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How LGBT Organizations Can Be Better Transgender Advocates

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LongLiveRock/Flickr
LongLiveRock/Flickr

In the aftermath of the Piers Morgan and Janet Mock dustup, a number of people have written excellent articles on what being a good transgender ally means to them. One thing that has struck me, though, is that very little has been written on how a supposedly LGBT-inclusive organization can be a good ally. It has become evident to me that there needs to be an "Organizational Competency on Transgender Issues 101."

As we win marriage equality, the focus of the right wing is shifting to "religious liberty" and anti-transgender legislation. Organizations will have to become more competent with transgender issues while figuring out how to raise money to advocate on the same. Here are some ideas for LGBT organizational best practices.

1. Present information to the transgender community in a way that doesn't alienate them.

This year I have seen a number of non-transgender presenters who are subject-matter experts on messaging and polling completely alienate their audiences, even though the information they were presenting was accurate. One presenter told a group of transgender organizers what their focus group research had shown in very stark terms. Unfortunately, the way it came across to the transgender people in the room was that we should just get used to being hated. The solutions offered did nothing to address this core problem of being despised and labeled.

Everyone in the room was furious, disengaged or depressed. Many people who would otherwise have been engaged left feeling that there was little or no point to working on the issue. The solutions the cis allies presented felt like offering an aspirin to someone being horse-whipped.

It is fine to share what your research says. However, keep in mind how the audience will hear it. Don't ask them to accept the unacceptable. If you offer solutions, have them address the core problem. If your audience is unhappy with your solutions, be prepared to negotiate and brainstorm to get to a place you can both live with. Ultimately, your client is the transgender community.

2. Don't cut deals on behalf of the transgender community without them in the room.

At another recent briefing, a cisgender ally revealed her asks in a policy discussion on behalf of the transgender community. The terms she had come up with would have left half the people in the room out in the cold, and the other half sided with the people being left behind. Instantly, the trust between her organization and the transgender people she was representing was broken.

Making decisions on behalf of a community to which you don't belong and haven't gained the support of is paternalistic. When LGB leaders assume they are more "qualified" or "informed" or "positioned," they fail to take into account how they got there. The reason that transgender people aren't in these decision-making positions is systemic oppression and exclusionary politics, or the fact that information is being deliberately withheld from transgender community members.

Making decisions on behalf of the transgender community when you know they will be outraged by it implies that you believe that (1) you are making decisions based on factors that members of the trans community couldn't possibly understand, (2) you better know the needs of the community than the community itself, and (3) you are more "objective."

If you're speaking on behalf of the transgender community with no actual transgender people in the process, you're doing it wrong. Period.

3. Develop and mentor transgender leadership.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from the LGB community is that there's not enough real transgender leaders to press their issues. In reality, transgender people are more than twice as likely to be veterans with leadership skills. We are also twice as likely as the general population to hold advanced degrees. If it seems like your organization can't find qualified transgender leaders, you probably need to look at your requirements. Asking for a $10,000 give/get from people who frequently live in abject poverty is one barrier. Another is only hiring people to your staff who have very specific degrees (public policy or law).

In the business world, companies will make what are known as "capability hires." This is a fancy term for bringing someone on board who is talented but just requires industry experience to realize their full potential. With deliberate mentoring by others within the organization, these capability hires can quickly become the dynamic leaders the hiring authority envisioned. LGBT organizations should consider a similar model when it comes to the transgender community.

4. Let transgender people lead on their own issues.

One complaint I have heard within the LGBT movement is that it is too difficult to mobilize the transgender community. I would reply, "Who have you given them to get behind? Have you seen the community rally behind Laverne Cox and Janet Mock recently? The evidence shows that the community will rally around their own."

Once an organization has developed a cadre of capable transgender leaders, let them get out in front on issues that are vital to the transgender community. You're there as an organization to support their efforts and provide guidance and infrastructure. I think you'll be pleased with the results.

5. Say no to tokenism.

Someone once said to me, "If you've met a transgender person, you've met one transgender person." One individual cannot represent an entire, diverse community by themselves. The experiences of transgender women and men are very different. So are the experiences of transgender persons of color. Veteran status is another differentiator. So is religious affiliation. When you have only one or two transgender people in the organization, and nowhere in leadership, you don't get to claim to be diverse.

One way to avoid the appearance of tokenism is to select transgender individuals with the drive, intellect, and willingness to learn that are necessary for them to grow into their leadership role within the organization and community, and invest resources in their professional development.

6. Marriage is not the model.

The recent gains we have seen on marriage issues came after the end of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), and at a point where most people know a lesbian or gay person. The transgender community lags far behind in terms of acceptance. Legislative successes for just the transgender community are proving very difficult as a result. The GENDA bill in New York is an example. Legislative work like GENDA is vital, but a great deal of progress can be made in other ways.

Regulatory and behind-the-scenes work on specific policy issues that reduce institutional barriers to full participation in public life by transgender people has been very successful. Engaging individual businesses and government agencies on health care, requirements for changing gender markers on identification, and handling of transgender inmates have proven to be winnable discussions.

Not every fight has to be loud, proud, and public. This is particularly true for the transgender community, where so many of the barriers to our community do not require legislative solutions.

7. Be prepared for the next phase of the movement.

The end of the marriage equality fight is in sight. At the same time, we can anticipate waves of anti-transgender legislation and fear mongering. LGBT organizations will have to find a way to raise money on transgender issues or risk the fate of organizations centered around ending DADT, which were not positioned to continue the fight for transgender service.

If your LGBT organization isn't already working on transgender issues in an effective way, you may be too late to save it already.