Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Smart, Sexy and Making A Difference: Transgender Legal Defense Fund Celebrates 5th Anniversary

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | May 26, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Brian Elliott, Laverne Cox, Michael Silverman, Patricia Gardner, TLDEF

In my role as your fabulous celebrity style correspondent, I attended a benefit for the New York City-based Transgender Legal Defense Fund last night. William Bennett Gallery w TLDEF + Cox.jpg

This was smart, sexy and making a difference, but it was no empty, glitzy, shallow fund-raiser. Celebrating its fifth anniversary, TLDEF is an organization that works for trans equality through a combination of public education, test-case litigation, direct legal services, community organizing and public policy efforts. Our success as a community depends on institution-building, and the trans community needs more organizations like TLDEF.

The benefit was held at the William Bennett Gallery, a beautiful SoHo art gallery with Picasso, Chagall, Miro, and Warhol adorning the walls. Laverne Cox, of "Transform Me" fame, a beautiful and intelligent young entertainer, was in attendance, as were a number of fascinating other people.

My thoughts on the organization, the event and the people after the jump.

I first came into contact with TLDEF a few years ago through a friend of mine, a trans attorney who came to work for the organization. I have to admit that I generally am a bit skeptical of new organizations and new programs, having seen so many fail of their mission. But I'm starting to get the idea that TLDEF is the real deal.

Michael Silverman.jpgThe founder and executive director, Michael Silverman, is not only an excellent attorney, but he also understands that the role of a community legal organization requires more than legal expertise, and more than a single-person operation.

He works closely with members of the trans community on the Board of Directors, and it must be noted that these are not token appointments. These are successful lawyers and professionals who have made it through. There are now several attorneys and law-student interns from top schools working with Michael. He has social skills, and knows how to use them, but the public ego that sometimes accompanies such movers and shakers seems remarkably absent.

TLDEF also has been successful at community organizing and public education. The organization has a number of interesting and innovative programs, including the Name Change Project and and the Transgender Health Initiative. It also has some impressive legal wins. It's been smart enough to partner with some major NYC law firms, an important move that brings great resources within the grasp of a small institution.

Institutions bring their own problems, but without them, community building, collective action and outreach to other segments of society are almost impossible.

I also met some other fascinating people at the event.

Patricia Gardner.jpgPatricia Gardner is on the Board of Directors of TLDEF.

She's lively and interesting, and seemed to know everyone. She saved me from a night of standing around adorning the wall. She's been a private consultant in architecture, planning and interiors for twenty years, designing projects for city and state governments, and Fortune 500 companies. She started her career in theater production and design.

She serves on the Transgender Community Advisory Board of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York, and works with the Transgender Health Initiative of New York and the Transgender Project.

laverne cox face.jpgI also made sure to chat with Laverne Cox, whose current project is "Transform Me," a makeover show.

A team of three transgender women, led by Laverne, rescues women from personal style purgatory. As the show's website says, "Laverne and her ultra-glam partners in crime have undergone the ultimate transformation, so they're the perfect women for the job....Three ladies who knew the kind of person they wanted to be--and made it happen. Now they're doing it for women everywhere!"

First thing this morning, I got up and watched the episode of "Transform Me" called "Phaea,". I wanted to make sure that my first impression of Laverne was correct, and that the show didn't make me cringe, as has sometimes happened in the past.

I was really concerned about watching the show, because I didn't know whether I could relate to the show's characters. There's nothing wrong with over-the-top drag queens, but I don't really relate to that. As Phaea said, "I'm just afraid I'm going to look really, really stupid."

The show was so not that. It was very well produced. I totally related to the show, which is saying a lot for a pop culture illiterate who, like Phaea, wears pretty much nothing but jeans and T-shirts. (It tickled my fancy that Phaea was the name of a old crone in the Greek myths.) The show made me want to dress up again, like I used to when I was a lot younger and lot thinner, and not worried so much about giving the wrong impression. (Maybe I will start that diet...It must have been inspiring!)

You must watch. Unlike other makeover shows, they didn't just give her new clothes, makeup and heels. They worked with her on feeling sexy which, of course, is more than half the battle. It was a really intelligent and exciting show. I remember reading the New York Observer article about Jamie Clayton, Laverne's co-host a few years ago, "The Second Most Beautiful Girl In New York," and thinking, gosh, what an intelligent woman. I thought the same thing when I read Laverne's recent article in The Advocate.

Thumbnail image for brian_elliot.jpg I also met Brian Elliot, whom I worked with on his case study on trans workplace inclusion, published in the Harvard Business Review in 2008.

He's working on a fascinating project, currently called The Right Side of History, though he's planning on renaming the project.

The Right Side of History started as a pilot on Facebook to test the power of personalizing equality as a way of collecting new supporters for LGBT equality. Brian invited 600 straight friends to join a group supporting his right to be a full citizen. Four weeks later, more than 19,000 people had joined "Give Brian Equality." Most of these supporters were straight, and few had ever been on an LGBT organization's constituent list before.

Brian and his organization are building a platform that will have the power to amass the largest list of straight supporters of LGBT equality in the country. It's a different kind of LGBT rights organization. "We're losing the rainbow. We're reframing the issues. And we're making it easier than ever to get involved whether you're a frat guy in Alabama, a stay at home mom in Utah, or an activist in New York."

I think it's a great idea, and I hope to hear success stories from that corner soon. We sure need something different.

So that was my night out at the fabulous TLDEF benefit, a cause I can believe in. And now, back to reality. Today's menu - the day-long faculty inservice meeting/snoozefest. I wish Laverne could come in and transform that.


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Chris Daley | May 26, 2010 12:04 PM

TLDEF iss doing some great work and Laverne is a treasure!

TLDEF is an organization which actually works hard for the community they're representing rather than just putting out fund-raising rhetoric. Michael Silverman is a true trans ally and I wish them well.

Laverne is indeed a very smart cookie but I'm not very impressed with Transform Me (nor am I terribly impressed with what I've seen of her and Nina Poon's film 'Being T' which is a highly fetishistic view of trans women). I think Transform Me upholds a lot of [trans = obsessed with femme/drag] stereotypes and, other than having three trans women in someone's home, it really doesn't push the envelope much. Jillian, I can tell you're not a schlock-reality aficionado since EVERY makeover show uses that line about beauty on the inside. It's a lie, there are lots of women who are sexy and beautifully dressed but feel like crap on the inside. I give Laverne much credit for getting the show on the air and, hopefully, she'll come up with more interesting offering in the future.

It was nice seeing you again at the event. I will echo your observations on TLDEF. I first met Michael at the New York City Bar pride reception I guess five years ago, shortly after he founded the organization. I was skeptical--I wondered why a non-trans person would do something like this. I feared it would be just a one man operation. But time has proven my worries to have been wrong.

As you have pointed out, TLDEF has already grown far beyond a one person organization. Early on Michael told me it was not at all his intention, and he has matched his deeds with his words. He added a second lawyer to the staff as soon as financing permitted. Support people are employed. And TLDEF has already scored some big wins for the victims of discrimination for gender identity or expression--including one person who did not even identify as trans.

I am happy to support TLDEF, and I urge others to do so, so that it can expand its work in protecting the rights of all people to express their gender.

What's wrong with the Rainbow? Why "loosing the rainbow." ???

I'd love to meet Laverne some day - and quite a few of the other folks you've profiled.

Ugh, can't watch the show. Why don't these channels just put in ads for us furrinners? We'd watch them too!

My guess would be they want to prevent you from seeing it right now, so you'll watch it if they manage to export it. Which is stupid and frustrating because the few people who see it ahead of time could help with word of mouth, but who knows, when it comes to marketing ...