Reporting from San Francisco — Michelle WallowingBull was born a boy. But growing up on Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation, she knew from age 5 that she was a girl inside.
As a teen she bounced from the reservation to a South Dakota town to foster homes and back. In these remote communities, with a family steeped in addiction, she said, it was difficult to openly express the gender she deeply felt. Substance abuse and economic uncertainty followed — travails all too common for transgender people.
But last week, WallowingBull worked the room at a job fair organized by San Francisco's Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative, a pioneering program that has received an outpouring of public support in recent weeks as it faces possible elimination of city funding.
"I think I've hit everyone now," WallowingBull, 20, said of the more than two dozen employers at the job fair. Her most promising contacts: Macy's, Safeway and Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group.
The program — the first of its kind in the country and a model for one run by the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center — relies heavily on city money that has come under threat as the city tries to close an unprecedented budget hole of $483 million. About half of its roughly $450,000 budget comes from the city.
Dozens of backers, including a San Francisco County supervisor, the chair of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and other community organizers, pleaded for a reprieve at a recent hearing. They prevailed when officials removed it from a list of recommended cuts sent to Mayor Gavin Newsom.
But a mayoral spokesman said "there will be some very tough and unpleasant choices that the mayor is going to have to make" before he presents his balanced budget to supervisors on June 1, and no program is guaranteed survival.
"We have won Round 1 in a fight that will probably take a few rounds," said Masen Davis, executive director of San Francisco's Transgender Law Center, one of three organizations that run the initiative.
The program helped WallowingBull with resume-writing classes and mock interview sessions. In its third year, it combines legal help, mentoring and vocational services to assist a population unprotected by federal workplace discrimination law.
It also provides training to a growing list of employers who are reaching out to ensure that transgendered people are welcomed in the workforce.
Many in the transgender community say they face unique employment barriers: Resume gaps from the time of gender "transition" can make job hunting difficult, as can complexities over paperwork that does not match one's current gender, or references who are unaware of name and gender changes.
"If you work in the corporate world you need to address underserved communities," said Mark Pressler, a senior manager of diversity and inclusion at Charles Schwab who sits on the group's Leadership Council. "The transgender community, people don't know about it, they are scared of it. We give employers a way to talk about it."
The initiative was created on the heels of a 2006 survey that showed a high percentage of transgender San Franciscans living in poverty with employment difficulties.
An assessment of the economic health of transgendered people across California further cemented the need: Respondents of the 2008 survey were twice as likely as the general population to hold a bachelor's degree, yet twice as likely to be unemployed. One in five had at some point landed in the street economy, selling sex or drugs. And nearly 70% reported discrimination or harassment on the job, the study found, despite protections in California law that date back to 2004.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is expected to pass Congress in the coming year and would provide federal protections based on gender identity. It remains legal in 38 states to fire someone because they are transgender.
"I've been fired for being trans, not hired for being trans, harassed on the job for being trans," Ramsey Campbell, who recently moved from Seattle, told commissioners at the recent hearing, stressing that the San Francisco initiative "made all the difference" in his current employment.
An independent review of the program found that it had raised skill levels and confidence among participants while educating employers and placing 125 people in jobs. In a city of more than 800,000, the direct impact is small. But the program carries significant weight in a place that has long served as a magnet for transgender people like WallowingBull.
In addition to guiding Los Angeles with its Transgender Economic Empowerment Partnership, the San Francisco initiative has provided "Job Fair in a Box" instructions to a number of cities, said Clair Farley, who oversees the mentoring program and job fair. She recently fielded calls from interested parties in Sacramento, Texas, Louisiana and Illinois. A volunteer from a Denver community center shadowed Farley at last week's job fair in order to create a similar effort at home.
"Without the information I've received here, I'd be three years behind," said Courtney Gray, who was a welder and mechanic before her transition. "It's definitely laid the groundwork for a great many organizations to succeed."