Entrepreneurship & Trans Rights

{Cross-post from my original Medium post in honor of Pride Month.}

We’ve come a long way toward equal rights in this country, slowly moving away from bias toward race, or gender, or any other trait that sets one human being apart from another. As younger generations begin to have influence over public sentiment, the grip maintained by the older population, which grew up living within solid lines and boxes, begins to loosen.

The world is a slightly kinder, gentler place for many people who’ve spent the better part of their lives in fear of being found guilty of a crime which we all commit — the crime of simply being true to ourselves. The world today is far more accepting of the marginalized population who, until recently, have only been willing, or able, to live an authentic life behind a closed door.

However, we have a long way to go. There is still so much to be done, and it often feels like two steps forward, one step back. Or one step forward, one step back. Or even one step forward — then, any progress that’s been realized is burned to ash by a political figure or their administration.

Too many people still hold jobs which they could easily lose for simply being honest. An employee who is outed as Gay, or Transgender, or anything outside of the still widely accepted societal “norms,” can still be fired (or harassed until they quit) in many areas of America. There is still limited legal protection for much of the LGBTQ community in the workplace.

We’ve made some great strides in the right direction, but we’re still dragging our feet along the way. We open doors and invite each other in, but it’s often still an uneasy acceptance which greets the new boyfriend at his partner’s family dinner.

We still have a long road to hike before we reach a truly tolerant society where all are welcomed with open arms. A place where that same young man is asked to pass the salt and his partner’s mother does not pull her hand away when their fingers touch.

Yes, barriers fall every day, although some reappear as if their removal was simply a carefully scripted ceremonial action, performed for the cameras with a practiced smile and supermodel wave.

Older, long-standing barriers still stand strong, with solid footings that provide a foundation upon which decades of hatred and intolerance have built a structure which will take equally as long to crack.

I was reminded how strong that foundation still is when a friend of mine, who uses the gender pronouns “they/them”, called me from their car while sitting in a parking lot, and shaking with fear. And, as it turned out, with real physical pain. They had just left an establishment where they had stopped to use the restroom, concerned that they might not make it home even though their home was only 10 miles away.

They were genuinely afraid because of what had just happened in the business they entered, where several people angrily prevented them from using the restroom. They were blocked from entering the women’s room while the need to pee rose. Surprised, then angered, and finally frightened for their own safety, they left after being denied access to the men’s room as well.

They called for advice, for help, and to voice their frustrations because they had been prevented from using a restroom, from exercising a basic human need, just because their birth certificate includes the word Male under Gender.

Imagine being denied food, or water, based on the shoes you wear on your feet. Imagine being verbally and mentally abused over eyeshadow, or lipstick. Imagine being prevented from accessing a bathroom because someone doesn’t like the clothes you choose to wear, or your hairstyle.

Now, imagine sitting in a car outside of a place that denied you access to a public restroom while the physical need overpowers the body’s ability to cope. How would it feel to know you might wet your clothes, and the upholstery of your car, because you were genuinely afraid to go into a convenience store and use the restroom?

Abuse is still rampant, although the news doesn’t cover it and most people simply close their eyes. Often lumped in with the label “bullying,” the abuse so many people endure over the public perception of their genetic makeup is very real, but since the attack doesn’t involve a gun, or knife, or a baseball bat, many people are still a little too comfortable looking away.

No matter how many steps forward we have taken, for the transgender population in America the threat of abuse, or even physical violence, is still very real. The threat of, among so many other things, having to leave the parking lot of a fast food restaurant or convenience store with legs tightly pressed together, desperately hoping to make it to the one safe place where no one can prevent access to such a basic human right.

Home. Inside. Behind a closed door once again.

Some unexpected safe spaces have appeared in recent years, where human beings are less likely to be measured by their clothes, or their accent, or their identity. In fact, diversity, whether it comes in the form of race, religion, or sexual orientation, is more likely to be welcomed.

For LGBTQ business owners, entrepreneurship provides advantages that are well-known to the average American, but for much more powerful reasons than may be obvious. At a time when the transgender population still struggles to find support in mainstream society, entrepreneurship provides an oasis in a vast desert of intolerance — in more than one way.

Entrepreneurship places control over financial security, health care, and independence in the hands of the LGBTQ business owner. It also eliminates the fear of being “outed” in a potentially hostile environment, and the fear of being fired as a result.

The business’s success and direction are controlled by the owner, but so are its culture and diversity. An LGBTQ entrepreneur has control over their own future as well as that of the business itself, which also builds self-worth and the sense of personal empowerment.

Outside of business ownership, the entrepreneurial environment still provides advantages to LGBTQ employees. Startup companies looking to hire staff or add board members do so most often based on talent, knowledge, and commitment, and are less likely to view the person in front of them as anything more or less than a complex collection of parts and pieces that simply make up a unique individual.

That uniqueness is exactly what causes each individual to be viewed as important. No amount of bright green hair coloring can shift the focus away from the contributions that each team member can contribute to the company’s mission.

Generally, those same startups are managed by a younger group, who have (mostly) grown up accepting skin color and gender and just as easily make friends across demographics. Those same individuals see today’s fluid sexual orientation in the same light that our grandparents saw the binary that was accepted in their day — male and female.

Twenty years ago, a transgender CEO would most likely choose to project a male persona by day and a female by night, again only in the safety on their own home and behind a locked door.

Today, an LGBTQ CEO is unlikely to be seen by other Startup CEO’s as anything other than a person with a great idea. However, this does not solve the greater issue. It will not prevent someone from sitting in their car, hoping they can make it home before losing control of their own bodily fluids.

It also cannot eliminate the fear of physical, mental, or verbal abuse for all of those who are struggling to make sense of changing legislation, such as the recent revelation that the Trump administration may be planning to tightly define the word Gender as a binary physical condition.

This proposal could potentially change the way social, medical, and supportive services are provided to those who identify outside of that government’s Box A or Box B system. This might mean the elimination of healthcare services for someone who is currently reliant upon it, such as someone receiving hormones as they transition from male to female. If support is ended, the results could be devastating, as one’s body begins to revert to an image that their psyche does not accept.

Such legislative changes are also likely to create more fear and less tolerance by also fostering further division in the American population. For the transgender population, this will result in more fear and abuse. The people who still view the LGBTQ population as “abnormal” will find their viewpoint further strengthened when the government draws nice, straight little lines around the words “He” and “She” and the behaviors expected of both.

My friend made it home in time to reach the bathroom, but the bigger issue still left a stain that will not fade for some time. With every need to leave their house now comes the possibility that a simple bathroom break could lead to fear and embarrassment, if not physical harm. For those who are willing, entrepreneurship may provide a safe harbor until society evolves.