Masen Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, Talks Transgender Equality


As Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, Masen Davis brings over two decades of leadership and activism in the movement toward LGBT equality. Since beginning this role in 2007, Davis has expanded the Transgender Law Center's annual operating budget from $385,000 to $1.4 million, thereby increasing the richness and expanding the impact of the organization's multidisciplinary programs. Masen received his B.A. from Northwestern University and his M.S.W. from UCLA.

Now that Proposition 8 and DOMA have been overturned, the LGBT community has claimed a big victory, but the fight for full LGBT equality moves forward. We have youth suicides, bullying, transgender discrimination and high rates of unemployment among transgender people, especially transgender people of color. Our fight for full equality within the LGBT community is far from over. My conversation with Masen Davis is important because we must not forget our transgender brothers and sisters trying to live authentic lives. The Transgender Law Center's motto is "making authentic lives possible."

Toni Newman: Who is Masen Davis? Where are you from? Give us a little bit of your background.

Masen Davis: Well, I'm originally from the Midwest. I grew up in a family with a Methodist minister for a father and grew up all over Missouri as we moved around to different churches, and then went off to school in Chicago before coming out to California in the mid-'90s and have been between Los Angeles and San Francisco ever since. I came out into the LGBT community about 20, 25 years ago at this point (though it's hard for me to imagine sometimes!) and then came out as transgender in my mid-20s and have been active in the community ever since. That's been about 16 years now, and it has been a real honor and joy to be able to be an activist full-time over the last six years while I've been at Transgender Law Center. I just can't imagine a better way to spend my time on this Earth, and I'm really appreciative of everybody who is able to be out as themselves as a transgender person, and those like yourself who are really bringing voice to the issues that so many of us face.

Newman: What is the Trangender Law Center, and what is your core purpose?

Davis: Well, the Transgender Law Center is a civil rights organization advocating for transgender and gender-nonconforming people throughout the United States. We started off as a project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights back in 2002, and we were focused on addressing the discrimination that transgender people faced in almost every institution in California at the time. And since then, we've been able to pass and help pass a whole slate of really strong laws in California and decided a couple of years ago to extend our work nationwide. So we now hear from about 2,500 transgender people across the country each year who are contacting us to get support for the challenges that they are facing, anywhere from issues impacting the ability to be themselves and to have the correct gender marker on their identity documents. We get a lot of calls about employment discrimination, a lot of calls about health care access, and a lot of people contacting us about issues in schools and in their families. Our motto is to "make authentic lives possible." We really believe that all of us as transgender people deserve to be fully ourselves in whatever way that manifests, and our goal is to help make it a little easier for all of us to just be who we are. We've mostly focused on creating law, so through policy work and legislation, and forcing law through our legal services, and then we also work on making laws really real in the lives of transgender people by creating groundbreaking and kind of pilot projects like the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative, a jobs program in San Francisco, and Project H.E.A.L.T.H., increasing access to community health services for low-income folks. So we've been quiet in San Francisco for a number of years. I think that we've been a lot more visible in the last few as we've been doing more public work at the national level, and we're very proud at this point, I believe, to be the largest transgender advocacy organization in the United States and continue to gear up to, you know, keep pushing things forward.

Newman: Now, what laws are you sponsoring in 2013 that you think are the most beneficial to transgender people in California as well as the nation?

Davis: In California we have three bills that we've been doing some work on that I think are really important. One is A.B. 1121, which would make it a lot easier for transgender people to change the gender marker on their birth certificate. To be honest, we've done a number of tweaks to this over the years, but in California you still have to get a court-ordered gender change in order to change your birth certificate, and then publish that in the newspaper. And as you know, Toni, that can be really expensive and challenging for a lot of transgender people to accomplish, so the new bill that we've put up now would create an alternate process, so people don't have to go through the court system, and to end the process where people have to pay oftentimes a lot of money to publish their name change in a newspaper. This one's been really important to me, just because I see how hard it is for low-income trans folks to go through the court process, and I really hope this makes it a lot more affordable and easier for everyone to have an ID document that matches who we really are.

The second law is one that is the first time that this kind of law has been introduced, I believe, in the United States, and it is A.B. 1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act, and this is one I'm pretty excited about at this point. We hear from transgender students around the country who say that they are having a hard time making it through high school, because they don't have a bathroom they can use safely, or they can't attend and prepare for gym class, and as a result they're getting health problems and oftentimes not getting the credits they need to graduate on time. So the School Success and Opportunity Act is designed to ensure that in California, transgender students have access to the facilities and the activities that correspond with their gender identity, so that would mean that, basically, transgender girls in school are treated like other girls, transgender boys are treated like other boys, and they'd have access to gym class and restrooms that reflect the way they're going to school in the school day. This has been the first time we've seen this kind of bill go forward in the United States. We've been really impressed by how much success it has, in large part because of the parents and the trans youth who are speaking up for themselves and sharing their stories. That's made a really big difference. Both of these bills have passed the Assembly in California, and now we're on to the Senate, and we're really hopeful that they'll be passed and signed into law by the end of the year.

So the third one is one that we are not sponsoring at this point but we're supporting and I really want to encourage people in California to really speak out for, and that is A.B. 332, which would order police and prosecutors to stop using condoms as evidence of sex work. I don't know about you, but I know especially in some areas like Los Angeles, as I talk to trans women, especially transgender women of color, so many are harassed by police and, if they're actually carrying condoms, accused of being involved in sex work, merely because they want to protect themselves. And this is, one, just part of the overpolicing of transgender people that we've got to stop to begin with, but, two, it's is just really unhealthy to create any incentive for transgender people to not practice safe sex by having condoms. So I think this is a really important [bill], to stop this practice of using condoms as evidence of sex work, so that we can actually take care of ourselves and our partners.

Newman: The Transgender Law Center has joined with Equality California and its new executive director, John O'Connor, in sponsoring several bills here in California. Equality California is the largest statewide LGBT advocacy organization in California working to secure full and lasting equality for and acceptance of LGBT people. How did that come about, these two organizations coming together to co-sponsor bills that are beneficial mainly to transgender people?

Davis: We've actually had a pretty good relationship with Equality California over the years. It's interesting: If I look at what's going on in other states, oftentimes there are challenges getting the state equality groups, which are predominantly, or at least historically have been predominantly, gay and lesbian, it's been hard to get a lot of them to really take on some bigger transgender projects. I will say I feel really fortunate in California that our state equality group here, Equality California, has been generally very receptive to introducing transgender-specific legislation. I think part of that is because they've actually had transgender people on their board, and their leadership has specifically had relationships with transgender people. That's really helped them to understand how important this issue is. So we've partnered with Equality California now for a number of years on different pieces of transgender legislation, which is one of the reasons we have really good protections now, at least on paper, when it comes to transgender people at work, at school, in housing, and even in our insurance coverage. So it's been neat to work with John as the new leadership of Equality California, and to see that they are continuing this history of support for the transgender community. I think they see that while we've had a lot of progress around gay and lesbian rights, equality for transgender people still lags behind, and that we just have to work together to change that. What I really hope is that this kind of model can be increasingly replicated in other parts of the country, because we have so many states that have almost no protection throughout the U.S., and I do think if the LGB(-and-sometimes-small-T) groups worked more intensely with the transgender-specific groups that we would move that forward a lot more quickly.

Newman: Why do you think so many trans women, especially trans women of color, live below the poverty level and have high rates of unemployment?

Davis: I think there are a lot of reasons, Toni, and I'd be interested to kind of get your own perception of that. It is interesting. You talked about coming out about 15 years ago, and I came out around that time period, and at the time, I think so many -- almost all -- of us who were transgender assumed that we would lose our jobs and might not do very well once we came out as transgender. And I do think that that's improved for a lot of transgender people. ... But we know from some of the research that's been done both in California and nationwide that while transgender people in general are twice as likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to live under the poverty line, when it comes to transgender people of color, they are four times as likely to be living under the poverty line, so that the intersection of transphobia and racism is just really deadly, and we've got to figure out, how do we make sure that all of us are able to take care of ourselves and our families? If you look at what African Americans and Latinos in general in California face because of racism, I believe there are a lot of barriers still to employment, and way-too-high poverty levels. When you add that to somebody being transgender, it can just be really challenging. I think, though, at the same time that there's a lot of resiliency I see, especially in African-American and Latino trans communities, having come up in L.A. myself, seeing how tight people are and how much support. I think that there's a lot of folks who are beating the odds and are really working to change things. And I've been really impressed by some of the work that's happened. For example, I think about some of the activists like Bamby Salcedo in L.A., who went back to school and has talked publicly about the experience of getting a bachelor's degree and what that has been like. I think it creates a new role model for other trans women to see that there are a lot of options, and that there are opportunities to get an education and to get into the workplace and to stand up and fight for all that we need as a people.

Newman: So do you believe that education could turn the poverty and high rates of employment around for transgender people?

Davis: I think there are three things that I think that are especially important, and one is family acceptance, because we know for any of our trans youth, if they have families that accept them as they are, whether or not they agree or understand, if they can actually accept their kids, and our youth are able to stay in their homes when they're young, that makes such a big difference. And then education. We did a survey on the state of transgender California a few years ago, and we found out that what seemed to make a big difference about how somebody was doing economically was whether or not they had two years of college. So they didn't necessarily need to have a bachelor's degree, but if someone had basically an AA degree or two years of community college, their financial status was so much better in the long run. So if somebody can get a GED or graduate, get into college, even a couple of years, and then get some support to get into the workforce, which is, I guess, my third thing... I do think workforce programs that help trans people navigate some of the barriers we face, whether that's just the fact that sometimes we have to come out to our employers, we have to learn what to do when somebody might harass us at work or we deal with somebody who is bigoted or biased, I think the help getting into the workforce and navigating those challenges can be really helpful. In L.A. you've got at the [L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center] the TEEP that Drian Juarez runs, the Transgender Economic Empowerment Project; I think [that] can be really be helpful once somebody gets their foot in the door. But we've got to have family support, we've got to get some education, and we need to at least get into the door to get our first job and stay there for a while so we get something on the résumé. And I think if we could do those things, things are better.

Newman: Do you have anything else to say before I let you go?

Davis: The last thing I will say is one thing that many people don't realize is that a legal case was settled last year that resulted in transgender people being covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and what that means now is that transgender people anywhere in the United States, even if they are in a state that's not very supportive, can now file a complaint with their local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office if they're discriminated against at work. We have to get the word out that we actually do have basic protections, and that employers are on the hook for treating us well.

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Equality in the LGBT community has advanced so much over the years, but our fight is not over. As long as there is discrimination in the LGBT community, the fight must move on, and we cannot forget our transgender brother and sisters. I applaud so many trans men and trans women for lifting their voices and being visible in 2013, but we must continue to fight and eradicate discrimination and transphobia.

For all the trans people of color, we are here and fighting to make things better for us all. God loves us all, and you are entitled to an authentic life full of love, peace and joy.