Editors' Note: Guest blogger Rhodes Perry is the field and policy manager for PFLAG. Before joining PFLAG, Rhodes worked for the US Office of Management and Budget, focusing on federal benefit programs and policies that provide assistance to low-income communities. He has also worked for the Ali Forney Center - a New York City LGBT homeless shelter - designing and managing a street and service provider outreach program aimed at LGBT youth.
As community leaders continue to speculate when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will be introduced in the next Congress and whether the bill's language will include gender identity and gender expression, transgender and gender non-conforming people and their allies continue their grassroots efforts educating their communities and advocating for equal protections across the country...even in some unlikely places...thriving in parts of the country's most conservative regions.
According to a new article in The American Prospect, entitled Trans in the Red States, "when we think of states like Nebraska and Wyoming, we think of people like Brandon Teen and Matthew Sheppard, both killed in vicious, nationally publicized hate crimes," and yet, despite the difficulties of living in small, conservative towns similar to Humboldt, Nebraska and Laramie, Wyoming, transgender and gender non-conforming people have chosen to take more visible roles in their communities - volunteering for political campaigns, participating in their local faith communities and even transitioning on the job without negative repercussions. Being visible in rural communities raises awareness and educates community members on issues impacting the trans community; a highly effective strategy that has secured rights for many rural trans communities.
The article states that people in very small, largely conservative communities like Loveland, Colorado - population 61,000, 92 percent white and heavily evangelical Christian - have surprisingly been receptive to anti-bullying trainings on how to honor and protect students on the basis of gender identity and expression, arming faculty and staff with fact sheets that help them answer any inappropriate questions from students and/or parents about students perceived to be transgender or gender non-conforming as well as students perceived as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Local lesbian, gay and bisexual community leaders in these regions have recognized that communities must do a better job supporting the leadership of the trans community to secure transgender rights - a page taken out of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Opening the Door to Transgender Inclusion. In Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, the Utah Pride Center has partnered with leaders in the trans community to better educate potential allies who hold positions of authority - i.e. doctors and public servants who regularly interface with the trans community. The Utah Pride Center also has committed resources that will help fund culturally-competent trainings for foster parents and staff of the Department of Children and Family Services by addressing gender identity and sexual identity issues specific to young people. Utah is only the second state to implement such trainings!
Beyond various localities, community advocates are developing more sophisticated strategies with the hope of influencing policy at the state level. Groups like Equality Utah have ample resources devoted to fully coordinating advocacy efforts with transgender equality at the "forefront" of the organization's legislative agenda. According to Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah, "Gender identity and expression will be there in every bill that we do." State equality groups hope to raise awareness and educate state representatives on the important policy matters that impact the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to secure necessary rights and protections.
Living on the coasts or in urban centers, it is tempting to dismiss the red states as areas unsafe and unfit for the most vulnerable in our community. Believing this assumption dangerously invalidates the experiences and hard work of so many in our community working to create systemic changes in many local communities nationwide. It also overlooks the extensive networks of knowledgeable and effective leaders located beyond San Francisco, New York City and Washington, DC. Finally, it silos the grassroots activities we should depend on more heavily to help us educate our Congressional House and Senate representatives via in-district meetings.
When speculating about the future of ENDA, we absolutely cannot succeed without relying on the grassroots efforts happening in these conservative regions of the country. We must continue to praise the leadership of so many rural transgender and gender non-conforming community members and their allies for educating community officials on the importance of transgender equality, which protects everyone's right to self-determine their own gender identity and gender expression. The local successes described above are slowly paving the way for future national successes that we can all enjoy. Thus we must continue to support the rural grassroots efforts to win over the hearts and minds of people in both red states and beyond.