Mike Leard was an ad man, a real Don Draper type, loved his drink, loved women and did some stunning advertisements. Leard never had trouble finding work. In fact, most of the time he didn't even have a resumé, his reputation alone landed him jobs.

All that work dried up around the same time Mike Leard transitioned to become Michelle Leard. She has all the same skills, all the same gumption, but none of the job offers.

"No one is going to be able to come out and say to you, we're not going to hire you because you're trans, that's never going to happen. What can happen is the energy you feel from them."

Leard said there are a number of things that could be contributing to her unemployment, like a depressed economy and a slump in the advertising industry. Still, she believes being transgender is having an impact.

'I've never had to look for a job'

"I've noticed that I haven't made it through first-round phone interviews, which is a new experience in my career. You're talking to someone, I've never had to look for a job. Before I transitioned I never even had a resumé, it was just I was really good at what I did, people knew that and I got work, that's it. Now I can't. It's just a different ball game."

Àine Morse

Aine Morse is co-chair of Nova Scotia's Rainbow Action Project. Morse says at least once a month people call the project saying they can't find work or have been fired because they began transitioning. (CBC)

Leard isn't alone. Every month the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project hears from people who have either been fired after starting their transition or weren't hired after applying for a job.

"I hear routinely from folks who said, 'I was going to transition and I disclosed that to my employer and they fired me a week later.' That's really, really common," said Aine Morse, co-chair of the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project.

The group looks to promote equality for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

'Many trans folks are involved with sex work'

Morse said there aren't any hard numbers on how many transgender people are unemployed in Nova Scotia, but estimates it could be in the hundreds.

"Folks end up looking where they can for income and many trans folks are involved with sex work. That's an important way for some trans folks to sustain their lives."

Employers need to start making their businesses more trans-inclusive, according to Morse, and that will create a safe space for transgender workers.

"I can honestly say to employers, if you have a trans-inclusive policy and you're willing to see someone and respect that person as a trans person you're going to make their life better. That's tangible. Those benefits are really real in terms of lowering suicide risk."

Inclusive business

There are businesses in Halifax that are working to become more inclusive: Pavia Gallery espresso bar and café is leading that change. It already has trans-inclusive policies in its employees handbook.

Christopher Webb

Christopher Webb is the co-owner of Pavia. His business already has trans-inclusive policies in place for all its locations. (Robert Short/CBC)

It contains guidelines for gender neutral uniforms, and reminders about not using gender specific pronouns like sir or ma'am. Morse with the Rainbow Action Project said that handbook only incorporated trans-inclusive policies after a prominent transgender community member was repeatedly mis-gendered and mistreated at the establishment.

Christopher Webb and Victoria Foulger, co-owners of Pavia, say they run an inclusive establishment. Foulger said last year they had an incident where a person was mis-gendered. Foulger said they sat down with that person and worked out a solution. Other than that Foulger said there have been no other problems.

Pavia then began working on more trans-inclusive policies.

'We try to create a good place to work'

"We try to create a good place to work and I think that's the best thing you can do. So I guess the quick answer is you have to be open to bringing new people in," said Webb. 

"Have we lost business because someone came through and saw someone who was trans behind the counter and turned around and walked the other way? We might have. Am I OK with that? Am I OK with losing that business? Absolutely."

The province's public service commission said it's illegal to deny anyone a job based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

The department also said anyone who believes they were discriminated against can file a human rights complaint.

'Am I going to get back on my feet?'

Leard and Morse said many transgender people don't bother filing complaints because they feel it would be too difficult to prove they were fired or not hired because they are transgender.

The province has also recently released guidelines to support trans and gender variant employees. It said those guidelines are available for any business to use.

Meanwhile, Leard is surviving on freelance advertising work, and wonders if she'll ever be able to get her career back on track.

"I still feel those little moments of insecurity that make me wonder am I going to get back on my feet? Am I going to have a life again that is like the life I had before?"

'This isn't a choice'

Still she continues to hand out resumés hoping businesses will learn to be more accepting.

"This isn't a choice that people make. This is something people are doing to save their lives, and when employers aren't supporting them they're compromising the health of those people." 

"They're becoming liable in the illness, in the depression, in the self-hatred, in the self-harming that comes with hiding in the closet. That's something employers need to realize. How much do you want to be involved in the hurting or the helping? That's something employers really need to think about."

Leard said before she transitioned she drank heavily and even contemplated suicide. 

She said despite the trouble finding work she doesn't regret her transition. 

"Life is so much better now than it ever has been, even though I'm not working because I'm me. I'm really the person I was meant to be."