- Now many other trans people will face the same because of a new employment discrimination bill that specifically excludes us.
For three years I worked as a secretary, receptionist and clerk at a small law firm in Bridgetown, Barbados.
The managing partner knew that I was trans. But he refused to use my correct name and often misgendered me in front of clients and co-workers.
Despite this blatant discrimination and hostility, I loved my job. Indeed, I even entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer someday. Over time he trusted me with increasing responsibilities, including overseeing all the substantial client accounts.
In October 2018, I successfully changed my name. However, when I notified my boss, he sent me home indefinitely.
He gave me no notice or reason and simply told me that he would advise me when to return to work. For weeks I called and sent him emails asking about my job and unpaid salary, but he didn’t reply.
With nowhere else to turn and my funds running low I filed a complaint with the Labour Department to at least get my outstanding wages.
Finally, responding to the complaint, the firm’s managing partner revealed that he had fired me because I had legally changed my name. He admitted he had a personal issue with the fact that I affirmed my gender identity in this way.
At the same time, he also admitted to the Labour Department that I was a ‘very good employee who acted professionally, always got on with the job and was even a credit to the office’.
My complaint for unfair dismissal is now awaiting a hearing before the island’s Employment Rights Tribunal.
How parliament excluded trans people
Fast-forward nearly two years to July 28, 2020. On that fateful day, the Barbadian House of Assembly debated and passed the Employment (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill (EPD).
LGBT+ advocates in Barbados have praised the bill. For the first time it protects people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation. However, gender identity and expression are markedly absent from the bill.
During the House debate, one government Member of Parliament explained why it was necessary to protect diverse groups. Indeed, he specifically mentioned the circumstances surrounding my case.
However, he incorrectly referred to my situation as an instance where ‘an individual was terminated from their job at a certain workplace after they revealed that they were of a different sexual identity’.
The MP’s confusing sexual orientation and gender identity is regrettable to say the least. But the real tragedy for trans Barbadians is the bill’s glaring omission of gender identity and expression. We remain unprotected from discrimination, and therefore a case like mine could recur.
From the moment I noticed the omission, I spoke out about it. I see it as slapping and spitting in my face as well as the faces of other trans and gender non-conforming people.
Already, employers often deny us interviews or refuse to hire us. Moreover, if we start transitioning on the job they reprimand us. They may suspend us or even fire us for showing up to work wearing ‘the wrong thing’.
Naturally, I posted on social media about the deplorable way the EPD excluded trans people. In response, two LGBT+ advocates on the island told me the community had the chance to contribute to the bill’s content during an initial consultation.
This was news to me. I never heard about these consultations. And that’s despite the fact many on the island know my work for full LGBT+ inclusion. In particular, I’m currently taking Barbados to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to challenge its anti-sodomy law.
So I can only surmise the fact I didn’t get to take part is no accident. Particularly when LGBT+ advocates can reach me easily enough when they need a media sound bite from a trans person.
Moreover, I was even more upset when I learned another trans person had pushed for the bill to include gender identity. However, the recommendation fell on deaf ears. And neither this trans person, nor the LGBT+ organization they work for, called the government out on this failure.
Effectively, this bill and the way it came about sells out trans people. And then other LGBT+ advocates downplayed that betrayal as they exuberantly celebrated the government protecting gay, lesbian and bisexual Barbadians.
Bigotry beats international law in Barbados
However, despite the celebrations, this bill’s exclusion of trans people is revolting. Meanwhile, it violates Barbados’ Constitution as well as our international obligations.
Section 20 of our constitution guarantees to all citizens the right to freedom of expression. And courts around the world, including our final appellate body, the Caribbean Court of Justice, have stated categorically that this right includes gender identity and expression.
Further, Barbados is a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights and under the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
As such, Barbados is bound by that court’s decisions. In 2017 the court declared that states must protect people against discrimination based on their gender identity and expression.
So the new bill’s passage comes at the expense of international law as well as the human rights of trans people.
Trans people will starve while we wait for change
Many individuals have tried to placate me with the idea that once the bill becomes law it can be amended to include gender identity and expression. But the harsh reality is that many of us trans and non-binary people may never live to see that amendment, if it ever happens.
Right now, there are trans people who have not held a stable, consistently paying job in years. Some have never managed to land one at all.
We don’t have time to wait another ‘moment’ to trigger politicians to amend the bill. In that time, many of us will have to face the very real prospect of being unable to pay our bills or even feed ourselves.
This law fails to protect us. So, if a trans person loses their job because of their gender identity, they will have to undertake extensive and expensive legal research to get justice.
As the old adage goes, ‘the horse is starving while waiting for the grass to grow’! Trans Barbadians will literally starve while we wait for people to amend this defective bill. As citizens we deserve better than this unconscionable and unconstitutional betrayal.
Alexa Hoffmann is an LGBT+ advocate, living in Bridgetown, Barbados.