Early on a Saturday morning in March, Trans United Fund (TUF) board co-chair Hayden Mora received a phone call from a concerned mother in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, Illinois. She told him how a national hate group, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), had been working with anti-equality state legislators and local hate groups to target trans kids in their district for over a year.
She and 30 other moms had been meeting on a daily basis in recent months, calling and going door to door in their neighborhoods to talk to community members, but they were worried about an upcoming school board election.
“She knew that ADF was a multi-million dollar organization,” Mora recalls. “They knew they needed more support, so she asked if we could help.”
At the center of the fight was a policy adopted by Illinois’ District 211 school board in 2013, which required district schools to comply with Department of Education guidance and allow transgender students to use the locker rooms and restrooms consistent with their gender identity. After a failed lawsuit against the district over this policy, the ADF — an organization designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center — was now attempting to interfere with school board elections and install anti-trans board members.
The ADF and similar organizations have mobilized effective campaigns against LGBTQ civil rights ordinances and promoted anti-trans “bathroom” bills across the nation in recent years, as part of a larger conservative backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling. These anti-LGBTQ campaigns have increasingly focused on demonizing trans people and portraying them as predators. In the first three months of 2017, the ADF and their affiliated attorneys initiated an anti-trans campaign in the Anoka-Hennepin Minnesota School Board, sued a Pennsylvania school district for having a trans-friendly bathroom policy, and attempted to interfere with the passage of a trans-inclusive policy in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey.
While many LGBTQ organizations have failed to effectively shift their post-marriage equality resources toward defeating these campaigns and larger trans-led organizations continue to focus on national policy fights, some trans leaders are making waves both in and out of traditional organizing structures.
Building on decades of local community-based organizing, Trans United Fund has brought together movement leaders from across the country who have one important thing in common: they’re all transgender. Most of TUF’s leadership is also transgender women of color, representing a community that suffers the highest rates of employment and housing discrimination, poverty, and violence.
Within mainstream LGBTQ organizations, transgender people of color are routinely tokenized, trotted out at opportune times to demonstrate a group’s “commitment to diversity,” which too often stops short of hiring them in leadership positions, even to work on trans campaigns. These organizations have accumulated a series of defeats like the disastrous loss over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in 2015, arguably because they failed to listen to trans leadership.
“We’ve seen this model of organizing fail time and again,” said Monica Roberts, a Trans United Fund board member and a black, trans leader who was on the front lines of the fight in Houston. “It seems simple and logical to say that trans people should be at the forefront of efforts to change laws and public opinion about themselves, but for some reason, most of these larger organizations haven’t realized that yet. That needs to change.”
“Centering trans people in the fight against anti-trans laws, rhetoric, and violence is the only path toward justice,” added trans attorney Chase Strangio, who leads much of the trans-focused legal efforts and advocacy with the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project. “In particular, the voices, narratives and resistance strategies of trans women and femmes of color are essential (and always have been) to disrupting the structures of discrimination and violence that have long targeted our communities.”
In Illinois’ District 211, the ADF and their handful of local allies took aim at three school board members who supported trans students, running anti-trans candidates against them. So Trans United Fund rallied their meager resources and went to Palatine. With less than two weeks until the school board election, TUF’s board reached out to statewide LGBTQ group Equality Illinois, and the two groups worked with more than 30 local parents, youth, and trans community members, creating mailers, organizing volunteers, and centering local trans people. And this time, they won.
“We took on a hateful slate of school board candidates affiliated with a multimillion dollar anti-equality organization intent on rolling back protections for trans youth,” explained LaSaia Wade, Chicago board member of Trans United Fund. “We started at a 10-to-1 fundraising disadvantage and had less than two weeks to organize, but we beat them in three out of three races. We took what these hate groups hoped would be a national model to intimidate local officials across the country and turned it into a model for defeating hate.”
What’s truly unique about what happened in Illinois is not only that this coalition won, but that it was led by trans advocates, trans community members, and the parents and allies of Palatine’s trans youth. No celebrities, no well-known LGBTQ movement leaders — just trans people engaging the community and their loved ones and allies standing beside them in support.
“Not only do trans people have the most insight into how to tell our own stories,” Strangio said, “but also, so much of the targeting that happens is the result of ignorance and misinformation about who we are, and only we can correct that by controlling our stories and centering our images and lives. There will be losses, but the only way we move forward is if we build power in our communities, which means investing resources in them. When we center trans lives in these fights, we will always be moving forward toward a more just world.”
As Strangio suggests, resources have always been scarce in LGBTQ organizing, but trans people, people of color, bisexual, disabled, and other marginalized groups too often find ourselves drowned out by well-funded, more established organizations that center cisgender white gay men and lesbians.
In this context, what Trans United Fund accomplished in Palatine, Illinois is remarkable, but it shouldn’t be. Trans people have been doing this kind of community organizing on little or no funding for decades, helping each other survive where LGB organizers have ignored them at best, and openly discriminated against them at worst.
“So much of the history of trans movements [is] one of isolation and exclusion,” says Mora, “but the work in D211 represents what could be a new chapter in our history, a new way of fighting bigotry and winning.”
Palatine proves to the world what these organizers have been saying for years: that trans-led, trans-focused campaigns can win against anti-trans bigots.
It’s time we start listening.
Beth Sherouse is a writer and activist based in Atlanta.