The sweet scent of trans success
On a flat and uninspiring street in the tiny Eastern Cape town of Despatch, Cloe Gair’s Lari-Lu perfume shop is something of an anomaly. It’s between a tiny shop brandishing a weathered “Supermark en Kafee” sign and a sports bar half-filled with oompies puffing lazily on cigarettes and sipping on midday brandy and cokes, Gair refers to the shop as “my rescue”.
In 2015, after years of struggling to find employment, Gair, a transgender woman, established the perfumery.
“I started this from my dining room table with only R760.
My family supported me and told their friends.
Through word of mouth, the business grew. I eventually had to employ someone.”
Gair now supplies close to 50 businesses with her perfumes in addition to having 77 agents selling her products.
“I’m one of those rare success stories,” she says, aware of the struggles transgender women face in their search for employment.
In March this year, at the annual Commission for Status of Women, the Eastern Cape-based trans rights organisation SHE: Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa presented its report, titled It Costs to be a Woman: Exploring the Socioeconomic Landscape for Trans Women in South Africa.
“We undertook the study because we always knew anecdotally the challenges facing trans women, but there was no real documented research around this,” says the organisation’s Leigh-Ann van der Merwe.
The report found that, although 69.85% of those surveyed had completed tertiary education, only 48% were employed.
“That’s the irony for me,” says Van der Merwe. “It shows that this is not an uneducated population. Yet whatever jobs they get are limited.”
Jobs transgender women would typically find are in the catering, hair and beauty sectors or as sex and domestic workers. The study also found that, of those who are employed, 40% earn less than R1 000 a month.
“Very few are in corporate jobs. And those are who find themselves either having to hide their real gender or are placed in behind-the-scenes positions,” says Van der Merwe.
Pi Delport, a software developer who works for a small company in Cape Town, is all too aware of her fortunate position.
“I’m very lucky. I transitioned while working here and my colleagues and boss have been so supportive. My boss was, like, ‘if anybody has an issue with you, they need to come and speak to me’. I am fortunate. Many are not that lucky,” says the 34-year-old. “I have friends who have come out at work and were treated so badly. They weren’t fired outright, but the work environment became so hostile that they left. There are legal protections, yes, but not everybody has the strength to fight.”
The trans and gender rights organisation Gender Dynamix has published guidelines for transgender employees and their employers in the hope of addressing this problem.
The organisation’s Liberty Matthyse says that, in addition to a “very hetero- and cis-normative” basic education system, which puts trans people at a disadvantage, those who do find formal employment tend to face negative attitudes from colleagues and employers.
“These serve as barriers to both obtaining and retaining employment,” says Matthyse.
Simone Heradien, who works as senior marketing manager at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre, has, throughout her working life, been open about being a transgender woman. A former newspaper editor and political reporter for the Daily Sun, Heradien, says: “At all those jobs, they were aware of it. Me being trans was never an issue. All my previous employers accepted me for the woman I am.”
Heradien, who transitioned in her late 20s “back in 19-voetsek”, says: “When I started to work for the department of health, I presented myself as female, even though I had not transitioned by then. The job was as a secretary and I was accepted as female. Although official documentation referred to me as ‘Mr Heradien’, my colleagues called me ‘Ms Heradien’.”
Heradien adds that, since then, she was always headhunted for the various positions she subsequently filled.
Although she laughs, saying “I’m presentable, hot and sexy … I tick all the boxes,” she adds: “People should concentrate on my work experience and not my personal life. Employees should only look at a person’s work experience and their potential and not judge by their appearance. It’s the same as judging someone who, for example, has long hair.”
Delport spells out the positive effects of being in a supportive working environment. “Before I transitioned, I was miserable. I suffered from low-grade depression, which affected my productivity. I wasn’t nearly as productive as I am now. When I transitioned, my entire life opened up. It’s like you spend your entire life wearing this heavy suit of armour, not even aware of how much it is weighing you down. Then, after dropping it, you become this light, positive and happy person. I’ve become more effective at work. My colleagues told me that I’ve never been happier or better as a person. Everything improved — my personal life and my work life.”
For Heradien, success in the workplace as a transgender woman comes down, largely, to “having a positive, no-nonsense attitude”.
Delport, however, sees things differently. “I know that a lot of the reasons for things having been good for me is tied up in the fact that I am white and privileged. Most of the trans people I know who have it good are also white and privileged. It is trans people who come from less privileged backgrounds who really face the brunt of anti-transgender discrimination.”
Concurring with this, Van der Merwe says: “The picture is much, much worse for those living in rural areas that are trans, black, poor, HIV-positive and doing sex work to sustain themselves. There can be no doubt that each of these intersections come with the increased likelihood of discrimination and violence.”
All too aware that her business — her rescue — has saved her from this increased risk, Gair says: “Yes, it’s hard for so, so many trans women. I know what struggle one goes through as trans person.
“You know,” she adds, “my biggest goal is to employ trans people. I want to give them back their dignity. Because it makes me happy knowing that I am able to create work for myself and others.”
Doubtless echoing the thoughts of countless opportunity-hungry transgender women, she adds: “I want the chance to show people that I — this Cloe Gair; this transgender woman from a small town called Despatch — knows no limits.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation‘s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian