Don't “Get a Bulge”: How Wage Gap Discussions Overlook Trans Women

In March, a satirical website popped up for a product called “The Business Bulge.” In a pseudo-serious video message, the company’s CEO says the gender-based wage gap is bad for business. “Gender equality isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” he states. To combat the wage gap, the company sells padded underwear that will create a noticeable penis-shaped bulge in a woman’s skirt or dress.

If you scroll down through the site, a disclaimer pops up: “The Business Bulge is a fictional product. What’s not fictional is the fact that in 2016, women still earn less because of their gender.” The fake site links to the nonprofit Young Minds for Gender Equality, a foundation that works with students, business, and civic groups to support gender equality.

The wage gap is a major issue facing women in America today, but this approach is  tone-deaf and offensive. The joke behind the Business Bulge is that women don’t have penises; if they did, they’d be men, and the wage gap would disappear. But that’s a logical fallacy (phallusy?), so the “joke” doesn’t work. There are women who have or were born with penises: transgender women who were assigned male at birth. The Business Bulge comparison to trans women—rooted in decades of snide “chicks with dicks” mockery—is inherently transmisogynistic, ignores the facts about income inequality, and does a disservice to cis and trans women everywhere. It’s similar to a misguided video the National Women’s Law Center and Sarah Silverman put out in 2014, where the comedian joked that she was going to get phalloplasty in order to enjoy the wage privileges enjoyed by men. On Equal Pay Day, which is April 12, it’s important to reflect on how the wage gap affects trans people.

While the wage gap is often framed as an issue of sex discrimination, in reality race, gender identity, and sexual orientation play a huge rule in pay disparities. Trans women face a tremendous amount of income discrimination in America. A 2006 study found that trans women lose nearly 12 percent of their earnings after transitioning. Trans men experience either no change or a slight increase in earnings after their transition. But both trans women and trans men earn less than their cisgender counterparts—about 14.8 percent less for trans men and five percent less for trans women. That study had a pretty small sample size, so it would be excellent to see more in-depth research on the transgender wage gap. But the research that we do have clearly shows the systemic economic challenges facing trans people.

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According to a 2011 survey of 6,436 transgender-identified people by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), 27 percent of respondents reported an annual household income of less than $20,000. And according to a 2015 analysis authored by the Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project, 15 percent of trans people report earning less than $10,000 annually—compared to just four percent of the general population. In many states, it’s legal to fire or not hire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, leaving LGBT people open to economic discrimination. The NCTE survey reported that 90 percent of transgender people faced discrimination, harassment, or mistreatment at work, and more than a quarter of respondents had lost a job because of being trans.


A map shows that 20 states in the US protect trans people from being fired

A map from the Transgender Law Center showing the 20 states (plus D.C.) which include “gender identity” in employment non-discrimination laws. 

I recently talked with my friend Katherine, a twentysomething trans woman, about her experience losing her job at a news organization. After she started transitioning and coming to the office with painted nails, her boss suddenly started to say she wasn’t working hard enough at her job. She was fired in November—barely three months after beginning full-time presentation as a woman. It’s hard to prove discrimination cases like these, but Katherine’s experience echoes what other trans people have reported in various studies. The 2006 wage gap study recorded the story of one trans woman who told researchers, “I was ‘laid off’ from my 10 year management position for having a ‘bad attitude’” during the first week she started wearing women’s clothing to work.

Or take the tale of another trans woman—who spoke to me on condition of anonymity— whose life nearly fell apart when she was terminated from her software job. In the five years at her job, she says she always got “above average reviews” and was promoted twice. She was up for another promotion when she started to transition. “Six months later, I was put on a ‘performance improvement plan,’ but given no guidance, and three months after that I was terminated for ‘performance reasons,” she says. Two weeks after her termination, she attempted suicide, and was unable to search for work for months, staving off depression and living on a severance package. Though she’s back at work doing what she loves, it’s not roses and champagne. “I now have an entry-level front-end developer job, despite having 11 years of industry experience, and I'm making half of what I made before,” she says.

Despite all of the evidence that trans people face unthinkable discrimination, discussions around the wage gap still often exclude—and outright ridicule—trans women. When the Get a Bulge campaign laughed, it got an enthusiastic reception online. “Hysterical!!! I could have used this a few times in my career!!!” wrote one woman on a public Facebook post.

Remarks like these have no place in a debate that affects all women, regardless of what gender they were assigned at birth. The “Get a Bulge” campaign may be grossly inappropriate, but it did manage to accomplish something, however distasteful—shining a light on the shameful transmisogyny and intolerance that activists must address if we’re to come together to end the wage gap.

        Read this next: Ten Graphs that Show Babies Aren't Solely To Blame for the Wage Gap
        Read this next: You Can Now Search for 2,000 Films Where Women Get the Most Lines

by Samantha Riedel
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Samantha Riedel is a freelance writer and editor living in Massachusetts. A former editor at The Mary Sue, her work has also appeared on Them, The Establishment, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others. Samantha subsists on a balanced diet of estrogen, pro wrestling, and comic books. Prolonged contact may cause irritation. Follow her on Twitter @SamusMcQueen.

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