When Celeste Divinity was a server, she found herself making constant calculations: Should she tell her customers about her gender identity?

Divinity, 23, a trans woman, knew that if she didn’t, she’d risk getting misgendered — a painful and all-too-common occurrence on the job. But if she did tell them, they might feel uncomfortable being corrected, or worse.

Ultimately, she said, “that can come at your tips.”

And in Philly, where the minimum wage for servers who work for tips is $2.83 an hour, that could be the difference between making rent or not.

It’s just one of the difficulties trans and nonbinary individuals face at work — and why a group of volunteers has started a program to connect those communities to jobs.

TransWork, a program of the Independence Business Alliance, Philly’s LGBT business association, hosted its first job fair Tuesday afternoon at the William Way Community Center in partnership with the city’s Division of Aviation, which runs Philadelphia International Airport. Speakers presented to a crowd of about 20 on topics such as trans workers’ rights -- including the city’s nondiscrimination law that says it’s illegal to be discriminated against on the basis of gender -- the ins and outs of changing your name and legal records so that it doesn’t get in the way of security clearances, and the kinds of opportunities available at the Division of Aviation.

Celeste Divinity (right) laughs while speaking with Delaqua at a job fair for transgender and nonbinary people hosted at the William Way Community Center. Divinity said that when she worked in retail, she got misgendered "30-plus times a day."
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Celeste Divinity (right) laughs while speaking with Delaqua at a job fair for transgender and nonbinary people hosted at the William Way Community Center. Divinity said that when she worked in retail, she got misgendered "30-plus times a day."

Developing programs like this for the trans community has long been a dream for Marcus Iannozzi, a trans man who runs a web development firm called Message Agency.

Iannozzi, 49, said the trans community has focused on health care and social services but rarely on issues of economic justice.

“That’s the key to independence and having control over your life," he said.

There are people in the trans community who are unemployed or underemployed solely because they’re trans, he said. There are those whose transition interrupted certain rites of passage, like graduating from high school. And then there are people who have entered underground economies, like sex work, and are looking to stop. Iannozzi, who transitioned in 2002, hopes TransWork can serve all those kinds of people.

For this first job fair, Iannozzi partnered with his longtime friend Kathleen Padilla, a trans woman who runs the Office of Business Diversity at the airport. Padilla shepherded the city’s 2013 LGBT rights law, which, among other things, ended trans discrimination in health plans for city employees. Now, city-sponsored health plans cover counseling, surgery, and medications for trans individuals. It’s one of the selling points of working at the Division of Aviation that was highlighted during the event.

For Soledad Alfaro, the chief administrative officer of the airport who was at the event, the TransWork job fair was part of the airport’s recruiting efforts. People tend to think it’s hard to get a job at the airport because of security clearances, so she wanted to demystify the process. And Alfaro said the airport wanted to send the message that it wants all kinds of people to apply.

That was one of the high points for Divinity at the job fair. Just knowing that a workplace is “trans competent,” as she put it, or trans affirming, is significant. She’s currently unemployed and said she’s been afraid even to apply for jobs for fear a new employer might not be supportive. When she worked in retail, she got misgendered “30-plus times a day for a year" by colleagues, supervisors, and customers.

Delaqua, a 32-year-old nonbinary singer and actress who uses they/them pronouns, had a similar experience while working at a collections agency’s call center in New Jersey. One customer called in to the center multiple times asking to speak to “the tran.” Eventually, the customer got blocked, but Delaqua thought it took too many calls before any higher-ups intervened.

In the end, Divinity said, an environment like that “makes you come to hate working," so she was heartened to see that there were employers making an effort to reach out to the trans community.

TransWork plans to host several events throughout the fall, including a job fair with Independence Blue Cross. Sign up for event updates here.