Less than 24 hours before I spoke with Malaysia Walker, a transgender education and advocacy coordinator with the ACLU of Mississippi, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that federal employment protections will no longer cover transgender workers. The same week in Walker’s home state of Mississippi, a state law licensing discrimination against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious belief was days away from taking effect (it’s since been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court).
Walker, 39, started her job at the ACLU a month after Donald Trump took office. It’s her first full-time job outside of the beauty industry, where she held a series of retail positions over 15 years, including the period when she began to transition, around two years ago.
In a wide-ranging interview, Walker shared how she handled white customers who didn’t want their makeup done by a black trans woman, why it was so crucial for her coworkers to have her back, and what finally made her decide to start a new career in advocacy.
Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Fast Company: When you read about anti-transgender policies like the ones in the news right now, does it feel personal?
Malaysia Walker: Absolutely. The number of transgender men and women killed [in the U.S. in 2016] was 22. This year we’re already at 21. And I want to say about 17, 18 of those are men and women of color. [Editor’s note: The true figures are higher; according to GLAAD, there were 27 reported murders of trans people in 2016, the deadliest year on record, and 19 of those killed in 2017 were people of color. To date, the number of trans murder victims reported this year is 23, all but two of whom were people of color.]
So being a trans woman of color with harmful legislation like this, of course I feel like I’m walking around with a target on my back. We have a commander-in-chief that’s handed down all of these horrific and horrendous bills and tales about the trans community.
Special Report: What It’s Really Like To Be Out At Work In 2017
FC: Speaking of Trump, you started your position soon after his inauguration. Was that a factor in your decision to change careers?
MW: Last November, for Transgender Day of Remembrance [an annual nationwide observance commemorating fatal violence against transgender people], I spoke at an event and told my story of living in Mississippi and not realizing [until recently] how much of a walking advocate I was every day of my life because I’m a trans woman of color. I’m a trans woman, period.
There were some people from the ACLU in the audience, and they told me that I should apply for a position that they had coming up, and I did, and two months later, I got an interview.
I’m a firm believer that whenever something is presented to you, when you pray for a difference or pray for a change, you have to be willing to accept it. The first time a trans woman of color was killed [in the U.S.] in 2017 was Mesha Caldwell, in Canton, Mississippi. We had been really close friends for over 20 years, and that devastated me as well as our inner community. When [the ACLU] offered me the position, I kind of felt that it was her saying, “Well, girl, it’s time for you to get out here and make it better for us. Because if it can happen to me, it could happen to anybody.”
FC: Have you experienced discrimination–transphobic, racist, sexist, or a combination–that impacted your career or your experience in the workplace?
MW: I could give you several examples. I applied for a higher position with a company three different times and was denied. This was during my transition–because of course you don’t transition overnight–and the basis of the denial was they “decided to go with someone else,” simple and easy, that’s it. The fourth opportunity, I was a shoo-in . . . [and] interviewed for the position, and they gave [it] to someone that had less experience than I do.
The person who got the position was my cousin. She told me that the reason that I did not get the job was because I was “transgendering,” quote-unquote, [in the words of] the account executive of that particular beauty line. When I attempted to reach out for legal advice, the company [I was working for] found out about it and called me into the office and begged me not to.
FC: What was that conversation like?
MW: Horrific. It put me in a predicament where I felt threatened that if I did continue to seek legal advice, I would no longer have a job.
FC: So did you drop the legal route?
MW: I did. Because I needed employment, period. From that point forward it was really an uneasy feeling.
FC: And these were customer-facing positions in a field where traditional gender presentation is part of the job. How did you navigate that, particularly while transitioning?
MW: There’s a standard that you have to have to work in the cosmetics industry. So I was a walking billboard. I would make sure that I was complete from head to toe and would look the part, but I would still get misgendered because of my voice.
It’s one thing to entrust me to provide you with a service and another thing to respect me and acknowledge me for who I am. I tell people all the time, “I’m just a woman with a deep voice. I’d really appreciate it if you called me for what you see.”
FC: Did customers respond negatively when you asked them to do that?
MW: Absolutely, yes. [To avoid a confrontation,] I would have to say, “Ma’am, I apologize, but I think that you need to find someone else to provide service for you.” It was important for me–especially in situations of that nature–that I had someone to stand and back me.
Some of the statements that people would make would be so derogatory that I would just have to literally go in a closet and just get it out and cry and get myself situated, and then go back to my job. You’re working in the public, and you have no control over what the public says. There were situations when I worked at a cosmetics counter [with a white colleague where white women would ask for help], and when I said, “I can assist you,” their response was, “Well is there nobody else who can help me?” And I’d say, “Hold on, let me see if I can find somebody else.”
Once I was helping a customer who kept saying, “Ooh he pretty!” and I was looking around saying, “Who’re y’all talking about?” The customer said “you a ‘he’,” and I was like, “No, I’m not a ‘he,’ I’m a ‘she,'” and the customer replied, “Well, you weren’t born that way.”
So I said, “You don’t know how I was born, and you’re making assumptions.” So [eventually] I called my coworker to help them instead, and they went to management and told them that I had a bad attitude.
FC: The issue of bathroom access has become a political lightning rod and the subject of many discriminatory state laws and court rulings. Have you experienced difficulties accessing the right facilities at work?
MW: [At] the same company [where I was passed over for promotions four times], when they went through a renovation, they shut down the family restroom . . . [which] was neither a male nor female designation. That’s the restroom I would use. When they shut it down, I went to my assistant store manager and said, “I’m having an issue because I don’t want people to look at me funny. For those that know that I’m transitioning, to go into the women’s restroom would be uncomfortable, but to go into the men’s restroom would be uncomfortable. So what should I do?”
She told me that she would ask the corporate office and bring it to their attention, and maybe a week later she called me in the office and told me that due to the fact that I had not transitioned further, I would have to use the men’s restroom. Now, mind you, construction workers are there that obviously think I’m a girl. Other employees or new employees are there and obviously think I’m a woman. For me to be in the men’s restroom, I felt that that would put my life in jeopardy and in danger.
FC: How long did you stay in the role after your boss gave you this instruction?
MW: About another year. So in that year I had to inspect the restroom before I wanted to use it. I had to act like I was cleaning the bathroom, making sure no one was in there. And if someone came in while I was using the restroom, I had to wait till they left before I went out.
FC: Did your coworkers know you had to deal with this the whole time, and how potentially threatening this arrangement was?
MW: Absolutely. They couldn’t believe it. I’m an open book when we’re working because I feel like we’re a family, we’re a team. Everybody knew; nobody had an issue. But I did not want retaliation for using a specific bathroom, [especially when] I’m already having uneasy and uncomfortable situations [with customers] happening. [When] an opportunity came at another company, I left. The new company had no problem with me openly transitioning. It was a sense of ease and comfort because finally I had been accepted.
FC: What do you wish people understood about trans and gender-nonconforming people, in the workplace or in general?
MW: That we’re people. We’re not test subjects, we’re not lab rats, we’re not prostitutes. We don’t only come out at nighttime. We work. We live. We pay our taxes. We put our clothes on just like everyone else. I really want people to understand that we are a part of society.
FC: Do you feel that things are getting better or worse? Are you hopeful for the future?
MW: I can’t say whether it’s getting better or worse. What I can say is that I’m proud to see that more people are collectively coming out and coming to the surface to say that this is not right. Somebody has to step out front and fight for the civil rights of trans and gender-nonconforming people. Why not let it be me?