This year, trans advocate and military veteran Zander Keig made history when the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) awarded him the honor of Social Worker of the Year.
"Zander Keig's large body of work personifies the spirit and mission of the social work profession, the love of service to others, and the heart for social justice," said NASW's CEO, Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW, when the announcement was made. "He is a compassionate man who is also a strong advocate, especially for groups of people our society ignores, misunderstands or stigmatizes."
Each year, the NASW Social Worker of the Year Award highlights an individual who has been able to achieve great accomplishments through their daily dedication in the field of social work.
For 2020, Keig (a MSW, LCSW, and U.S. Coast Guard veteran) is being recognized for his work around veterans, transgender military members, and those experiencing homelessness.
"I am inspired and motivated to be a social worker because having a direct impact on an individual's mental and emotional wellbeing and having an influence on policy change is very rewarding," Keig tells The Advocate.
During his time as a clinical social work case manager (2016-2019) for the Navy Medicine West Transgender Care Team at Naval Medical Center San Diego, Keig developed an inclusive and nondiscriminatory patient intake process for the nearly 230 service members going through gender transition at the time. He also designed a trans-inclusive orientation process during his tenure there.
"I was the first assigned member of the Navy Medicine West [NMW] Transgender Care Team [TGCT] on July 22, 2016," explains Keig. "That gave me an opportunity to be instrumental in the establishment, development, and operation of the NMW TGCT."
Keig says one of the biggest challenges facing transgender people today is "access to competent service providers outside of urban areas across the country. For transgender people living in rural areas, there are still too few, if any, good options for medical and behavioral health care. Also, the recognition of trans elders and pioneers, their contribution to our progress, and their struggle against a much more hostile medical and legal system than we currently face are severely lacking. I was fortunate to meet one such elder and pioneer, Dr. Jamison Green, and he graciously accepted my request for mentorship. That was 14 years ago, and I still call on his sage wisdom to this day as I navigate the world as an invisible transsexual man."
Keig admits that being someone who considers himself conservative politically while being a staunch LGBTQ+ advocate can also be tricky waters to navigate, especially under the current administration.
"I recognize that the return to closed military service for transgender Americans is not good news," says Keig. "As a transgender veteran, I am empathetic to those concerns. I served pre-DADT during the 'witch hunt days' as a lesbian -- I understand the frustration of not being able to serve openly and my ability to serve being questioned. I must also work to reconcile my personal views and continue working towards a resolution while recognizing the authority of the commander in chief to set military policy. What I know is that there are hundreds of active-duty transgender servicemembers still pursuing a command-approved gender transition, including getting approved for hormones and surgeries, and others have been granted waivers to enter the service since the policy went into effect. I am hopeful that open service will return one day."
Aside from his work around transgender folks in the military, Keig is a vocal advocate for transgender and LGBTQ+ rights on a national level by serving on the boards of several related organizations. He's been an appointed member of the NASW National Committee for LGBT Issues since 2013 (and was Chair from 2017 to 2019) and was an appointed member of the Diversity Committee of the NASW California Chapter from 2013 to 2017.
Keig also recently ended his tenure as vice president of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA), which he served from 2015 to 2020.
Keig has also served as faculty with the WPATH Global Education Initiative's Advanced Behavioral Health Program since 2018, and has co-edited three nonfiction books that center the trans male experience: Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect; Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family and Themselves; and Manifest: Transitional Wisdom on Male Privilege.
In addition, Keig was a contributing author of Adult Transgender Care: An Interdisciplinary Approach for Training Mental Health Professionals, and wrote the foreword for You and Your Gender Identity: A Guide to Discovery by Dara Hoffman-Fox.
"Being a social worker means being called to work with those who are oppressed, marginalized, and/or living in poverty," says the first-generation Mexican-American. "I have learned that individuals facing such dire circumstances are some of the strongest and wisest people I have encountered. I am merely there to remind them of the power and influence they already possess to enact change in their personal and professional lives."
Though previously a longtime California resident, these days Keig and his wife Margaret live in Florida, where he works as a therapist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Centerstone in Jacksonville.
"I spend most of my non-working time with my amazing wife," says Keig. "My life has been much more interesting and joyful with Margaret in my life."