(Part four of a series on advocacy. Part one spoke about changing the narrative used to describe trans people, part two was on Expectations, and part three was on advocating for trans people if cisgender/cissexual. Here, I provide basic things that people can do — for some it will be old-hat, for others not. If you haven’t read the previous chapters, please do so, as they provide grounding you need before starting.)
(This series is not connected in any way to the organization TransActive Education and Advocacy, it merely has a similarity in name.)
I’m sometimes asked how people can advocate for the trans community, usually by apprehensive people who have visions of standing out in front of government buildings with picket signs shouting slogans, or sometimes by people who are whipping themselves up into an energetic frenzy so that they can be as boisterous as possible. The truth is that that’s only one form of activism (a kind of last resort, really), and the larger picture is, well, more mundane. That is not to say it’s easier, it can be very complex at times, but in the end it’s… well… a different kind of drama.
I want to be clear that I’m not wanting to push the Mercedes way of doing things, nor to make myself out to be a guru of some sort – some of the things I outline here, in fact, are things that I’m aware that I’m bad at, but which I know are needed. What I say here needs to be tempered with what your own experience and instincts tell you. Readers’ experience levels will vary, but I discovered that as basic as some of these things seem, sometimes they still do have to be said. For those starting out or debating about doing advocacy, I’m hoping this will help folks avoid stumbling out of the gate.
By this point, I’m assuming that readers of this series want to be advocates for trans people, and that they don’t have any immediate trans issues taking place in their own lives claiming their time that they need to speak to (until recently, most trans activists became activists because an event in their lives meant that they had to). I’m also assuming in this article, that readers are relative beginners – much of this article will be old news to experienced advocates. Much of what follows will vary depending on how developed your local community is and how many people are open and active — if you can work with people in your area rather than start things from scratch, you will help yourself in the long run, and have less risk of burnout.
If you’re looking for a direction – some way you can help – here are some options. It is always beneficial to be in tune with trans-relevant news, aware of legal, medical and political precedents in your area, and in communication with other trans advocates.
Schedule a meeting with your elected representatives on the local, state / provincial and/or federal level to speak with them when any social or legal issues are facing the trans community. Make sure that you’re speaking to the right person: for example, in Canada, Bill C-389 proposes to add trans protections on the federal (national) level, so it isn’t something that a provincial MLA is even involved in or can do anything about. Avoid going in any group larger than four people, as this can intimidate someone and result in a retreating response.
It should be said that in face-to-face situations where there can be disagreement, the emotion has to be taken out of the equation. A person needs to do their best to remain calm, on fact and in effective debate form, rather than allowing emotions to escalate a conflict to the point where no one is hearing rational arguments anymore. You will probably feel impassioned about what you’re speaking about and may feel that something very personal is at stake, but you still should not corner someone and get confrontational to the point of seeming threatening: when that occurs, it will be inevitable that the person you’re speaking to will become defensive, close their mind to you, and walk away or sometimes return the attack, regardless of any virtue there is in what you have to say. While it can be argued that there are times when one no longer has to try to be “the better person,” stepping outside the calm and rational will almost never help your case with a person that you very well may need on your side – if not now, then possibly someday. Keep your options open, and if your opponent won’t hear you, then if possible, leave him or her be and let time and circumstance do its thing (sometimes, that’s enough for someone to turn around).
Stay focused and concise. Don’t belabor a point too long, and have something that you can hand out for further reading – but don’t let everything rest on whether they will actually read it, either. It also helps to keep your handouts short and to the point. And finally, be especially clear on what it is that you’re asking the person to do.
You can also:
- Start a support group if there isn’t one, or help facilitate if there is. Alternately, if there’s a support group but no alternative for socializing, you might want to start something for that. Expect that any such group will take a long time to start up and get any kind of regular, large turnout. In the beginning, expect two or three people to show up. But if you’re always there when promised, meetings always take place when scheduled, and moderation is as balanced as you can make it, that consistency will help cultivate something successful.
- The most need in the trans community tend to be in areas where there is the most disenfranchisement — poverty, health (i.e. HIV), homelessness, sex work. Not everyone is comfortable working in these areas, but if you’re able, the help is badly needed, whether helping at the local soup kitchen, being in contact with the local shelters, doing safe-sex instruction or helping people find programs to help them out of difficult situations. In these areas, a person needs to be as non-judgmental as possible, and help unconditionally.
- Get involved with any local trans advocacy groups near you. If there aren’t any trans groups, an LGBT group might also be an option (although trans people have several unique issues that LGBT groups might not consider a priority), or if there are enough similarly-minded folks to help, you may wish to start a trans organization. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to – starting a new non-profit is a long process, and it takes awhile to achieve a stable framework – especially if all the work is done on a volunteer basis. If helping an existing group, volunteers will always be welcome for fundraising, organizing events, finding supporters and more.
- Respond to public expressions of ignorance and injury to the community in letters to the editor and / or call-ins to radio programs. Again, remember to keep the emotions in check, and some training on effective debate, public speaking and communications is a plus.
- If you’re good at public speaking, consider contacting diversity people at your local university, college or medical authority, letting them know you’d be able to speak on trans issues to med students, nurses, medical professionals or students when doing diversity training. It may take a few tries to find the right person or to find someone who is working on something that you’d be a fit for. If you can design PowerPoint presentations or something similar, that helps.
- Start a letter-writing campaign if there is a pressing issue that needs to be made in your area. The volume of mail can be just as effective (or more effective) than the text of any one letter itself.
- Create an online repository of information tailored for people living in your province or state (since most of our issues are governed at that level).
- If there is a current issue, start a petition. Regulations will vary per state or province, but you will need to find out the stipulations in your area and follow them to the letter, or your petition might be invalidated.
- There are a few regular-occurring events that take place each year — if there is nothing happening with regard to these in your area, you might consider finding a group of people to organize one. The Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place every year on or around November 20th; some communities also stage a Transgender Day of Awareness, either around the same time or elsewhere in the year; October 11th is often considered to be National Coming Out Day; May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia; Pride Day / Week events and parade marches; for students, a Day of Silence takes place in April; workshops, conventions and film festivals are also excellent ideas in larger population centres, and of course, there are always drag shows to consider, perhaps in partnership with the local branch of the Imperial Court — while there has sometimes been friction between trans and drag segments of the community in recent years, drag shows can help draw the wider community closer, and can be a fun way to engage the mainstream public and to fundraise.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t get discouraged.
- Pace yourself and avoid burnout (remember that from the chapter on Expectations). If you suffer from depression or something similar, you will have to be especially careful about pacing, and keep a certain amount of advocacy at arm’s length.
- Be creative, and seek ways to make your endeavors exciting, and inspiring.
- Be persistent.
- There will be times when you will have to walk away and/or be patient.
- As awful as it is to say, you sometimes shouldn’t get too attached to and can’t always completely trust the people you’re advocating for. Many times, professional objectivity and distance are needed, no matter how much you might care about a situation that a person is facing.
- It’s easy to point out problems – solutions, on the other hand are more difficult. But if you can provide balanced solutions that are equitable for all parties, that’s gold.
- Acknowledging those who do something right is just as important as decrying it when someone does something wrong.
- Be thorough. Research is everything. Your efforts mean nothing if you appear to not know what you’re talking about.
- Direct contact (in person or on phone) is usually more effective than by email.
- Pick reasonable and attainable goals. If your aim is enormous, break it into smaller, accomplishable tasks.
- Consider views outside your own. One thing about us as a community is that we have to be so hard-assed in advocating for ourselves and have to be so certain of ourselves and how we identify, that we often bring the same unflagging certainty that everything we conceive is exactly right, to everything we do. Nobody can always be exactly right. We have to be able to take advice and criticism. Remember from the previous chapter that we need to always be learning from other perspectives.
- Not everything is newsworthy. And some things that might be are still sometimes best left under the radar if public scrutiny is likely to undo what you’ve accomplished. If you do deal with media at all, it’s worth getting some training on communication.
- Develop a network of allies, advocates and organizations that you can have regular communications with, build a rapport and co-assist.
- Never assume that your fellow advocates are out publicly. Many people are willing to work outside the spotlight, but don’t really want being trans to intrude into their everyday life. Given the heavy cost that can come from being totally out, privacy should be respected.
- If you are directing an effort, delegate the jobs needed to complete it so that everyone shares the burden, and can share the credit. You can accomplish anything, if you don’t care who gets the credit.
Blogging and Social Media
Social networks have provided a way to more effectively network than some of the previous ways (email, message boards, static websites, Yahoo Groups) — although some of the old standbys still have their value and shouldn’t be abandoned altogether. Facebook in particular has provided a way to mobilize people like never before. But it should also not be overestimated.
The novelty of Facebook petition-style “join this group if you support x…” is dated, and it tends to only be an effective expression of support or discontent to those who notice it. The more there are groups of this nature, the less the media cares. No, the greater significance lies in drawing in people and then motivating them to participate in petitions, surveys, or real-time events (or sometimes online ones — again, these can be overdone, thus dampening their effectiveness). It is also a powerful tool for networking, building those friendships and rapports that an activist desperately needs.
Twitter has overtaken Facebook and others in the real-time update arena. If you are involved in activism where you need to be up-to-date on news as it happens, or follow some real-time event like the prop8 court hearings, Twitter is incredibly effective at keeping you tapped in to the nerve of what you’re advocating for. It’s not yet taken in as many users to be good for keeping up on friends’ statuses, but it’s more reliable than Facebook’s flaky system, people are joining all the time, and linking apps are helping. But again, your reach tends to be limited, unless you’ve attained celebrity (and thus, hordes of followers) on that medium.
Online petitions and polls are limited in their effectiveness. Because they’re often not verifiable, can be easily freeped (intentionally skewed by a swarm of people wishing to distort the result), can take votes from people who live outside the region concerned and more, they’re usually not given much credence. The difference between these and paper petitions is night-and-day. However, if you have a paper petition started, you can always scan it and post the page online for those who’d like to print them, fill them out and find other signatures.
Blogging can also be overestimated or underestimated. You won’t change the world with a blog, and in fact most of the time, you’re preaching to the converted. It is, however, a way of getting news out to like-minded supporters, and can also be good for testing pieces of writing, and getting opinions out into the ether for constructive discussion – if you can endure and tame the trolls. Although sometimes a distraction, blogging can be used to mobilize people to lobby their elected representatives on things like ENDA or C-389, and to in turn provide status updates and lobbying advice to the community.
If you manage to get heard in some of the more traveled places, it can also confer a kind of celebrity, but the way people respond to that is not always positive. Blogging’s rewards are immediate, but also usually not that enduring. And celebrity can be a two-edged sword — it can be very draining emotionally, for something that affects only a pocket-community of readers.
So there are some ways you can get started. At every stage, try to stay aware of trans-relevant news and in communication with allies, stay balanced, and pace yourself to avoid burnout.
(crossposted to The Spectrum Cafe)