Michael Silverman, TLDEF Executive Director and Founder, Talks Transgender Equality and the Future

Michael has been a member of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), as well as its executive director, since it was founded in 2005 in New York City. He has worked as an attorney in the LGBT rights movement since 1994.
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2013-09-02-michaelsilverman.jpgAs an African-American transgender woman, I recognize that we need laws to protect the rights of transgender individuals. The "T" is the smallest population under the LGBT umbrella, and it's often overlooked and forgotten in the struggle for full equality. Transgender persons are facing harassment and discrimination on a daily basis, and my transgender sisters of color are being victimized and murdered at a higher rate than any other group in the LGBT family. In a civilized and democratic society, laws are what govern and protect the rights of citizens to live and coexist amongst one another. My experience has taught me that the legal system is the only way to get justice and full equality to fight discrimination and harassment. The goal is not special treatment or special consideration for transgender persons but fair and equal treatment without bias.

2013-09-02-tldef.gifOn my Blog Talk Radio show I recently talked with Michael Silverman about transgender equality and transgender rights in the United States. Michael has been a member of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), as well as its executive director, since it was founded in 2005 in New York City. He has worked as an attorney in the LGBT rights movement since 1994. In addition to his work at TLDEF, Michael is an adjunct professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, where he teaches courses on gender, sexuality and the law. Michael Silverman is a graduate of Vassar College and the University of Michigan Law School.

As stated on the TLDEF website:

TLDEF is committed to ending discrimination based upon gender identity and expression and to achieving equality for transgender people through public education, test-case litigation, direct legal services, community organizing and public policy efforts.

TLDEF's in-house legal program brings test-case litigation with wide impact in all areas of transgender civil rights. From fighting employment discrimination to ensuring equal access to health care, we're working tirelessly for transgender equal rights. We continually seek to leverage our limited resources through innovative programs designed to harness the resources of the private bar for the public good. Our Name Change Project, which provides free and low-cost legal name changes to community members through partnerships with some of New York City's premier law firms, including Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and others, is one such program. And our community organizing project, the Transgender Health Initiative of New York, harnesses the power of community participation to improve access to care for transgender people.

Toni Newman: The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund: nine years in business. What is your core purpose or mission as a nonprofit group? What are you guys really trying to do?

Michael Silverman: We are trying to end discrimination against transgender people, and to achieve equality for the transgender community, plain and simple. The primary ways we do that are through the legal system. We are lawyers first and foremost, so we bring test cases, which are cases that we think have the potential to affect not just the individual involved but the wider transgender community if we receive a favorable ruling. A second way that we work through the legal system is providing certain direct legal services to people. For a lot of transgender people, part of the coming-out process involves interactions with the legal system for things like changing names, changing gender markers, and very early on, we realized we were just flooded with requests for help in that regard, so we started something that we call the Name Change Project. We started it in New York City, and we asked some of the law firms we work with, would they help us? We didn't know what shape it would take, but today we've helped over a thousand people in New York City alone, with the help of over 25 law firms and corporate legal departments, change their names, update their gender markers, so that they can move forward with their lives as who they truly are. We have expanded in the past year, so the Name Change Project doesn't just serve people in New York City; it serves people in many other parts of New York state now, and in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Some of that we're just getting rolling on, but it's a very exciting time for us.

Newman: Where do you see transgender rights in 2013 vs. nine years ago, in 2005? What is your overview of transgender equality now?

Silverman: When we started Transgender Legal Defense and I started to talk to people about the organization and ask them for help and support, I got so many blank stares. People looked at me as if I had said, "I've started the Martian Legal Defense and Education Fund." There was almost no reasonable discussion that I could have with people outside the transgender community, at least. That is remarkably different nine years later, [but] we have way, way, way more work to [do]. Now I find that when it's time to have a discussion about transgender rights, about the unique challenges that transgender people face in various aspects of society, at least there is an openness to engage in the discussion that was missing before. So we have a long, long way to go, but we've seen a little bit of progress over the past decade.

Newman: What test cases or legal cases are you working on now to push forward transgender equality? Is there anything specific that your organization is testing, any type of test case you have currently?

Silverman: We have cases around the country. I'll talk about one that we are hopefully in the midst of resolving, and that involved a test under Colorado law of the scope of Colorado's antidiscrimination provisions related to transgender people. In particular it involved a 6-year-old transgender girl in the public school system in Colorado whose school had told her that she was not allowed to use the girls' bathroom because she had been assigned "male" at birth. She had already been going to school as a girl for a year. She'd been using the girls' bathrooms in kindergarten. All her teachers, all her friends, knew her as a girl. She dressed as a girl. And she was now the only girl at school who was told, "You have to use the boys' bathroom, the nurse's bathroom, or the teachers' bathroom." Well, you know, she's not a boy, she wasn't sick, and she's not an adult, so we didn't see why she should be using any of those bathrooms, and we wrote to the school and said, "You need to do the right thing. Transgender students face unique challenges, and this is one of those challenges, and in order for her to successfully integrate in school and achieve an equal education opportunity, we need to just let her use the bathroom that she's meant to use." They refused to do that, and we filed a complaint in Colorado, and the Colorado Civil Rights Division, just back in June, I believe -- it was this year, so just a couple of months ago -- issued what is probably the strongest ruling ever in favor of transgender people and their right to use the bathroom that matches who they are, and they said the school had discriminated against this little girl, whose name is Coy Mathis, they had violated her rights and created a hostile and offensive school environment for her, and that throughout Colorado schools had to treat transgender students equally. And that was a huge, huge, huge victory. Now, I say we're in the midst of a victory because we don't know if the school is going to appeal or how long this case can go on -- there are many, many levels of appeal -- but we're hopeful that with the very strongly worded opinion that we've received so far, the school will just say, "OK, we get it, we made a mistake, we understand Colorado law now, and we're not going to pursue this further."

Newman: Why do you think transgender people of color, based on most studies, including two I've participated in, suffer double the rate of discrimination and double the rate of unemployment of the general transgender population? What do you think transgender people of color are still highly unemployed, highly uneducated and still facing double the discrimination?

Silverman: I think we are witnessing the intersection of race discrimination, for example, and transgender discrimination. And in a way they don't just double up on each other; they tend to have an exponential impact, so people who are already experiencing race discrimination in employment or in housing or public accommodations, it now gets multiplied by facing that discrimination on the basis of being transgender. It's a funny thing: We've had people ask us, "But why do you have the Name Change Project? I think it's pretty easy for people to go to court and get their name changed," and so on and so forth. Honestly, in my experience, those questions almost always come from fairly middle-class, white transgender people, for whom, perhaps, that task of going to court and getting one's name changed isn't all that difficult. What we see in the project we run is that 80 percent of our project participants are on public assistance, so we have an overwhelmingly poor population that needs our help with things like name and gender marker changing, and another 80 percent -- so it's not an exact overlap, but there's a lot of overlap -- are people of color. There is no surprise, for anyone who studies the legal system, there: Access to justice is heavily racially stratified, so even separate from the question of whether someone is transgender or not, if you just look at the non-transgender community, white vs. non-white, you'll see a very, very big disparity in access to justice and who is able to go to the court system to access that justice, much higher percentages for white people than non-white people. So when you add this in with the transgender question, it would be a surprise to see things any differently simply based on the stats. So we are seeing the point where race and gender identity intersect, and the outcome is not good at this point.


TLDEF combats discrimination against transgender people wherever it arises. Transgender persons who face discrimination because of their gender identity or gender expression may contact TLDEF for legal action at info@transgenderlegal.org, or go to transgenderlegal.org.

To all my transgender brothers and sisters: Be proud, work very hard, and stay strong in the midst of adversity, because you can overcome and be victorious and win.

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