D.C. Advertises for Transgender Acceptance

About Miriam Zoila Pérez

A poster from the campaign.

A poster from the campaign.

Iden Campbell McCollum is the founder of The Campbell Center, a peer-run resource center for people living with mental health challenges. The center serves the primarily low-income and African American community in Southeast Washington, D.C. McCollum, a man in his mid-forties with a bright smile, has been running the Center for almost five years now.1

He is also transgender, and one of five people featured in a groundbreaking new ad campaign that ran on 200 D.C.-area bus shelters from September of 2012 through January 2013.

While the definition varies from individual to individual, transgender people generally are those who identify with a gender that is different from the one they were assigned at birth. For McCollum that means while he was assigned female at birth, he has come to identify as male and has made steps toward embracing that identity.

Now he is part of the first ever city government-funded ad campaign to address respect for transgender people. You might find McCollum featured on a bus shelter, full bodied and larger than life, with the quote, “I love the wharf, listening to jazz at Westminster Church and playing basketball with other guys. I’m a transgender man and I’m part of DC.”2 Of the four other people featured in the series, two are transgender women; another is a transgender man, and the fifth person’s ad features language about gender nonconformity (“I may not fit some ideas about gender, and I’m a proud part of DC”).

McCollum says he was inspired to participate in part because of the murder of Campbell Center intern, Lashai McLean, in July 2011. A trans woman, she was fatally shot one evening while walking home in Northeast D.C. The details remain unsolved, but McCollum says he thinks her death may have been related to her gender identity: “Had [the assailant] been educated that trans people are people like anyone else, maybe they could have passed by each other in a safe manner.”

If it was a bias crime, that wouldn’t be unusual in Washington. According to the DC Trans Coalition, “Since July 2011, there have been over 60 attacks against trans people in DC, according to information published by DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Overall, anti-trans violence made up 14 percent of all anti-LGBT violence in 2011.”3 The Metropolitan Police Department keeps detailed statistics of bias crimes in the District, and anti-LGBTQ crimes top all categories by leaps and bounds. For example, in 2010, 57 percent of all bias-related crimes were based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The next highest percentage, bias crimes related to race, only accounted for 30 percent of crimes.4 And even these statistics may not reflect the true reality of crimes against transgender people specifically. Captain Edward Delgado of the MPD says that reporting for bias crimes against transgender people have historically not been representative of what police believe, from anecdotal reports, takes place in the city.5

This ad campaign, spearheaded by the city’s Office of Human Rights, is just one effort among a number that aims to improve conditions for transgender and gender nonconforming residents of Washington, D.C. Elliot Imse, Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the Office of Human Rights, says the ad campaign came about after a group of transgender advocates sat down with recently elected Mayor Vincent Gray in August 2011 to discuss unemployment among transgender people in the district. According to those at the meeting, the new Mayor was eager to work with the community to improve conditions. One project that resulted was a specific job-training program for transgender residents. Another was the ad campaign.6

What Transgender People Face

Data about the transgender community remains limited because few national surveys, for example, the Census, or the National Health Interview Survey, ask about transgender identity. What we do know nationally suggests a community that faces extreme levels of discrimination across all aspects of life—from the workplace, to housing and health care. The most comprehensive survey to date is collected in Injustice at Every Turn, a 2011 report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the National Center for Transgender Equity (NCTE). Based on a survey of 6400 self-identified transgender and gender nonconforming people in the United States, the researchers found that 90 percent had faced some sort of harassment or discrimination on the job, or hid their gender identity to avoid it. The report concludes,

Transgender and gender nonconforming people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers and other service providers.7

Each individual’s path to discovering their transgender identity is distinct. McCollum says a turning point for him was a magazine cover story in 2006. “The article talked to kids who lived in California who were five or six years old, and they were already living the gender they felt they were inside.” Up until that point, McCollum says he’d feel a connection with the men he knew growing up who dressed like women, or tomboys, or gays and lesbians, but he didn’t exactly know why. But after reading that article, he understood and was emboldened. “If these kids can do it, I can do it. They were so powerful in the way they lived the life they felt and that’s when I knew it was time for me to live the life I felt inside as well.”

While more and more attention is paid to kids who are discovering their transgender identity at younger and younger ages, for the majority of transgender people in the United States today, the path is much longer. Of the transgender people surveyed for Injustice at Every Turn, a majority transitioned between the ages of 18 and 44, with transgender women transitioning much later in life than transgender men.8

Lisa Mottet, Transgender Rights Attorney at NGLTF and one of the authors of the report, explains that 45 percent of the country, by population, is covered by anti-discrimination laws that protect transgender and gender nonconforming people. “Laws are part of the solution,” Mottet says, “but the other part of the solution is making sure the public gets to a better place with regard to respecting transgender people.”9 Laws only go so far in providing protection against discrimination because many people don’t know the laws exist, or don’t know how to seek recourse when they are discriminated against in an illegal manner. Consuella Lopez, one of those featured in the D.C. ad campaign, told me she faced discrimination when she tried to apply for private health insurance. “I was denied health insurance for being transgender in the state of Maryland. The preexisting condition was gender identity.”10 At the suggestion of friends, Consuella moved into D.C., where she successfully applied for insurance coverage.

Unfortunately, discrimination can also end with loss of life or serious injury. Some of what puts transgender people at physical risk says Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, is the difficulty finding employment due to discrimination.11 This lack of economic opportunity means transgender people are more likely to make a living in the underground economy, including sex work and drug sales—increasing their risk of incarceration and violence associated with those industries. This is particularly true for transgender women of color, who face even higher levels of discrimination and violence than their White counterparts. “We know that transgender women of color are more likely to be on the street trying to survive, they are more likely to be homeless, more likely to be engaging in sex work or selling drugs to survive because they have been shut out of traditional employment,” explains Mottet. “They’ve been harassed and physically assaulted in schools, they’ve dropped out of school, they may or may not have a welcoming family.”

Opposition to Trans Rights

Despite the widespread evidence that transgender people face serious levels of discrimination, there is often strong opposition to laws or policies that might protect them. While the Christian Right is among the most outspoken (see box), rightwing beltway groups like the Heritage Foundation also campaign against such bills as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). 12 Supported by President Barack Obama, ENDA would bar large, civilian, nonreligious employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The opposition to trans acceptance is wide reaching locally and nationally. In Anoka, Minnesota, a town represented in Congress by Representative Michele Bachmann, conservatives are resisting an anti-bullying task force created by the school board under court order after eight students committed suicide over just a few years.13 In October 2012 the East Aurora Illinois School Board unanimously passed a policy requiring school officials to respect transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns, and accommodate them in physical education and athletics. Five days later, the same school board abruptly voted to rescind the policy after facing pressure organized by the Illinois Family Institute, a conservative Christian group affiliated with the American Family Association. In a blog post titled East Aurora High School Board of Education Adopts Radical Policy on Gender Confusion, the Illinois group posted an email link to the school board, urging supporters to object to the policy pushed by “gender/sexuality anarchists” on boys and girls with “healthy desires.” It also argued that the “objective biological sex” of children should be used to determine what pronouns and bathrooms they use.14 Chicago public radio station WBEZ reports that the school board officials received close to 1000 emails, suggesting the post resonated with a substantial number of people. 15 The irony is that Illinois law already protects transgender people, and this school board policy could simply be seen as “implementing and making sure the school district complies with state law” says Mottet.

Changing Hearts and Minds

Clearly trans advocates must not only change laws, but hearts and minds as well. Gender identity is a fundamental part of the fabric of our society—underpinning much of how we interact with one another, how we relate to each other and how we see ourselves. So perhaps it’s not surprising that controversy erupts over questions about whether our identities are as fixed as we believe.

But, as with many communities facing bias, if someone knows a transgender person they are much more likely to be accepting. And that, in many ways, is the goal of the Washington D.C. ad campaign—to introduce the public to a range of transgender people, and demonstrate how they are more than just their gender. When I asked activists about the biggest challenge facing transgender people today, many cited low visibility. McCullom said, “I think with the ads and with people starting to come out and talk more, see that we own businesses, we’re artists, we have government jobs. As people see us more, things will change and some of the barriers will start coming down.” Ryan Sallans, a prominent transgender activist who extensively documented his gender transition online, agrees. “The biggest challenge is just ignorance around this issue, around what the term transgender means,” says Sallans. “In the past seven years people are going out and sharing their stories, you’re putting a personal face to the stories.”16

But visibility was just one of the goals of the campaign—another was to educate the public that discriminating against transgender people in the District of Columbia is against the law. And the goal of that, ultimately, is to actually decrease discrimination against transgender people in the District. In 2006, gender identity and discrimination were added to the Human Rights Act through a unanimous vote by the DC City Council, paving the way for the Office of Human Rights to handle complaints. The number of claims based on gender identity and expression remains very low, but Isme argues the figures don’t reflect the discrimination advocates believe is commonplace.

Most agree that this campaign is groundbreaking in its content and goals, particularly as a campaign funded by a city government. Developing it took much longer than expected, says Imse. “We started building a campaign in April [2012], and we thought we’d get it out in two months. It ended up being a six-month campaign and we knew it was delicate and we knew we had one shot at this. We decided to invest the time, be careful and make sure we got it right.” “Getting it right” included three focus groups with transgender residents and advocates, as well as extensive consultations with local and national organizations working on transgender issues. The main theme that emerged was promoting respect for transgender people, Isme said. The ads also reflect the desire to show that transgender people are also members of the broader D.C. community.

While the campaign budget was only $24,000, thanks to social media and the efforts of the Office of Human Rights in publicizing the campaign beyond D.C., it seems to be having an outsized impact. Consuella Lopez talks of receiving many media requests from local and national outlets, and even an interview with a Mexican radio station.

The question remains whether this kind of campaign can actually change hearts and minds enough to have a positive effect on the experiences of transgender residents. While changing policy may seem to be the bigger hurdle, changing people’s attitudes might actually be the real battle. On this front, at least in terms of this ad campaign, people are optimistic. “Absolutely,” responded Mara Keisling, when asked whether the ad campaign could be effective. “What we’ve seen with every single population that has been disrespected and discriminated against and had violence committed against them— it’s about education. It’s about educating people that these are people…, that society is not okay with you being a jerk to these people [and] that violence against anybody is not tolerated. And this [ad campaign] starts going toward all these things.”

Mottet of NGLTF was similarly optimistic. “I think there are so many well meaning good folks out there who don’t know anything about transgender people other than what they see on TV. Although it’s just an ad so it can only do so much, it paints a different picture of a transgender person.”

Whether the ad campaign can reduce violence against transgender people is less clear. This was not the stated aim of the ads, but Imse did acknowledge that the subject came up in the focus groups, and that he sees a connection. “It’s kind of implicit that if discrimination is banned, violence is not going be tolerated,” he explained. McCollum agreed. “You know you definitely can’t say one hundred percent for sure that an ad like this can ever prevent something like [Lashai’s murder]. But you hope that ad can spark something in them that says if I kill this person they can never come back. Is it cruel to kill that person just because of that? If it can spark that conversation, it’s worth it.”

Sallans, while applauding the ads, says that the real difference might come because the campaign displays support from city officials. It’s an important question to explore because efforts to stem bias crimes tend to focus on laws which enforce harsher sentences on perpetrators, an approach that has received much criticism from activists.17 This ad campaign, however loosely tied to an effort to stem violence, represents a different path toward improving public opinion of transgender people.

In D.C., the ad campaign is part of a much larger effort by the City to improve the lives of transgender people, including a mayor-initiated job-training program specifically for transgender residents. Project Empowerment helps those with a criminal record find and maintain employment, and now has a cohort specifically for transgender residents. The first cohort placed 19 residents in job training full-time for one month. Then they were placed in jobs with area businesses and local government, with the city paying their salaries for three to six months. Mottet explains, “[During that period] the ‘hard to place’ employee has the ability to prove themselves and then the employer often hires that person outright because that person has now been proven to be a good employee.” Because bias towards transgender people is so strong, this kind of facilitated relationship has proven instrumental to helping them secure employment. The program was continued for a second cohort, and now transgender people, regardless of their criminal background, are integrated into the program as a whole.

Mottet gives credit to Mayor Gray for these changes, but some of the other areas where D.C. is a leader preceded his tenure. The Metropolitan Police Department, for example, has long been at the forefront of other police departments when it comes to reaching out to the LGBTQ community. Captain Edward Delgado oversees the MPD’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit which trains officers to work specifically in this community. 18 One of four liaison units – the others are for Asian, Latino, and deaf and hard of hearing residents – they are often led by members of the community itself. In this regard, D.C. is also a trailblazer, and Captain Delgado reports that other jurisdictions have begun replicating the model.

But while the MPD has won much praise and attention for its efforts, there continue to be criticisms of its work within the community.19 Following a shooting involving an off-duty police officer and three trans women in August 2011, the DC Trans Coalition published an op-ed in a local gay newspaper about its concerns with the MPD.20 A recent New York Times article also detailed the complaints of the community against the MPD, particularly police Chief Lanier, and how it has handled outreach in the LGBTQ community.21

So while the efforts of the D.C. government related to transgender people are groundbreaking in many respects, Mottet is hesitant to call D.C. a model. “[D.C. has] a lot of good things that are moving forward but there is so much poverty and violence and isolation that I wouldn’t yet say it’s a model. It’s got too far to go. What DC does have that a lot of other places don’t have is a significant number of policies that purport and aim to create equal opportunities.”

That is no small feat, particularly when the picture for transgender people nationally remains bleak, and societal acceptance remains at the end of a long road also traveled by social conservatives. Sallans, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, far from many of the cities with the groundbreaking programs, remains optimistic about the future. “We have so many families coming out and supporting their kids. They are working with the school systems to change policy. There is so much building in terms of organizations today and it’s only going to improve what is happening for our youth who are growing up. I think we don’t give enough people credit for the compassion they have.”

Trans Issues and the Christian Right

Christian Right groups like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council (FRC), and the American Family Association (AFA) share an aversion to trans people that motivates their campaigns against the East Aurora School Board and other targets.

Their public pronouncements diminish transgender as an identity and they often use dismissive language that conflates it with cross-dressing, for instance by deriding “boys who dress as girls.”22 In challenging the legitimacy of transgender identity, the groups sometimes cite the Bible as evidence, other times biology or genetics. In 2011, when the Girl Scouts reversed a troop leader’s decision to bar a young transgender girl from joining the group, FRC and AFA both registered outrage. Cathy Ruse, senior legal fellow at FRC, said the decision to include transgender girls in the scout troop was “child sexual abuse, the violation of children’s genetic reality.”

The Christian Right also depicts transgender people – along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people — as having made an immoral “choice,” suggesting that they are not eligible for legal protection. Peter Sprigg, Vice President for Policy at FRC, writes: “What both race and sex have in common is that they are inborn, involuntary, immutable, and in the Constitution of the United States. None of those criteria apply, however, to the voluntary decision of some individuals to present themselves to the public with a “gender identity” which is the opposite of the inborn biological sex that is written immutably in the chromosomes found in every cell of their bodies.”23

Focus on the Family’s 2008 statement against “transgenderism” makes religious arguments saying it violates God’s plan for a world with clearly distinct sexes and the nuclear family. It states, “In recent years, a revisionist transgender theology has been put forth in some theological circles that violates God’s clearly articulated and intentional design for the sexes – thereby distorting His image and His plan for sexuality, marriage, family and the just and proper ordering of society.”24

Christian conservatives also deem transgender people as victims of the failure of the nuclear family. At the end of her post about the Girl Scouts, FRC’s Ruse makes this connection: “Dare I state the obvious, unspoken truth? This poor little boy [the transgender girl being allowed entry to the girl scouts] desperately needs a father.”25

1 Iden McCullom, phone interview, October 25, 2012.
2 Washington DC Office of Human Rights.
3 DC Trans Coalition.
4 Michael Pavlik, email communication, November 1, 2012.
5 Captain Edward Delgado, phone interview, October 29, 2012.
6 Elliot Imse, in person interview, October 24, 2012.
7 Jaime Grant, Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, (Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011), 1.
8 Grant et al, Injustice at Every Turn, 26.
9 Lisa Mottet, phone interview, October 25, 2012.
10 Consuella Lopez, phone interview, October 25, 2012.
11 Mara Keisling, phone interview, October 16, 2012.
12 Thomas M. Messner, ENDA and the path to same sex marriage (Washington DC: Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, September 18, 2009). Accessed December 19, 2012.
13Eric Eckholm, “Eight Suicides in Two Years at Anoka-Hennepin School District,” New York Times, September 13, 2011. Tim Post, “Anoka-Hennepin School Board hears petitioners seeking ouster of anti-bullying task force member,” Minnesota Public Radio, December 10, 2012.
14 Laurie Higgins, “East Aurora High School Board of Education Adopts Radical Policy on Gender Confusion,” Illinois Family Institute.
15 Lewis Wallace, “In turnabout, East Aurora school district tosses out transgender protections,” WBEZ91.5.
16 Ryan Sallans, phone interview, October 26, 2012.
17 Kay Whitlock, “Reconsidering Hate: A Forum on the ‘Hate’ Frame in Policy, Politics and Organizing,” Public Eye, Summer 2012.
18 Captain Delgado, phone interview, October 29, 2012.
19 Sadie Vashti, “Discussing the Causes of Violence Against Trans Women,” DC Trans Coalition.
20 Elijah Adiv Edelman and Jason A. Terry, “DCTC’s Chief Problem,” Metro Weekly, January 25, 2012.
21 Theo Emery, “Antigay Crime Remains Steady in Washington Despite Work of Special Unit”, New York Times, November 24, 2012.
22 Cathy Ruse, “Male and Female He Created Them,” Family Research Council blog, accessed December 19, 2012.
23 Peter Sprigg, “The Transgender Movement and ‘Discrimination,’ ” Testimony of Peter Sprigg to the Maryland State Senate, March 4, 2009. (Accessed December 19, 2012).
24 Focus on the Family, “Our Position (Transgenderism),” accessed October 10, 2012.
25 Ruse, “Male and Female He Created Them.”

Miriam Zoila Pérez, a former staffer of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, is a columnist at RH Reality Check and a former Editor of Feministing.com. Her writing also has appeared in The Nation, Colorlines, Alternet, The American Prospect, and in a number of anthologies. She was chosen as a 2010 Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voice in Non-Fiction and runs the blog Radical Doula.