Celia Sandhya Daniels left her native India and moved to the U.S. in 1997 shortly after getting married. She had a very successful career in the corporate world, working more than 20 years as a senior executive at a number of companies.
What her co-workers didn’t know was that Daniels is a trans woman who had decided many years ago—as a child—to live her public and work life as male.
After establishing her career, Daniels wanted to be able to go to work as her true self.
“In the last company that I was working, I was three levels below the CEO. When I came out in that company, I found the company was just pinkwashing, but did not really have any policies for trans. I didn’t feel like working in the company and I quit the company.”
Daniels says when she tried to find a new position, she was not given serious consideration. “Another big disparity that I saw—that’s the biggest problem that I see even today—was all my education, all my 23 years of experience, was completely marginalized when I came out.”
These are not the only issues trans people face in the workplace – issues that the nonprofit TransCanWork, Inc. is attempting to address. Daniels in now their chief programs officer.
Creating a More Inclusive Workplace for Trans People
Daniels came out to her mother when she was four years old. She recalls at the age of 10 or 11, she was publicly humiliated and threatened by a crowd of 20 people when she left home wearing girl’s clothing. “I grew up in a culture where patriarchy was so prominent. Growing up in South Asia, being a boy was a privilege. Being a man was a privilege,” says Daniels.
She says she had the realization, “I won’t be a girl. I will be a trans person. And being a trans person is like the bottom of the food chain in the entire ecosystem within India.”
“When you’re a trans person, people can murder you. They can abuse you. They can do whatever they want, and you will not be able to have a voice,” adds Daniels.
Fearful about how the repercussions would affect her parents, Daniels says she made a decision. “I’m just going to suck it up and start living my life. No one needs to know. I’m just going to hide it. And that’s how my life was started in a closet.”
It took decades for her to start living her life on her own terms.
After receiving full support from her wife and coming out to her then-teenage daughter, Daniels began volunteering five years ago at TransCanWork, which is “committed to advancing workplace inclusion through innovative training strategies and workforce development.”
TransCanWork provides workforce development and wraparound service support to jobseekers. The organization also does trainings for companies and government agencies that want to create an inclusive workplace.
“Our focus is very much in the niche of the trans community,” says Daniels. She explains, more specifically, “TGI refers to transgender, gender variant, and intersex community.”
Last year, Daniels started serving on the organization’s board before moving into her current role as chief programs officer.
“I could relate to TransCanWork based on my corporate experience. My passion was training. My passion was strategy. My passion was IT and that was my background, as well.”
Unemployment and Wage Disparity
Levels of unemployment are high in the trans community. The most recent U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), from 2014 and 2015, indicates respondents had an unemployment rate of 15% compared to 5% for the general population.
“Unemployment is not just because of economic issues. They are also going through homelessness. They’re going through mental issues. They’re going through workplace harassment. What happens is sometimes they are not able to continue because the company is not a safe space. So, unemployment is not just about one factor of the problem. We are looking at a whole ecosystem of issues that are associated with it,” says Daniels.
She notes intersectionalities can also lead to workplace barriers for trans people. “The trans person who is Black has a different issue. Now you have a layer of not just being trans, but also that you’re Black. If you’re an immigrant, you have another layer. Then you are a parent, adds another layer. If you are married, adds another layer. If you don’t have children and you want to adopt a child, it adds another layer. So, the traumas and the layers of all these issues that you’re going through in a company are pretty intense for a trans person.”
Daniels says wage inequity is also an issue for the community. “When you take a white male salary, it’s one dollar. A white woman’s salary is probably 65 cents. A Black person is 60 cents. A Black woman is like 55 cents. And the trans person is 20 cents. All the folks that I’m talking about have the same kind of experience, same kind of exposure, great education.”
Company-wide Inclusivity and Retention
“When Pride Month comes, [companies] run around and buy Pride flags. It’s because they want to show they’re inclusive. But in my mind, I think the change needs to happen from the hearts of the employees in the company, not from the letterhead of the company. That’s where there’s a big difference. Even if the CEO of the company—even if the board of the company decides that they want to change the culture of the company—that needs to percolate down to every level within the company.”
Daniels says when companies approach TransCanWork for advice about hiring from the trans community, her questioning is deep. “’Would you like for us to come and talk to you about what exactly it means to hire trans?’ Because the issue I have seen is companies are willing to hire people, inviting them into a boat and saying, ‘You know, all of you just get into this wonderful cruise. There is no life jacket. There is no lifeboat, nothing. Just get into it.’
She continues, “Nobody in their right mind would join an organization that really doesn’t see the future of that employee in that company. And that is how it’s very short-lived.”
Daniels adds, “When we talk to them a little bit about ‘What happens if you hire a trans person without any of these policies, without any of these inclusions?’ Medical benefits, pronouns, biases, and all the issues that they are going through. ‘You don’t know any of this. I know you have good intentions in hiring, but are you able to retain them?’”
“When a trans person comes to the front desk on the first day, what are the issues there? When they go to HR, what kind of issues they face? When they are in a break room? When they are in a team meeting? And lastly, when they are in a bathroom, what kind of issues they face?”
Companies Who Restructure Their Framework
Daniels says it’s positive when she hears, “’I think we’re going to hire trans folks and we want to make sure our company is inclusive. We don’t have trans folks in our company, but we are making sure that we have the right framework, the support structure, and a safe space for trans people.’”
“I really look at companies that are proactive versus companies that are reactive. It’s very different. The companies that are reactive are just catching up because they have never thought about diversity as something that they want to incorporate,” she says. “I challenge these companies. Are you willing to stand up for your employees because you value them?”
Daniels says there are companies that turn to TransCanWork for job candidates when they have open positions. “We know these organizations so well that we do intelligent matching of our resumes.” But some get even more involved, she adds. “These organizations that we work with have come and given us resume writing workshops. They have given us workshops for how to be an entrepreneur or how to do well in job interviews.”
The Human Rights Campaign has issued its 2021 Corporate Equality Index, “the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies, practices and benefits pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees.”
The Index notes, “In the 2021 CEI, 767 employers achieved a top score of 100 and earning the coveted title of ‘Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality.’”
Look at the ‘Whole Package’
Daniels has a response to those who tell her she chose a lifestyle. “It’s not a choice that I made. This is my life. And no matter what I do, I cannot change who I am because gender identity is in the head. For me, I want to be known as a trans woman, right? To me, that is what I want.”
But also calling herself a human rights activist, Daniels adds, “But it’s not just a label of a trans woman. A parent, an immigrant, a photographer, a hiker, blogger, entrepreneur, musician, singer-songwriter. These are my credentials. Look at me, the whole package. Don’t just look at me as ‘Celia is trans’.”