Transgender Organizing Today: Whose Side Will You Be On?

 A few days ago, Dwight DeLee was found guilt of 1st degree manslaughter as a hate crime. He shot and killed transgender woman Lateisha Green. He was only the second person convicted of a hate crime for the killing of a transgender person.

This is not cause for celebration.

One of the main annual national events in the world of transgender organizing is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a November vigil where the names, lives and stories of transgender people who have been killed in the previous year due to hate violence are lifted up. The lists are always long. But the debates about whether to advance legislation to increase criminal penalties for perpetrators of violence against transgendered people are fierce and widespread. This is not a theoretical debate, as every year the list grows longer, mostly with the names of low-income trans women of color; but many trans organizations are working against the criminal (in)justice system, which disproportionately holds many of our community hostage for activities of basic economic survival.

Trans organizing focuses on issues from the daily struggles with bureaucrats, whether about ID cards or bathroom use, to advancing national non-discrimination legislation. Our struggles focus on economic survival, access to medical care, access to restroom facilities, documentation, freedom from state-based (police and prison) and physical violence and emotional violation. This includes:

  • Expanding nondiscrimination laws to include gender identity or expression and making sure existing laws are enforced;
  • Fighting for guidelines on housing and treatment of transgendered persons in prisons and jails;
  • Individual legal battles for the release and/or humane treatment of incarcerated trans people;
  • Seeking justice for trans victims of hate crimes perpetrated by individuals or the state;
  • Campaigns to expand economic opportunities for trans people both through nondiscrimination laws and through job fairs and job training programs;
  • Initiatives for coverage of transgender-specific medical care in the workplace (through union contracts or voluntary employer programs) and at the state and local level;
  • Legal battles around private insurance coverage for medical care (most if not all private insurers specifically exclude all forms of trans-related medical care);
  • Local campaigns for access to restroom facilities (the DC Trans Coalition won an initiative for single-stall bathrooms to not have a gender label);
  • State and local fights for gender-change forms for documentation (such as State IDs and Driver’s Licenses);
  • Initiatives to reform the overly restrictive Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA) Standards of Care – the standard which most health care providers are required to uphold.

Across the U.S., many organizations are fighting for trans rights, whether that’s the sole focus of their work or part of a broader LGBT struggle.

At the national level, many organizations are supporting the recently-introduced (inclusive) Employment Nondiscrimination Act, or ENDA. This legislation was the subject of many protests in April 2008, when an earlier version of the bill axed protections on the basis of gender identity and expression, leaving only protections on the basis of sexual orientation. Rallying cries of “No ENDA without gender!” were heard across the movement, including a picket of the Human Rights Campaign annual dinner, which led to the reversal of their stance to support the non-inclusive bill. The 2009 version of the bill does include gender identity, and is therefore a high priority for many organizations fighting to expand protections for the transgender community.

At the more local level, here are a few snapshots of campaigns underway:

  • The Audre Lorde Project of New York is running a campaign to urge the Human Resources Administration (HRA) to address the rampant transphobia, discrimination, and harassment that transgender/gender non-conforming people in New York City face when seeking to access welfare/public assistance. One of their projects is TransJustice, a political organizing project by and for Trans and Gender Non-conforming people of color. TransJustice mobilizes its communities and allies into action on pressing political issues they face, including gaining access to jobs, housing, and education; the need for Trans-sensitive healthcare, HIV-related services, and job-training programs; resisting police, government and anti-immigrant violence. (http://www.alp.org)

  • FIERCE, an organization of LGBTQ youth has since 2000 organized campaigns to preserve and create safe public space for LGBTQ youth in the West Village and on the Piers of the Hudson River Park – a historically safe space for our community who disproportionately face the fear and threat of violence. The Hudson River Park is mandated by the Hudson River Park Act (HRPA), to expand public access to the waterfront, increase the quality of life in the community, and ensure community participation in decisions made about the Park. However, there are huge gaps between the legislation of the Act and the reality of how the Hudson River Park is being developed and LGBTQ youth know this well. They have created policy recommendations for the Hudson River Park and are fighting to get their recommendations adopted. (http://www.fiercenyc.org/)

  • Massachusetts Transgender Political Action is working to get state-level nondiscrimination laws passed. Their bill would add Massachusetts to the 13 other states, Washington D.C., and 108 counties and cities, including Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, and Amherst, to those with laws which protect transgender people. It includes both gender identity and expression for the state’s non-discrimination statute and would amend existing hate crime laws to explicitly protect people targeted for violence and harassment. They are facing huge counter-organizing from a Massachusetts affiliate of Focus on the Family, who have systematically tried to prevent Trans nondiscrimination laws from passing at the state level (they are also active in countering similar legislation in Maryland – See Equality Maryland) (http://www.masstpc.org/)

  • The DC Trans Coalition is currently running a “Pee in Peace” campaign to enforce the DC Human Rights Act provision requiring all establishments with single-occupancy restrooms to make those restrooms gender neutral. On July 25th they’re holding a second public protest to pressure businesses and DC government buildings to come into compliance with the law. (http://www.dctranscoalition.org/)

  • The FTM Alliance of Los Angeles and the Transgender Law Center (based in San Francisco) are running a community clinics campaigns for better transgender health care. In the summer of 2006, these two organizations expanded their health care access programs to include work on transforming health care services offered at LA-based community clinics using community-organizing strategies. (http://www.ftmalliance.org/announcements.htm)

  • The Trans/Gender Variant in Prison (TIP) project of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) in San Francisco is organizing to end the discrimination, medical neglect, abuse and violence experienced by transgender and gender variant people, and people with intersex conditions (TGI) in California prisons. They are an abolitionist organization – so while they fight for the immediate needs of TGI people in prison, they don’t advocate for reforms that further expand the prison industrial complex. (http://www.tgijp.org/tip/)

Far from exhaustive, this series of snapshots is intended to show the depth of trans organizing. It’s clear that the religious right understands the threat we pose to their agenda – and they’re mobilizing to try and stop us. Which side will you be on?

More Articles and Background

Far from comprehensive, but these are solid, helpful articles—many from a radical left point of view.

  •  The 40th anniversary of the famed Stonewall uprising, often credited with kick-starting the modern-day LGBT rights movement, is this year. The piece below gives history and context to this event:  Lessons for the Left from the Radical Transgender Movement  – By Alexander Lee and MC Ettinger  – (http://www.leftturn.org/?q=node/397)
  • An overview of the groundbreaking Transforming Justice conference of trans organizers fighting the prison-industrial complex: Transforming Justice  – By Jessica Stern (http://www.leftturn.org/?q=node/1035 )
  • Background and perspectives on trans and neocolonial struggles through the lens of the Philly TransHealth Conference: Reading Trans-Health/Reading Race War: Trans health organizing and neocolonial capital  –  by Michelle O’Brien  – http://colours.mahost.org/articles/obrien2.html

Organizations working on Trans rights issues (not exhaustive):


Connor Doyle is an FTM activist currently living in western Massachusetts.

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