May 5 will be a meaningful day for Angelina Nordstrom. She will be speaking at the Chicago House 33rd Annual Spring Brunch Fashion Show on the importance of stable employment for the vulnerable.
( Also at Harold Washington Library, Eataly Chicago will be presented with the Chicago House 2019 Spirit Award for its program offering employment opportunities for transgender and non-binary people. )
For Nordstrom, these kinds of programs are important not just because of her identity as a trans woman, but also because she has struggled with long-term workplace discrimination due to that identity.
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Nordstrom worked at two organizationsand allegedly faced workpace discrimination at a federal facility. Nordstrom said that co-workers continuously misgendered her, and that her status as a trans woman affected decisions about her future employment.
"It was a federal government entity doing this," Nordstrom said. "It's a lot more damning to hear of a governmental institution violating protections."
It was during this ordeal Nordstrom was put in contact with the Chicago House trans-legal service. "We filled out a document and sent it where it was supposed to go," Nordstrom said. "Still we have not received a response even to this day."
The trans-legal services are part of a natural evolution for Chicago House. The organization was founded to address the critical need for housing HIV/AIDS-affected individuals, and has since expanded to offer employment services, HIV prevention, case management and TransLife Care programs.
"The needs of the community have changed so much, so Chicago House has kind of changed to meet those needs," said Chicago House Media Director Ashley Pabst. "So now their services are just much more expansive. … There's trans legal, there's trans housing [and there's more]."
Nordstrom and her attorney brought a lawsuit against her employers, which ended in a settlement.
"I was still learning, so I had to find it within myself to realize what they did was wrong," Nordstrom said. "Regardless of how vulnerable I may be. … I still had to remain strong enough to ensure my voice is heard and make sure I share my narrative. Because if I don't share my narrative then not only am I suffering in silence, but eventually I'm contributing to the problem."
For Nordstrom, the result was instructive. "The bigger thing to me, was [for them] to acknowledge the situation as a whole and not just say 'Okay, be quiet, we're going to pay you out but we're not admitting fault,'" she told Windy City Times.
Nordstrom eventually made the leap from Tennessee to Chicago, but the adjustment had major challenges.
"Every time I visited [Chicago] I would stay for two weeks because I hated Tennessee at the time as far as the lack of resources, the lack of community, the lack of protections, the lack of just being able to just do things for yourself without just having to rely on [others]," Nordstrom said.
When she first arrived in Chicago, Nordstrom learned she was unfortunately just barely too old to stay at The Crib, a housing service for LGBT youth aged 18-24. She turned 25 about a month prior.
She found random work in Chicago, but nothing stable and certainly nothing secure enough to make her feel confident about renting a place, so she struggled with homelessness for a time.
After a stint at a temp agency, Nordstrom eventually secured employment at the LGBTQ-oriented Center on Halsted in 2017. She also volunteered with Harold Brown and Chicago House.
"It's been better than previous employers when it comes to understanding one's particular narrative and one's walk in life," Nordstrom said.
After spending 2017 getting her student loans under control, she's now pursuing a Human Resources degree with Harold Washington College. But she isn't finished.
For Nordstrom, overcoming employment discrimination isn't just an obstacleit's a mission.
She said she hopes to go on to law school and represent clients like her, who may face discrimination for their LGBTQ identity. For her, law school will be a pursuit "to improve the human condition and provide equity to the trans community that's been lacking."
"I need for everyone to know that you don't have to sit silent and take abuse from an employer that doesn't understand who you are, and what about that makes you amazing and what makes you such a valuable employee," Nordstrom said.
Currently, she's looking at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. "I'm not going to limit it to two choices, [but] they're way up there in the research," Nordstrom said.
Nordstrom added that, as an attorney, she hopes to offer the kind of assistance she needed in her employment discrimination case.
Her case may have ended in a settlement, but for her future clients, Nordstrom wants to let litigation go as far as they need.
"If they want to [avoid settlement], sure, let's see what we can do," Nordstrom said. "Let's see what the law says and see if we have something."
On May 5, the audience at the Chicago House event will not just be hearing from someone who has struggled with and overcome workplace discrimination. She hopes people will be listening to a woman determined to help others fight for their rights, too.
See ChicagoHouse.org .