For a long time, we as trans, gender nonbinary, and intersex (TGNBI)* individuals have been asking for organizations and institutions to be inclusive and understanding of our community,” summed up veteran community leader Bamby Salcedo in a recent conversation. “It has been a long struggle.”
In recent years, there has been more widespread attention to the disproportionate burden of HIV in trans communities—a recent meta-analysis found that trans women are 66 times more likely, and trans men almost seven times more likely, to be living with HIV than the general population of adults worldwide. Not only these stunning numbers, but also the conditions of social exclusion and constantly looming physical and structural violence that increase vulnerability to HIV among TGNBI communities, are also more widely known. However, the volume of groups providing authentically affirming, appropriate services for and with people of trans experience has not nearly kept pace with the magnitude of need for such spaces, nor have funds to support their creation.
POSITIVELY AWARE asked six stakeholders holding a range of roles—from training to cutting-edge research to grassroots organizational development and broader queer and women’s community leadership—for their thoughts on what organizations ought to consider, and often overlook, in approaching inclusion of transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary clients and staff.
* A note about language: Slight differences in the ways interviewees refer to communities of transgender/gender nonconforming experience remain as they stated them, without being edited for consistency throughout this article. Acronyms are included at times for brevity.
Investing in community expertise
Tori Cooper, Director of Community Engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative, Human Rights Campaign, Washington, D.C.: “I believe the single most important point is to have trans people at the center of the work: in decision-making, implementation and, when appropriate, evaluation processes. This starts by employing trans people to do ‘trans work.’
“Being the ‘first’ or ‘only’ comes with a certain level of tokenism in itself. It is the responsibility of the individual to open doors for others. But it should also be the priority of every institution to increase diversity in myriad ways.”
Tonia Poteat, PhD, MPH, PAC, Associate Professor of Social Medicine at University of North Carolina System, Durham, North Carolina: “Promoting and supporting trans/nonbinary [TNB] leadership within and outside the organization is important for equitable partnerships. Hiring TNB people into meaningful positions in the organization is important and may require identifying existing barriers to employment [e.g., unnecessary background checks or educational requirements] and removing those barriers.”
Bamby Salcedo, Cofounder, President and CEO of Translatin@ Coalition and the Center for Violence Prevention and Transgender Wellness, Los Angeles: “Even some of us who are employed at organizations that have programs specifically dedicated for trans people are also limited by, for one, not necessarily having decision-making power [in the organization].
“Although there are some organizations that do understand the struggle and experience of TGNBI people, we as a community have also realized that we have to create our own organizations.”
Heidi Breaux, DWS, LCSW-R Founder, Heidi Breaux Consulting, LLC, New Orleans, Louisiana: “TNB people should be on every board and every executive team of every organization that is LGBTQIA+ serving. It is long past time we stop defining people by their educational experience and credentials.
“We have existed in a community of TNB elders that have survived unimaginable oppression by always pooling our resources, learning information, and supporting each other. Therefore, we have expertise on many topics—which shouldn’t be given away for free to help cis people excel in career paths that we are excluded from.
“Putting cisgender expectations on TNB people’s work experience is a mistake. The life experience of TNB people provides qualifications that are unmatched by any university, program, or degree.”
Wendi Moore-O’Neal, Co-Director, Southerners on New Ground, New Orleans, Louisiana: “I came out in Atlanta in the ’90s, as a 19-year-old. At that time, most of the organizations that were organized in public were organized around addressing HIV/AIDS. So many of the people who I knew, and connected to, and associated with around queer justice were people who were connected to, or starting, organizations that addressed HIV—and so many of those folks were trans.
“Whatever we are doing in [the] queer movement, we should know that we are following behind trans people—we are the beneficiaries of things that trans people have already done.”
Understanding and respecting lived experiences
Salcedo: “The needs of our community are very complex. Organizations that are not trans-led don’t necessarily understand the root of the issues and the struggles of the community, nor support communities the way they need to be supported.”
Poteat: “It’s important for organizations to take the time to really understand the lived experiences of transgender people with whom they seek to work. Take the time to engage with existing community leaders [formal and informal]. Understand what is already being done by the members of TNB communities, then collaborate to facilitate addressing community priorities.”
Katie Adsila Willingham, Co-Chair of the Alabama Chapter of the Positive Women’s Network-USA; Community Advisory Board member and blogger for The Well Project; Alabama: “[At the first women living with HIV event I attended, in 2016], the women completely respected me and treated me like I wasn’t a stranger. They respected me for who I was, and it was like it was nothing to them. That was the first time I had experienced that, especially being from Alabama. That really meant a lot to me, to feel that respected and that affirmed. The affirmation and support that I felt were among the biggest reasons why I got into advocacy.
“I’ve been really happy with the organizations I have been fortunate enough to come in contact with and be a part of.”
Acknowledging intersections (and disconnections)
Breaux: “More organizations should take into consideration the diversity of the TNB community. Having one trans client two years ago, one trans person on staff, multiple masculine-centered white nonbinary clients, is not doing the work.
“To provide affirmative services to the TNB community, in addition to best practices for inclusiveness with gender, you also have to create a safe space that welcomes BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and other people of color) folx, immigrants including undocumented people, formerly and wrongfully arrested and incarcerated people, non- or limited-English speakers, neurodiverse people, family, youth, elders, housing insecure people, long-term HIV survivors, and so much more. This is the TNB community.”
Cooper: “It is often easier to hire a Harvard-trained person of trans experience than it is to hire a Black trans person who lives in the same ZIP code as your organization. [Yet] simply being Black or trans does not automatically mean your employee is connected to the community. … Often, the most impactful and meaningful work will come from people who more closely align with the work.”
Moore-O’Neal “All trans people are not challenging transphobia or committed to transforming patriarchy (which in my mind is the root of the issue), or capitalism, or white supremacy. … While visibility matters, and representation matters, [a person’s] politics, and agenda, and commitments, matter even more.”
Integrating individual and cultural transformation
Poteat: “Organizations often overlook the need for internal change. Aspects of existing organizational culture may need to change in order to truly meet the needs of their clients. Organizations may need to fundamentally rethink how they conduct business to ensure that their organization and the services provided are truly welcoming, inclusive, acceptable, and appropriate.”
Moore-O’Neal: “We had a trans woman at our last in-person membership meeting say: What’s happening here? How is the work with Black trans women in particular in this region being supported by SONG [Southerners on New Ground, which has supported queer and trans community organizing in the U.S. South since 1993]? That was a really valid question, and I think they were able to ask that question because SONG has been asking those questions of itself, as a space where the leadership takes those questions seriously.”
Salcedo: “The root of the problem is the structure that has marginalized and discriminated against us. What needs to happen [in organizations] is setting policies that are non-discriminatory, and non-biased, and also providing cultural transformation to employees to change the culture that has been created to not understand, include, or even validate TGNCI people.
“Cultural transformation is not capacity building—it is transforming the culture within institutions, to then transform the broader culture of society.”
Moore-O’Neal: “Yes, I’ve internalized white supremacy, homophobia, patriarchy, capitalism, transphobia … I have a commitment to fighting transphobia, but that doesn’t erase the ways I have internalized these notions. I’m not trying to pretend it’s not there; I’m trying to have a kind of hygiene about it. Just as you have to brush your teeth, and floss, and have a daily regimen for maintaining oral hygiene—how I see it is, what are my practices that help me to maintain my liberatory hygiene? And those [times when my hygiene might need improvement] are actually valuable for me to be able to reflect on and grow, putting into practice what I have learned.”
Honoring commitments—or facing consequences
Willingham: “It helps to not treat trans individuals like ‘trans individuals’—just treating us the same as anyone else, to me, is a big thing.”
Breaux: “It’s nice to have all-gender bathrooms, but how is staff held accountable when they misgender someone at the front door? How are workers who oppress TNB people in the workplace [intentionally or unintentionally] receiving consequences?”
Salcedo: “What oftentimes happens is that policies are created, but then individuals don’t even know or understand them, and they still do the same things. There needs to be an accountability process for organizations and leaders when [exclusionary] situations happen. They should not continue to get funding to do this work if they are not capable of doing it … and individuals who don’t follow the values of the organization should no longer be there.”
Olivia G. Ford (she, her; they, their) is a freelance editor/writer and editorial director for The Well Project, an online information, support and advocacy resource serving women living with HIV across the gender spectrum. Her work has appeared in Black AIDS Weekly, POSITIVELY AWARE, POZ, Rewire, and TheBody/TheBodyPro, among other outlets. She has worked primarily in HIV-related media since 2007.