for her Master of Theology at the University of Toronto. She says she’s caught the “travel bug” lately, and is planning a trip to Europe with her partner, Carol-Ann. Excited to experience the world as Rachel after so many years as someone else, she’s committed to showing trans people and other marginalized individuals that there is hope. As she puts it, “There’s something better on the other side.”
Hear more of Rachel’s story on May 29 in Toronto, where she’ll be adding her insights to our Luncheon panel on intersectionality.