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Trans not on

Trans not on


Most gay and lesbian organizations have become LGBT organizations in recent years. If their missions now include transgender people, why don't their boards?

Late last year the media were filled with reports that ABC was adding a transgender character to its long-running daytime soap All My Children. Most of the articles I read were careful to point out that the network had prudently sought the advice of LGBT media watchdog GLAAD in advance of introducing Zarf/Zoe. (I'm a member of the board of GLAD, an LGBT legal rights organization that is not related.)

Ironically, at about the same time, I received at home a fund-raising letter from GLAAD. After initially using the term LGBT, the letter spoke only of the concerns of gay people. The problem is that some transgender people are not gay. I'm sure GLAAD's letter would have been worded more inclusively if they had at least one transgender person on their board. So why don't they?

To be fair, GLAAD has some fine transgender employees--I know two of them personally--and it seems from the AMC episodes to date that they have been giving excellent advice to ABC.

Plus, GLAAD is not alone in its omission. A recent survey by the Movement Advancement Project found that there are only 19 transgender people among the 541 total members of the boards of the top 26 LGBT organizations. The study concluded that, while the proportion "may be reasonable" versus the population as a whole, it "may be low considering that the organizations aspire to serve transgender people as well." Other major organizations reporting no trans board members included GLSEN, Lambda Legal, and NCLR.

Why is this so? There are many reasons. The first is that attracting a straight transgender person to support an LGBT organization requires the same effort as attracting a straight nontransgender person. But it can be just as powerful too.

In the case of transgender people who are also gay, some remain leery of gay and lesbian organizations. They remember how transgender people led the charge at Stonewall, only to be forced aside by a gay rights movement wanting to present a "mainstream" image. They remember how some gay and lesbian people had hijacked the Brandon Teena and Barry Winchell murders as gay hate crimes when they were actually hate crimes against transgender people. And they remember how HRC for several years maintained that including transgender people in a proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would diminish its chances of passing (thank you, HRC, for having had a change of heart about this!).

Most LGBT organizations now wish to be transgender-inclusive. If my experiences on the boards of Point Foundation and GLAD are any indication, that transgender-inclusion wish is truly sincere. In fact, those two organizations would gladly add other transgender people to their boards if only others were willing and qualified.

But getting more transgender people on LGBT boards will not be easy. Most organizations require board members to be active fund-raisers for the organization. Some even have a set annual dollar amount that the board member must contribute personally or entice others to collectively give. This is more of a challenge for transgender people, who are more likely to be underemployed or unemployed because they face even greater discrimination than gay and lesbian people; moreover, the friends of a transgender person are likely to be other transgender people.

Transgender people wishing to undergo medical treatment or physical transition have even fewer disposable dollars because insurance generally does not cover transgender health care. On the other hand, those who do have adequate resources are more likely to pass well in their perceived gender, making them better able to deny being transgender in order to avoid the related stigma. For them, serving on an LGBT board would mean outing themselves.

Some LGBT boards will make an exception to the fund-raising requirement when a candidate has strong expertise in a specific area such as strategic planning, law, finance, organization development, or human resources. Still, the candidate's own financial situation must be stable enough to permit a focus on the needs of the organization.

It's clearly not enough to have just one of us on an LGBT board. Donna Rose is like me in being the sole transgender member of an LGBT board--in her case, the HRC board. We both frequently lament the difficulty in adequately representing all of those under the transgender umbrella whose experiences differ from ours, including drag queens, drag kings, and intersex and gender-queer people.

What is it that board members do? Generally, they define, oversee, and advance the mission of the organization and serve as ambassadors to the world on its behalf. They ensure that the organization has adequate resources to carry out its mission and that those resources are adequately protected. And they hire, support, and review the chief officer of the organization. Pretty important stuff. All the more reason to have a transgender person on the board.

Being a member of an LGBT board is a great way to be active for transgender rights for a transgender person too shy to participate in in-your-face activism. It affords a chance to work with some of the LGBT community's most successful and best-connected leaders. And it gives the transgender community a voice in an organization that has significantly more resources (and sometimes greater influence) than trans-only organizations.

The only downside of being a transgender person on an LGBT board may be that you have to continually educate your fellow board members about what it means to be transgender. But aren't you already doing that with the general population?

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Joanne Herman