Elle Barts went to her last job interview wearing a men’s suit and tie.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumna has applied for 30 jobs since she graduated with a degree in communication studies in August. She’s filled out applications for server positions, working behind a makeup counter and working as a forensics coach at a high school.
Her resume – a solid GPA, four years of speech and debate, Big Ten forensics champion – gets her the interviews. But she said her identity as a transgender woman has prevented her from getting a job.
“I thought that my skill set would speak for itself,” she said. “But I have to play the game in order to get a job. I have to represent as male, and it’s frustrating because I don’t feel like my authentic self.”
When Barts graduated, she thought she was set. She’d been hired as assistant forensics director at a private Catholic school in Omaha. But a week before she was to start, Barts got a call from the school. Administrators had Googled her name and found out she was transgender, thus breaking the Catholic Doctrine.
Such discrimination is legal in Nebraska for both public and private employers. The state’s anti-discrimination laws for hiring practices don’t apply to sexuality or gender identity.
Transgender workers report unemployment at twice the rate of cisgender (non-transgender) workers, according to a 2013 Human rights Campaign report.
Since then, Barts has secured multiple job interviews, three of which were at makeup counters in Lincoln department stores. Despite her years of experience applying makeup to herself and others as a drag performer at Karma Nightclub and Cabaret, she was turned down from all the jobs.
She says it’s because she made a mistake. She told the managers she was transgender. “Are you OK with that?” she asked.
They said, “We’ve never had one of those before.”
Barts didn’t get the job.
She’s heard all kinds of excuses: “We decided to go in a different direction. We’re looking for someone with a different skill set. We can’t tell you.”
“I’m just at a loss of what to do,” she said. “I spent all this money and all this time getting a college degree, and for it just to be worthless. … I’ve never been happier since I started transitioning, but at the same time I can only be so happy without a way to support myself.”
Barts’ time at UNL was “amazing.” She said she never faced discrimination. But she’s beginning to fear that academia, an environment where all viewpoints are valued and pursuit of knowledge is required at the door, was simply a safe haven from the real world.
“It’s like your parents just dropped you off on the corner, and you don’t know where to go,” she said. “You think that your accolades and your triumphs in college are going to get you somewhere, but at the end of the day they’re not.”