Angelica Ross, 34, teaches coding, graphic design, and web skills to trans Chicagoans through her nonprofit, TransTech Social Enterprises. She spoke with Chicago recently about issues facing transgender people in the workplace.
Why is it so hard for trans people to find work?
Trans people face a lot of discrimination, and when you talk about trans people of color, [the situation] is even more drastic. They’re barely making it out of high school, let alone college. I dropped out my freshman year, and I kept getting fired from job after job. Like many trans women of color, I was faced with the decision of doing sex work to pay for bills. [Fifty percent of transgender people of color consider selling drugs or their bodies because they can’t find jobs, according to the social services agency TransLife Center.] What I realized is that I could find an economy online. I taught myself how to build websites, retouch photos, and do graphic design, which led me to build my own company.
What does your program, TransTech, do?
When you work online, nobody cares what you sound and look like. It’s about whether you can get the job done. That’s why [freelance work on the web] is a superfertile environment for us across industries, from writers to designers to coders. Trans people just haven’t been shown this path to independence.
You call yourself an “accidental activist.” What started you on that path?
I joined the navy when I was 17. They hung me out of a third-story window to try and force me to admit I was gay. I basically just admitted it, even though it wasn’t true. They made me sign papers, and I was discharged. I initially enlisted so I could leave with money to pay for college, but I ended up with nothing. It was a reality check on American culture. [Ross, who grew up in Racine, began transitioning two years later.]
Why did you set up TransTech in Chicago?
Even though it’s illegal in Illinois for employers to discriminate against trans people, it’s hard to prove you’re being discriminated against. This is a wonderful city—it’s my favorite place in the world—but I want Chicago to realize there are people of value being overlooked.
Melissa Harris-Perry featured you on MSNBC as her first Foot Soldier of the Week for 2015. What did that mean to you?
I woke up to this e-mail [from show producers], so I seriously thought I was still dreaming. But as the messages and even donations started flowing in, it felt like another sign that we’re heading in the right direction. When you strike a nerve with MSNBC, you know you’ve tapped into a progressive synergy that can be used to initiate conversations that move us all forward.
From the Trans 100 gala, which Ross hosted in 2014, to accessible health care, Chicago has become a hub of transgender culture. How did it happen?
1. We’ve got Jennifer Pritzker.
And The Matrix codirector Lana Wachowski. And mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox. And Against Me! rocker Laura Jane Grace. “The more individuals who feel safe enough to be seen and known, the more that safety grows,” says Josie Paul, director of Chicago House’s TransLife Center.
2. Health insurers here must cover gender reassignment surgery.
Illinois is one of only nine states (plus Washington, D.C.) where it’s illegal to discriminate based on gender identity.
3. And there are robust services for transition-related health care.
With TransLife, Howard Brown Health Center, Chicago Women’s Health Center, and Affinity Community Services, the city’s network of transgender health care services is among the strongest in the country, says Trans 100 codirector Rebecca Kling.
4. Pop culture has taken notice.
Two forthcoming reality shows—the Ryan Seacrest–produced My Transparent Life on ABC Family and Tyra Banks’s TransAmerica on VH1—spotlight locals.
5. Chicago hosts the Academy Awards of the trans community.
The annual Trans 100 gala recognizes key players from across the country. This year’s honorees will be feted March 29 at Mayne Stage. Expect big names: Jupiter Ascending codirector Wachowski will deliver this year’s keynote.