By Clayre Sessoms
Apr 10, 2018 @ 10:00 am
Courtesy Clayre Sessoms

Money is power, and women aren’t getting their share of it. In America, men earn 20 percent more than women, and that disparity is even greater for women of color. Now is the time to close that gap—and these are the women doing it.

Ten years into my career as a freelance copywriter, I was earning good money, growing my business, and thriving. My wife and I had settled in Vancouver and bought a condo. We started saving for retirement and our young child’s university tuition. Then I came out as a woman. To my relief, family and friends stood by me—but as soon as I changed the name in my email signature, things began to decline at work.

Not that my early career was easy. It’s been five years since I came out as a woman but 40 years since I was born blind. Luckily, stubborn determination came naturally to me. When I couldn’t see the board in elementary school, I worked harder to learn. I earned my four-year degree entirely online, and when I couldn’t convince hiring managers to give a blind job candidate a chance in a traditional office setting, I pursued graduate studies, earned a certificate in web analytics, and blogged.

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Work soon found me, as my blog caught the interest of one creative team and then another. Companies that had dismissed me in person hired me for how my stories made them feel rather than how my blindness made them fear. Few colleagues knew or cared about what I lacked in visual acuity. On the web, I was their equal. We worked well together and made our clients happy. That’s all that mattered. Even when I bumped up my rates, the gigs kept coming.

My coming out was a shock to many in my male-dominated niche, but my announcement was acknowledged and my new pronouns were respected. Being an online employee who telecommuted meant I didn’t have to educate coworkers about bathroom access and other employee-in-transition concerns. I simply updated my email signature and kept writing. I began taking hormones, attending voice-coaching sessions, and saving for gender reaffirming surgeries.

But as my body began to change, so did my workload. I was somehow less worthy of preferred writing assignments and full-time work. Once I began vocal therapy, I was cut out of client introductions. Before I came out, my creative director regularly complimented me as a gifted strategist and writer. After coming out, I fought to contribute to the conversation as my male colleagues, whom I’d once considered friends, interrupted or ignored me.

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“Welcome to womanhood,” a friend told me.

One company I’d worked with for a decade dropped me from its roster. Another put a young, male employee in charge of talking to my client on my behalf and asked me to coach him before meetings. It was obvious that my teams feared my presence might make their clients feel uneasy. Some suddenly questioned my experience and expertise. A year after coming out, most of my professional relationships had evaporated.

As a marginalized woman with a disability, I knew I’d need to work harder to achieve the same results as my peers, so I leaned into the challenge. But it sank in that I, as a qualified job candidate, had become devalued. 56.3 percent of the career-age blind population were unemployed in 2016. The unemployment rate among transgender workers is three times higher than the national average. Up to 44 percent of transgender workers are currently underemployed.

For the first time in a decade, I struggled to find work. Interviewers ended calls abruptly, asked deeply personal medical questions, and balked at hourly rates that were accepted without hesitation before I came out. Perhaps it wasn’t just about my gender—it could have been blindphobia or ageism or even my alma mater. I’ll never know for certain because interviewers cited safe reasons like high rates and lack of skills.

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Transitioning and visual impairment came with challenges, but feeling intentionally forgotten by an industry that once embraced me felt even more devastating. I wasn’t just losing my career; I was losing my ability to make an acceptable first impression. I’m a visibly transgender woman, meaning strangers from sidewalks to boardrooms react to my appearance with hurtful comments, jokes, and laughter. I’m in a constant state of fear because I rarely know from which direction it’s coming and can’t see the degree of hate in their eyes.

In debt and struggling to pay for my transition, I became depressed and, for the first time in my life, contemplated suicide. I could not expect basic dignities that were given so freely to my cisgender peers. So I stopped trying. And writing. And caring.

Eventually, I found comfort from an unexpected source: singing. A friend encouraged me to join her at a rehearsal and audition for an award-winning women’s a cappella group. While my changing voice was met with glares and invasive questions at work, it helped me find a community of singers that warmly welcomed me into their world—and all of our different voices sounded damn good when blended together. It has been acceptance from that group and unconditional love from family and friends that inspired me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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My hope is that the professional world can learn something from them. When we work to overcome our negative, preconceived fears of people who are different—whether it’s physical, gender identity and expression, or a combination of differences—we become free to imagine a community that is accessible, inclusive, and safe for all.

I continue to burn through my savings and survive solely by my wife’s income, holding out hope for a fair chance to do what I do best for a wage that’s comparable to what my peers earn. Until then, I’m continuing my job search, going back to graduate school, and hoping to finish my first book—a memoir—by the end of this year.