About a month ago, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to hear Laverne Cox, actress and advocate for transgender rights, speak as part of Towson University’s Division of Student Affairs Diversity Speaker Series. In addition to her role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, Ms. Cox is the first openly transgender woman of color to produce and star in her own TV show, to appear on a U.S. reality TV show, to win a Daytime Emmy, to earn a nomination for a primetime acting Emmy, and to be on the cover of both Cosmo and Time. Though she is known most popularly for her role on OITNB, Ms. Cox focused her talk not on her acting but on her experiences as a trans woman of color and how this led to her role as an activist through her art and presence in the public eye.

laverne cox speaking at towson university diversity speaker series 2018

Actress and advocate Laverne Cox speaks during TU Student Affairs’ Diversity Speaker Series inside SECU Arena. Photo credit: Towson University

She also discussed some of the discrimination that transgender people experience throughout their lives; while the entire talk was fascinating, as an economics researcher, I was particularly struck by those related to the experiences of economic discrimination that transgender communities face. While I recognize that these are only a very small component of their experiences, they stuck with me because of the work we do at Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute: using statistics to gain insight on wider societal conditions.

After the lecture, the RESI team did some research on how transgender people are represented in the economy. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (commonly known as the EEOC) interprets Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, there is no specific mention of gender identity in the Civil Rights Act.

However, despite this legal standard, 30 percent of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported being mistreated in the workplace, denied a promotion, or fired because of their gender expression or gender identity. Within Maryland, this statistic is at 25 percent. In addition to experiencing discrimination in the workplace, people who are transgender fare worse than their non-transgender peers, as illustrated below.

economics and the transgender community

economics and the transgender community

economics and the transgender community

Sources: Regional Economic Studies Institute (RESI), 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Maryland State Report, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While startling, these graphs do not provide a full view of the realities that trans communities face. When considering trans communities of color, these percentages often rise: for example, the poverty rate for Latinx, American Indian, multiracial, and Black transgender communities range from 38 to 43 percent. Clearly, transgender individuals are disproportionally affected by economic and employment hardships, even though they legally should have the same rights as non-transgender individuals.

While some may consider discrimination an issue that affects only the person who is discriminated against (and I by no means want to diminish that experience), it has additional repercussions as well. Consider recent state bills in North Carolina and Texas that would have required transgender individuals to use restrooms that match the assigned gender on their birth certificates, among other discriminatory practices, such as overturning anti-discrimination laws: analyses showed that the bill in North Carolina would have cost the state $3.76 billion over 12 years, largely from lost tourism, relocations, and boycotts (this provision has been repealed). In Texas (where the bill never came to a vote), the loss of a single Final Four basketball tournament would have forfeited $234 million in economic impact and $14 million in tax impact. Additionally, by limiting access and opportunity for people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, society as a whole suffers, as research has shown that more diverse countries experience better economic growth because they are more adaptable. In other words, by discriminating against or excluding individuals who would bring unique perspectives, everyone is held back.

As Ms. Cox’s presentation and question-and-answer session showed, one’s experiences deeply influence their life paths. While Ms. Cox has certainly been a trail blazer in her own right, her impact extends beyond the screen. Public figures and advocates such as Laverne Cox start conversations about social inclusion and representation that not only change the way we think about societal norms and public policy today, but can also have substantial impacts for future generations as well. As Ms. Cox noted in her talk, both visibility and being able to openly thrive in the public sphere matter. Working towards a more diverse and inclusive workforce will not only lead to greater economic prosperity now by lowering the unemployment rate, poverty rate, and homelessness rate, it will lead to greater economic prosperity in the future, as people of all backgrounds feel encouraged and safe to pursue their dreams.