Looking Beyond the Headlines at the Transgender Movement

Levi Strauss & Co.
June 27, 2017

Between the political and pop culture headlines, the transgender community is receiving more attention these days than ever. But that increased visibility has generated its share of mixed responses.

For all the support the cause has garnered through the visibility of those like Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner, there’s also been a backlash, resulting in increased attacks against transgender people. And it is those very real latter struggles that are driving the work of Kris Hayashi, executive director at the Transgender Law Center, the country’s largest organization advocating for the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

“The story that is still not as visible in the mainstream is the realities that the majority of trans people in this country face, ongoing discrimination and violence,” Kris said. “Particularly if people’s references to the transgender community are based on celebrities, the hard realities do get lost.”

Given the current political environment, Kris and the law center are focused on the vulnerability of transgender people, especially immigrant trans people.  Members of this community face dual stigma in this country and are often the victim of extreme discrimination and violence. If they were deported to their home countries, not only do they face the risk of violence, but in many countries their transgender status would deem them criminals.

The law center is also dealing with a huge uptick in people who are scrambling to get their identification to officially reflect their correct name and gender, spurred on by fear that this will become more difficult – or impossible – under the current presidential administration.

“That has a huge impact on people’s ability to live our lives – everything from finding employment to getting housing,” Kris said.

But the silver lining for a community that has lived in the shadows for decades is that they know how to survive, and keep each other safe, in the face of adversity, Kris said. And that resilience – honed by generations spent without much in the way of legal protections – is coming in handy.

“It is incredibly inspiring to see the work that people have been doing for decades without support or resources under very challenging conditions – and the real hunger that these leaders have to do more,” Kris said.

Prepping for a legislative fight

In response to the recent wave of anti-trans “bathroom bills” – legislation aimed at restricting the public restrooms that transgender people can use – the Transgender Law Center partnered with the Transgender Justice Project to launch national trainings for trans leaders from states facing these bills. For people who had never had access to training, or even networks of other trans leaders, it’s a pivotal chance to gain the experience and connections they needed to fight back, Kris said.

And along the way, there have been victories to celebrate.

People across the country who never had a reference point for transgender issues – or only had very negative ones – have become more aware of the community.

New funding sources are helping to invigorate the movement – including the Levi Strauss Foundation, which included Kris in its Pioneers 2020 program supporting innovative social justice leaders, and recently announced the Transgender Law Center as a grantee of its $1 million grant supporting marginalized populations. The Arcus Foundation has also pledged $20 million for the Global Trans Initiative, dedicated to improving the lives of transgender people around the world.

Recently, the Transgender Law Center made headlines of its own with a win in a federal appeals court that gave a Wisconsin high school student the right to use the boys’ bathroom.

Another cause for optimism has been the outpouring of support from people, both inside and outside the transgender community, who want to help.

For those supporters, Kris suggests a donation to one of the many under-resourced trans-led organizations around the country, or volunteering with the Transgender Law Center’s community resistance team, which trains community members to provide information and resources to people who need it.

These are challenging times for many marginalized communities, but Kris and the Transgender Law center are together courageously leaning into the immediacy of these challenges, while also taking the long view and laying the groundwork for a time when transgender people are fully accepted members of society.

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