Lisa Venter’s job is becoming an increasing source of frustration and anger. In the small, rural Western Cape town where she lives, Venter, who chose not to be identified, cleans and packs shelves for a large retailer. But it is the discrimination she faces at work that leads her to say: “It’s hard for me. I don’t want to work there because of this…”
She is a transgender woman. “Baie Christene is nie vir dit nie (Many Christians are against it).” After one of her colleagues told her she would be “going to hell”, the 20-year-old lodged a complaint with the store’s manager. This yielded no results and only served to isolate her more as the discrimination intensified.
“Hulle gee my nou swaar goed om te doen; swaar dinge om te dra (they’re now giving me harder work to do; heavier things to carry),” she says, adding that she now feels forced to wear men’s clothing to work.
“When I first started there, I would wear women’s clothes and make-up. But then I decided I’m not going to do that anymore … I do it just to protect myself, but I’m not happy. Because even if I wear men’s clothes, my body has changed so much because of the [hormone replacement therapy], that people can see that something about me is different to men. Hulle kan sien (They can see),” she adds.
Venter is not alone. A 2014 study of queer discrimination in the workplace found that “despite a changing social and legal landscape for LGBT people, still over half (53%) of LGBT workers hide who they are at work”.
Titled the Cost of the Closet and the Rewards of Inclusion, the study was put together by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
In the hopes of creating more safe working environments for LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) people, the South African LGBT+ Management Forum undertook the country’s first workplace equality index.
The idea was to enable companies in South Africa to measure their performance on creating queer friendly work environments — using independently determined and research-based best practices — “and to identify potential gaps”.
Seventeen companies across sectors, collectively employing around 30 000 people, participated in the study on a voluntary basis.
Generally, the companies scored highest on training, with “the majority of participants” stating that they had implemented some form of diversity training. Most scored lowest on visibility, where they were questioned about communications and queer visibility across their business.
The index also found that most companies focused on structures — where outcomes were tangible — and not the behavioural culture within the business, where they “struggle to make meaningful progress”.
“It is easy to write a policy, it is more challenging to create an environment where LGBT+ people can speak openly…”
The report recommended the companies undertake a policy review with their queer staff in order to identify potential gaps. It also recommends companies “seriously consider” programmes that will allow queer employees “to connect, create visibility and drive changes in the workplace”.
To promote visibility, it recommended “marking at least one day in the year with a communications campaign. These communications can be important signifiers … that the company respects them and that they are welcome.”
Visible leadership support was also essential “as this has the potential to set the tone and culture of the whole organisation”.
Luke Andrews, the Index’s project coordinator, adds that, “even with those companies that scored well, there are still gaps”.
“What we’ve noticed is that a lot of companies will have policies around gender discrimination, but when asked to confirm whether this included gender expression and gender identity, there was a general lack of awareness …[But] I don’t think it is anything malicious. I think the more we start bringing these issues to light, the more people will be putting them on their agendas,” he says.
Her current job might be a world away from the corporate environments dealt with in the index, but Venter hopes to get there some day.
Hoping to relocate to “een van die groter dorpe soos Hermanus of iets (one of the bigger towns in the area, like Hermanus”), she says: “Ek will een dag ‘n regte job kry (I want to have a real job one day)”.
Although not sure exactly what kind of job she would ultimately prefer, for now her main criteria is respect.
“What I want is respect for who I am. I know my manager and co-workers here will never call me ‘she’, but I just want respect.”
“Working at a place where I can fully be myself would be a big bonus. It would be so, so a big bonus for me. Net ’n plek waar ek kan werk as ’n vrou. En as Lisa. Dis regtig al. (Just a place where I can work as a woman. And as Lisa. That’s really all.)”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian