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Gender freedom and self expression

While state legislatures are gradually enacting laws to protect transgender and gender non-conforming people, significant economic, educational and health disparities continue to impact transgender people—especially transgender people of color. Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis discusses their new landmark report on California transgender people and explains what funders can do to foster gender freedom and self expression.

Tell me about the Transgender Law Center. What is its vision and programming?

The Transgender Law Center (TLC) is a state-wide, multidisciplinary, social justice organization advocating for transgender and gender non-conforming people and their families. Every day we connect transgender people to technically sound and culturally competent legal services, increase acceptance and enforcement of laws and policies that support California's transgender communities, and work to change laws and systems that fail to incorporate the needs and experiences of transgender people.

TLC's work is inspired by our commitment to gender freedom and self expression. Our programs are designed to ensure unhindered and equitable access to quality healthcare; living wage employment; freedom from violence and discrimination; and equal protections for all people regardless of gender, race, or economic status. To this end, we combine legal services and policy advocacy with innovative, community-based programs and leadership development efforts focused on healthcare access, economic empowerment, prisoner rights, homeless services, and safe schools.

What was the social and political context surrounding transgender people when TLC was founded? And how have you see this context shift?

TLC was founded in 2002 when it became apparent that transgender and gender non-conforming people had specific needs that weren't being addressed by other nonprofits at the time. A number of transgender programs at HIV/AIDS organizations had emerged from the devastation of the epidemic on transgender women (specifically transgender women of color), but few staffed organizations were focusing on advocacy or legal issues specific to transgender and gender non-conforming people. Back then, some LGBT organizations were starting to address transgender issues in their programming yet few were designed to address the myriad of issues facing transgender people, such as violence, homelessness, and poverty. Meanwhile, transgender people had almost no legal protections. As a result, TLC and a few other transgender legal and advocacy organizations launched to meet the specific issues of transgender people, and to work in a manner that empowered and mobilized grassroots transgender people.

Since TLC's founding, the number of transgender-inclusive programs and laws has grown exponentially. Today, 31 percent of U.S. workers are protected by transgender-inclusive anti-discrimination laws. California law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and expression in schools, housing, employment, government programs and insurance.

We have some great laws, but there's still much work to do to ensure these laws affect our community's lived experience. We still find significant economic, educational and health disparities impacting transgender people—especially transgender people of color. As a result, many of the autonomous transgender organizations have specific programs or advocacy efforts to address intersecting oppressions impacting transgender people.

How would you explain them to a grantmaker who's new to the issue?

When talking with grantmakers, I try to emphasize that the terms "transgender" and "gender non-conforming" are dynamic and are used differently by those individuals who identify with them. At TLC, we generally describe transgender people as individuals whose gender identity (the way someone feels about themselves) or gender expression (the way someone appears to others) differs in some way from the stereotypes associated with their sex at birth. While transgender people may or may not undergo physical changes to "transition" (e.g., change their physical body to match their gender identity), almost all experience some level of discrimination and/or harassment.

TLC's 2008 survey of almost 650 transgender adults in California—a state with strong anti-discrimination laws—found that 1 in 5 have been homeless, 67% have experienced employment discrimination, and 30% have postponed healthcare due to discrimination from health care providers. Institutional barriers make it difficult for many transgender people to access the basic services they need to thrive, yet funding to transgender-inclusive programs and organizing efforts is anemic. We need the support of social justice and LGBT funders to help ensure that transgender people—especially transgender communities of color—gain equitable access to services, support, and empowerment.

What are some of the daily challenges faced by transgender and gender non-conforming people? Can you discuss the economic challenges facing transgender communities?

Transgender and gender non-conforming people experience overwhelming discrimination and marginalization in employment, housing, health care, and education based on their gender identity and/or expression.

In the Transgender Law Center's State of Transgender California Report, fewer than half of transgender and gender non-conforming people surveyed were working full-time and 67 percent had experienced some form of employment discrimination. One in four earned wages below the poverty line. Ironically, we found relatively high rates of higher education; however, transgender Californians with a bachelor's degree earned 40 percent less than non-transgender residents: $30,000 compared to $50,000 a year, on average.

Economic injustice, especially when coupled with other oppressions, often leads to other challenges, including health disparities, housing instability, and contact with the criminal "justice" system. Economic stability and health care access/services are closely tied for all groups, but even more so for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Access to gender-related medical treatment, combined with insurance and other denials based on gender non-conformity result in many transgender people putting off basic health care needs. Even when covered by insurance, 42% of the people we surveyed have delayed seeking care because they could not afford it and 30% delayed care due to discrimination by providers; as a result, 26% reported health conditions that got worse due to postponing care. We have to increase access to affordable, bias-free healthcare for transgender people, including primary care, gender-specific care and transition-related care.

Housing and homelessness are also chronic challenges. The State of Transgender California report reveals that one out of five transgender Californians have been homeless at some point since coming out as transgender. Yet shelters often fail to meet the needs of transgender and gender non-conforming people: 31% of our survey respondents who tried to stay at a shelter say they have been denied access.

When people are unable to earn a living wage in the mainstream economy, and when the basic safety net fails, people have to find creative ways to survive. Almost a quarter of the transgender people we surveyed in 2008 have worked in the street economy. This too-often brings members of our community into contact with the criminal justice system where they are likely to experience even more violence and discrimination. And once someone has a criminal record, it becomes even more difficult to secure educational loans and mainstream employment, especially when so few social and employment services are prepared to meet the needs of transgender people.

This toolkit is exploring how funders can better promote racial equity in this country. Through your work at the Transgender Law Center, what are the ways in which racial and economic inequities affect transgender and gender non-conforming people?

While transgender people experience disproportionate amounts of violence, poverty and homelessness, it's very clear from TLC's day-to-day work that transgender people of color face the brunt of these issues. We see a high number of calls about employment discrimination, the vast majority of which come from transgender people of color facing both transphobia and racism at work. Transgender women of color are at a high risk of violence and police harassment, experiencing a high rate of profiling for "walking while trans." TLC also sees a large income gap among white transgender people and transgender people of color that we believe is largely tied to educational disparities. Overall, it is clear to us that our work has to focus on the issues that impact the most marginalized transgender people, which are consistently low-income and transgender people of color.

We see a lot of transgender youth of color dropping out of school or being encouraged to leave school due to their gender identity, and ending up on the streets or in foster care, both of which will have a long-term impact on their economic self-sufficiency. We also see that many organizations are not set up to meet the needs of transgender people in general, but particularly low-income transgender people of color, who experience intersecting oppressions.

We find that many funders are interested in helping shift public policy to better support transgender and gender non-conforming people. What are examples of policies that, if implemented, would improve the quality of for transgender people of color?

There are many policies that could improve the quality of life for transgender people of color, assuming the policies are coupled with advocacy and programs to enforce them.

Comprehensive non-discrimination laws that include "gender identity" and "gender expression" are important tools to reduce discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, schools, healthcare and social services. We need to continue to pass these laws at the local and state level until inclusive and broad protections are secured at the federal level. Laws and policies are only as strong as their enforcement, though.

Once secured, it is critical to educate community members about their rights and to advocate for full implementation and enforcement of the law at the local level. Budget advocacy may be needed to ensure that local and state agencies have the resources needed to investigate and address discrimination complaints, and to create or expand transgender-inclusive employment, health and social service programs.

We need to make it easier for transgender people to have access to identity documents (e.g., driver's licenses, passports, birth certificates, Social Security cards and immigration documents) that match their correct name and gender. To change the gender marker on many identity documents, at least one transition-related surgery is required. This legal standard often restricts access to appropriate identity documents for transgender people who cannot afford surgery (assuming they want it) and, in states that demand genital surgery, may force sterilization on people who would not otherwise choose that path. Eliminating the surgery requirement for legal gender changes would reduce at least one barrier to employment, education, travel and social services.

Prison, healthcare and immigration reform all represent important opportunities for transgender communities of color. Transgender women of color are gravely overrepresented in the prison system, and are thirteen times more likely to be raped than the general population in prison. Thus efforts that promote alternatives to incarceration are resonating for transgender communities, as are policies to increase the health and safety of transgender and gender non-conforming prisoners through improved classification systems and implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Within the health reform debate, eliminating pre-existing conditions, reducing out-of-pocket costs and prohibiting discrimination in the provision of healthcare and insurance coverage would help reduce health disparities. Because transgender women—especially transgender women of color—are disproportionately impacted by HIV, the creation of a national AIDS strategy, and advocacy to protect HIV/AIDS prevention and intervention efforts, are essential. We also need comprehensive immigration reform so that transgender immigrants can come out of the shadows and enjoy full access to employment and healthcare.

It's a promising political moment nationally, mixed with tough economic times. How are these two factors affecting grassroots transgender groups around the country?

It's an interesting time. Transgender issues and people are becoming more visible, creating new opportunities to improve the rights and wellness of our community. We have a handful of staffed, autonomous transgender advocacy organizations that are making real inroads at the local, state and federal levels. In addition, there's incredible grassroots organizing coming out of many local communities—often led by small, volunteer groups or emerging "grasstops" leaders. There's so much potential right now.

Yet increased visibility and progress also bring scrutiny and backlash. We need to build the capacity of autonomous transgender organizations to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities for change and prepare for the likelihood of increased attacks on our rights and organizations. Thankfully, a few LGBT funders have recognized this opportunity and need, and have sustained or increased their grants to transgender organizations even in light of the economic downturn. These grants are still relatively small compared to those distributed to mainstream LGBT organizations; nevertheless, these grants have allowed some autonomous groups to grow even in light of the difficult economy.

Otherwise, it's been difficult to secure new funds in this environment. Most foundations aren't considering new grantees due to the economy, which is challenging for transgender organizations that have never had access to these funding sources. In California, state budget cuts have gutted funding for HIV/AIDS programs, which previously housed grassroots organizing projects employing and targeting transgender women of color.

Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?

I would recommend that any grantmaker who wants to explore funding to LGBTQ communities of color, as well as transgender communities, start with due diligence and research. Understand what issues and opportunities are facing individuals and organizations within the target community—whether that community be issue-oriented, identity-based, or geography-bound. Talk to the organization's staff or key volunteers directly to find out what they are doing, and why they're doing it. Talk with a range of leaders, funders and experts who have worked with autonomous POC and transgender organizations.

Understand that funding to autonomous LGBTQ people of color and transgender organizations by mainstream grantmakers has been historically limited; as a result, don't automatically judge the group's effectiveness or capacity by its size or budget. Be open to funding non-traditional organizational structures and programs—some of the most innovative LGBTQ work is emerging from small grassroots organizations with non-traditional structures. Conversely, be aware that larger, more mainstream organizations may have flashy marketing, but limited impact on the lives of the people they aim to serve.

Masen Davis, Executive Director, Transgender Law Center (San Francisco, CA)

Masen Davis is the Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, a civil rights organization advocating for transgender communities. Prior to TLC, Masen spent six years at United Way of Greater Los Angeles where he managed allocations for 194 agencies, oversaw education/youth grantmaking and raised more than $5.8 million through foundation and corporate giving. Masen has been an activist in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality since 1990.

Transgender Law Center


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