For most of the eight long years she spent packing asparagus in Monterey County, the farmworker who calls herself Sandra was known as Juan, a foreman on the packing line.
“I worked really hard, and then they promoted me to supervisor on the night shift,” she says in Spanish. “I was in charge of more than 100 people.”
But then she began taking hormones and transitioning her body to reflect who she felt she really was: a woman with manicured nails and her hair swept up in a stylish do.
The environment at work grew hostile. First, her boss started using derogatory terms in Spanish for gay people.
Then, one day, she found her boyfriend, who also worked at the packinghouse, lying in a pool of blood. One of the other supervisors had attacked him. When she returned to work the next day, she had been demoted. And her paycheck went down – from $8.25 an hour as a supervisor to $7 an hour on the assembly line.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” she says. “Both because of the comments the boss was making and because they were really hurrying me up on the line. They gave me the same amount of asparagus to bunch as they would normally give three people.”
After the asparagus season ended, Sandra and her partner sought help at California Rural Legal Assistance. The nonprofit group has long represented farmworkers, and it filed a successful lawsuit against the company for employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sandra’s employer agreed to a settlement – and can’t be named as part of the terms of that agreement.
Sandra’s case inspired California Rural Legal Assistance to team up with the National Center for Lesbian Rights on a new project to reach lesbian, gay and transgender farmworkers.
They try to reach out to those workers where they socialize, like a dimly lit bar in a Central Valley town surrounded by vineyards.
The thump of Mexican dance music spills out onto the sidewalk, and farmworkers coming in from the fields grab a cold beer and line up to shoot pool. A silver disco ball twirls as men in starched cowboy hats dance with some very tall partners in spangly dresses.
This club doesn’t advertise as a gay bar. There are no rainbow flags. But about half the crowd is made up of transgender women.
Wearing purple velvet heels, Diana Oliva, an outreach worker with California Rural Legal Assistance, passes out brochures to farmworkers sitting at tables around the dance floor. “Have you suffered any discrimination at work?” she asks. “Do you want to know how the law protects you in California?”
Oliva, herself a transgender woman, says Latino immigrants face strong cultural taboos against coming out of the closet.
“In general, Latinos who are working the fields are very vulnerable as it is,” she says. “Then you add onto that the differences in sexual orientation or gender identity: That makes them even more vulnerable.”
And when they’re harassed at work, it’s even more difficult to decide to go public and confront their employers, says CRLA Attorney Lisa Cisneros.
“The prospect of having to go to court and testify in front of everyone about one’s gender identity and sexual orientation, and to be under pretty intense questioning about that topic, scares a lot of our clients,” says Cisneros, who directs the LGBT Farmworker Project.
Cisneros’ project has filed more than a dozen successful lawsuits and legal complaints over the last year. For the farmworkers who have braved the legal system and won their cases, they say it’s made them appreciate that California has protections they didn’t have in Mexico.
Like Miguel, a gay man who works long night shifts in a Tulare County dairy but tries to stay awake to play soccer with his nephew in the afternoons. Sporting a thick mustache and a broad smile, he says he left Mexico so he could live his life more openly.
But at his last job milking cows, he was sexually harassed, taunted, and eventually fired when he asked for a raise. Miguel won a successful settlement …and says the experience taught him that he has rights –both as an immigrant worker and as a gay man.
“You can’t try to live your life trying to get ahead while lying about who you are,” he says. “We have rights as human beings, rights as workers, rights regardless of our sexual orientation. If anyone is harassing you at work, there are laws to protect you, just like there are laws to make sure you get your lunch break and your overtime.”
None of the employers involved in the lawsuits could comment for this story because of the confidentiality terms of the legal settlements.
But Rob Roy of the Ventura County Agricultural Association says growers are committed to holding up all of California’s laws against discrimination.
“It’s important businesses recognize what the law is and what their obligations are, and to try to be very sensitive to the needs of different employees in the workplace, and to try to train to avoid those problems,” says Roy.
As the agricultural industry confronts more legal cases involving gay, lesbian and transgender farmworkers, Roy says he plans to strengthen the sexual harassment training his organization gives hundreds of farmers each year.