“Together, we’re building something stronger than any of us thought possible a decade ago.”
We caught up with our Executive Director, Elayne Wylie, to discuss her journey from WA to L.A. and back again, the early days of GJL, and the future trans people deserve.
How did you get started in trans justice work?
My very first adult experiences of being trans out in the world were in the ‘90s in West Hollywood, CA. I had an opportunity to go on the Sally Jessie Raphael Show and come out on national television, in an era of broadcast TV when such things were more common. I thought, ‘that would be a really incredible way to irrevocably come out.’ There was no going back in the closet after that, that’s for sure. My parents discovered that I was trans in this particular fashion, and that was by design.
I relocated back to Seattle a few years later because I really missed the community that I grew up in. It took me a few years to get myself together, and then I realized it was time to fully transition. What some trans people will do for some period of time—weeks, months, years—is sort of straddle the fence: ‘I’m kinda coming out, kinda trans, kinda doin’ my thing, but I may still have something to fall back on.’ I really didn’t have a lot of community when I moved back home, and especially not any trans community, so I tried to be as social as possible: I would hang out at queer clubs, and I got involved in the local goth scene. I’m pretty sure that ‘goth’ was an established intermediary step for many trans people. I could say ‘I’m not out as trans, but I can be goth, that’s what that black lipstick is for.’ I was able to find community: other people that I could see myself in and relate to. That was really powerful.
By 2007, I had transitioned socially and professionally. I was making films, working in the film community, and doing other odd jobs. At the time, Ingersoll Gender Center had been around for about 30 years, and was focused primarily on peer-led support groups, with some board members doing legislative or policy advocacy for trans people. At Ingersoll’s weekly meetings, I’d hear from folks who were experiencing discrimination in their job, in dating, in school, in their housing, and in healthcare. People were struggling to get the medical care that they needed, and their doctors were often uneducated. They were also sharing about paying out of pocket because health insurance didn’t cover trans care. I had this growing sense of urgency to attempt to make a difference. I noticed that my own workplace, which was a local hospital network, didn’t have any documentation about trans people at all, patients or employees. There were no protections—nothing specifically outlining gender identity or gender expression—and I felt like a very, very small cog in a very, very, large machine. I felt like I didn’t have the tools to make a difference. I tried to scoop up training courses on how to be an advocate, how to do workplace equality trainings, and how to navigate these labyrinthian systems that—especially very large companies—were engaged in. I had some success in learning how to do that, but very little success in doing this in my own workplace.
That became a quick jump to becoming a trainer/consultant. Businesses would end up hiring me to come in and provide trainings, sometimes on ‘this is what it looks like to be trans,’ how to transform HR processes, or getting your workplace’s health insurance to be trans inclusive. I had opportunities to travel to Olympia to talk to legislators or speak on panels with business leaders from major corporations. While I had no success at my own company—no one’s respected in their hometown, right?—I became much more effective at helping others transform their workplaces to become more inclusive.
Tell me more about starting GJL?
Around 2012, there was a nucleus of people in Seattle that wanted things to change, so a small group of us met in someone’s living room in the afternoon of one summer day, dreaming up the idea behind what Gender Justice League became. Our aim was to make a greater difference by creating a platform for people to address things that were important to them. Through our collective power, we all felt like we could make a difference. Forming Gender Justice League felt like a very natural move for many of us—especially for me. The name implies a loose-knit group of superheroes coming together to fight for justice, in this case, gender justice.
I remember taking notes, and having this idea that we were all going to try to contribute from our strengths to make this group great. We had graphic designers and policy wonks, people that were familiar with how to run small nonprofits, and other folks that were like ‘hey I’m down with whatever, let’s do it.’ We originally came up with the idea for GJL at a meeting that included Danni Askini, Danielle Weiss, Ilana Tasman, Jessica Littenburg, Mallorie Udischas, Jenn Guinan, Terri Zahniser, and Gwen Yeh. Important early members were Tobi Hill-Meyer, Lonness Valenna, and Bobbi Dalley, James Schaub, Jesse Benet…and so many more. We had a long-running joke that Tobi wasn’t a founder because she wasn’t there at the beginning, and she always said, ‘I showed up at the first publicly advertised meeting!’
We came up with the idea for GJL in July of 2012, and then we spent August through November crafting what our organization should be like. Prior to becoming an official nonprofit, we were a very flat organization. We would vote on topics based on members’ presence. Our meetings included somewhere between 8 – 25 people on a given Tuesday evening. In January 2013, we created our website and email addresses and started to really organize ourselves.
What has your progression with GJL been like, being one of the original founders to now Executive Director?
Even when we weren’t very hierarchical, we still needed people to show up with pens and notepads, somebody to rent the meeting space and hold the electronic keyfob to get in, someone to clean up after everyone—and a core leadership, or executive committee, formed out of that. I focused on internal operations, paying the bills, signing paperwork, and running the meetings. Jenn and Tobi were focused on external operations, our public policy engagements, and what organizations were we going to ally ourselves with or against. Even as we were a flat organization, we attempted to create some breakout roles so that we could accomplish more. Tobi, Danni and I remained at the helm for many years, and we eventually started applying for grants. We were fiscally sponsored by another local organization, Gay City.
Inside of this whole years-long process, we were figuring out what it meant to be a nonprofit. We stopped being as flat, and we ended up having a more traditional hierarchy with a board, executive director, and staff. We were very small, but we had a disparate impact relative to our size, making a really tremendous difference in our community: constantly putting social pressure on establishments that had just been doing business as usual for a long time. There were a lot of entities—city, county, state, local, public and private—that all carried on business as usual, that weren’t deliberately discriminating against trans people, however, we were still often excluded from daily life. Organizations we see now that have some very public trans and nonbinary staff didn’t exist back then. Very, very few trans people were visible. Even in the LGBTQ+ community, we didn’t see a lot of transgender and nonbinary representation.
Myself, Tobi, and occasionally a few others would step in to volunteer to lead programs, and on a year-over-year basis, I started to be less engaged in my vocation, filmmaking, and more and more focused on Gender Justice League business. I was actually the first board chair when we mounted our first application to be a nonprofit. Tobi was the next board chair, then Sophia Lee, and now Sarah Moran. It’s been really exciting to see the growth of the organization through its leadership. When I came on as staff, I was deputy director. When Danni departed the organization and the country for a time, I stepped in as interim executive director. Eventually, we invited Tobi to come back and be a co-executive director with me. You don’t see many co-executive directors, and it’s a darn shame because it’s a really fantastic plan. I currently serve as the organization’s only executive director, but I’m hoping to change that: I’d like to see another deputy director or co-executive director step in again.
Can you talk a bit about GJL’s founding values and why you chose these?
I had personally been inspired by Camp Ten Trees, the local queer youth camp organization—they had a really great set of values, and worked to consciously incorporate those values into their decision-making process, especially when problem-solving. In 2012 when we were forming GJL’s values, we wanted to focus on racial and economic justice, intersectionality, accessibility, inclusion, and sex positivity. We felt that a significant portion of the community that we wanted to represent, especially across Washington State, would really benefit from GJL focusing on the racism and the economic injustices present for a lot of trans people and the marginalization that occurs as a result. There were sex workers who were trans, nonbinary, and gender diverse that we could ally with and support in our policy work. In 2012-13, intersectionality, accessibility, and inclusion were forward-looking ways to broadly include as many marginalized people as possible. I think we built quite a diverse and pretty substantial base of support across Washington State because we focused on accessibility and inclusion.
Intersectionality was and is at the core of our policy and program work. We were talking about international issues, national issues, trans people and women being incarcerated in men’s prisons, and issues around immigration. A powerful moment I recall from Trans Pride 2014 was when Bambi Salcedo read her speech on stage while her assistant shaved her head. It was a powerful, moving visual moment of somebody demonstrating this really important concept of how trans Latinas were adversely impacted at the intersections of immigration, race, and gender.
We’ve had some really incredible moments along the way. Being able to focus on our core values has really helped guide our work. As we have planned events and activities, we have considered how accessible things are by asking: who are we thinking about, who do we want to be there, and who do we want to be up front? It’s the folks who are most marginalized that should be up front, supported, and have opportunities at the megaphone.
How did SafeHouse come to exist?
Prior to 2017, we had worked in co-working spaces, and also briefly sharing an office with a local queer organization. When we saw an opportunity to get our own office in 2017, we took it. In this particular space, there was room for desks and a conference table, a small kitchen, a full bathroom with a shower, and a little loft with a bed, as well as space we could put a fold-out couch in. Instantly, SafeHouse was born. The name came from the inside language that there are no truly ‘safe spaces,’ but there are safer spaces—but we thought ‘SaferHouse’ sounded silly, so we stuck with something that alluded to a protected space.
We designed the program from scratch to meet the dynamic and ever-changing needs of Seattle trans and gender diverse people. Staff would work during the day, and overnight and on weekends we could put people up as guests. This gave us the opportunity to apply for a grant with the City of Seattle for working with populations affected by gender-based violence. With this funding, SafeHouse would see clients, provide referrals, and offer a few days of shelter and some small financial assistance. We built a robust program around some of the early experiences of our guests. We even had one of our early guests on staff for a while working in the SafeHouse program. Our direct SafeHouse work continues and will continue on, whether it’s in the City of Seattle, across the state, or whatever iteration.
How did Trans Pride come to exist?
In 2012, there were very few separate, distinct trans-organized pride events happening anywhere in America, or practically, the world. I had previous experience serving on the board of Seattle Pride, so I had some understanding of the scale and the scope of what was possible: there were several hundred thousand people that would meet along 4th Avenue in downtown Seattle and celebrate in this big parade, with a giant party at Seattle Center afterward. You might see the occasional trans artist or performer at one of these events, but none of those events were branded as trans events.
Holding Trans Pride for the very first year was entirely a grassroots effort. Every poster that was put up was hand stapled by one of our volunteers. We couldn’t even afford one of those companies that do it for you.
We set up a small stage at Cal Anderson Park in Capitol Hill, very close to all the gay and lesbian bars in the city, and people started pouring in. We were a collection of tents, canopies, tabling organizations, and a few sponsors. Three thousand people showed up. I think we would have been impressed with three hundred. The largest previous intentional gathering of trans people and their allies in the City of Seattle had been almost 15 years prior, and that was just a few hundred people.
Trans Pride grew by the thousands every year. By 2019, we saw 25,000 people. Also that year, some particularly onerous groups like Proud Boys ended up holding an event on the same day as ours, about a mile away. Word of this got out, and we garnered support from hundreds of people who volunteered to line the streets, sometimes arm in arm, to prevent any violence during Trans Pride. We got about a hundred volunteers, just on perimeter security, to make sure that the people who could attend would actually enjoy themselves and feel safe. As such, that was the first year we actually had people on the side of the streets cheering for us.
And then in 2020, the pandemic happened, so we went online. We put together a pretty good program, but it just wasn’t the same. We elected not to hold an event in 2021 due to the resurgence of COVID—we felt that prioritizing the health of our community was really an important move for us.
Trans Pride is a tremendous amount of work, but it feels really amazing to know the impact we make for the community. I am really looking forward to a potential Trans Pride in 2022, public health permitting, and I’d love to do a version that not only feels safe but really does provide an increased measure of safety.
How did you choose what to work on in the policy realm, and how has that shifted over time?
We started by thinking about public accommodation. Without access to public accommodation or being accepted in stores, businesses, or as employees, trans people would become invisible. We focused on employment, housing, and access to competent healthcare, including pressuring health insurance to actually pay for our care.
Occasionally anti-trans bills would present themselves, and we would respond accordingly. Just after Trans Pride in 2013, there was a campaign—largely funded by federal dollars filtered through counties—called the We Are One Campaign. It was all about HIV prevention, awareness, and education. While those dollars were being doled out rather liberally to local organizations that were addressing HIV, little to none of those dollars were focused on trans people, especially trans women of color. There was no information about trans identities in their literature or visual campaigns. Once, the county was meeting with its partners in an open meeting, and 22 of us from GJL walked in and let everyone know that it was unacceptable that the county was distributing money to organizations purportedly serving LGBTQ+ people without having any explicit requirements to include and focus on the trans community—especially Black trans women, who were some of the highest rates of new infections. Trans people didn’t see themselves in the solutions for HIV prevention, and it was creating a really negative impact. We helped change the course on that. Following that meeting, King County saw the need to be more inclusive, and we labored with them for months to get it right. Eventually, we saw billboards around the city with real trans people on them advocating for better trans health.
Years later, when WA State chose to be one of the first states to offer birth certificates and state IDs with an X gender marker in compliance with the federal Real ID Act, we were consultants for that. We would meet with state agencies to parse out the details, the impact, and what that could look like. Work like that is still ongoing because while you might have ~25 states that may offer that, there are zero enforcement mechanisms. Even this year, you might be able to get an X on a driver’s license, but if you want to sign up for health insurance, you still need to choose M or an F. That’s where we continue to stand to attempt to make a difference for our community. The work is ongoing, and it’s always going to be ongoing.
In the ‘great bathroom wars of 2016 and 2017,’ a chain of events led to WA State clarifying the 2006 law with respect to trans people. Because we were only a footnote in that 2006 law, which was a revised code of Washington law (RCW), Washington State created a Washington Administrative Code (WAC) on how to be inclusive of trans people in business settings. These laws were not only to be used by other state agencies, but also every business that served the public had guidelines for how they were to engage with trans members of the public. There were several bills introduced at the state legislature, two in the Senate and four in the house. Only one bill made it to the Senate floor, then got voted down, but that defeat spurred the ballot initiative in 2016, Initiative I-1515, and it’s companion the next year, I-1562. The attempt was to force trans people to only use bathrooms and locker rooms that were consistent with the gender assigned to us at birth. Journalists across the state were asked to hold interviews with their local trans leaders, many of whom had little to no press training or a deep dive into the matter. As a response, GJL did a statewide tour to educate our communities, as well as organized a massive public response in Olympia, Tacoma, and elsewhere, participating heavily in the WA Won’t Discriminate campaign that addressed both statewide initiatives. We also provided early candidates for sharing their stories broadly, as well as doing a significant amount of press. While those ballot initiatives or bills would have done considerable, substantial harm to our community, the fact that those ballot initiatives circulated the state certainly created a lot of conversation about trans people, that has, in my opinion, led to a lot more scrutiny, and in some cases, violence.
Wherever you are in Washington, trans people have protections. There are some specific ones that we can look at in GJL’s history and say ‘we did that,’ but there are many others where we worked right alongside many, many other individuals and organizations to bring about social change so that people could live better, more authentic, and safer lives.
How do intersectionality and anti-racism show up in your work today?
Personally, my household is multi-racial, and I live and exist in community with folks raised both inside and outside a predominantly white environment. We regularly interrogate virtually everything we encounter, whether it’s old phrases and ideas from our pasts, or shows that we watch and digest. It’s a healthy way to re-examine who we are, and the routines we get into that can unwittingly cause harm, including microaggressions or something more intense.
I also have to remember that, 15 years on, there is so much that I still don’t know, and there is still so much that I have to unlearn. GJL is about to embark on a new five-year plan, and as a part of that, we’re bringing in a racial justice consultant to examine our organization top-to-bottom. We can never ‘finish’ anti-racism. We want to look at our hiring practices, how we are drawing in talent, who we book for events and speaking roles, and how we are doing in meeting the needs of Black and brown trans folks. How can we engage with our community, whether that’s individuals or organizations, and show up responsibly, powerfully, and supportively? How are we centering and celebrating some of our most marginalized folks year-round? How are we elevating those voices, in a way that can make the most difference?
What do you see for the future of trans organizing in the next year?
We’re no longer the only trans organization, and we’re not even the largest trans organization. However, what we’re doing and producing is meeting an urgent need. There may still be a limited pool of funding out there in the world, but that doesn’t mean we have to view the other trans-serving organizations as competition. Ultimately, we are all serving trans communities. It’s really difficult to think of ‘the trans community’ as one community. We are many, many, many communities. We represent so many different ways of life, so many cultures, so many backgrounds, so many generations. I think the future of trans organizing is more partnership, more collaboration, more sharing, more building each other up.
What is the future that trans people deserve?
Trans people deserve a future that is filled with possibility. It breaks my heart every time I meet someone that says ‘before I transitioned I never thought I’d live past 30,’ and then they’re 31 and they’re like, ‘I’m in new territory, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know what the next thing is.’ It is heartbreaking to meet people that were filled with resignation about what their prospects of life would be like if they transitioned.
Myself and most of the trans people living in LA in the ‘90s were doing sex work to survive. If you were trans and you lived authentically as yourself, then you were probably fired from your job. That was really hard for me. I wanted to go to community college, or get more job experience, or something—I was actually afraid to transition. I used one name here and another name there. I didn’t have a gender designation for myself, and I hardly ever even used my first name—I was just ‘Wylie.’ A lot of that was due to fear, because I didn’t know what my future looked like. I finally had that ‘can’t not’ moment. I finally said ‘I can no longer not transition. I can no longer not have a future as my most authentic self.’
Here I am today, 25 years in on this pretty incredible journey, and I think everybody deserves to see what their old wrinkled self looks like as a trans person. There’s a diversity of gender out there and none of us should be stuck feeling like we’re merely surviving. We should all have the opportunities—plural—to thrive, and to just be whatever we’re supposed to be. Whatever we want to be in the world. What is the future that trans people deserve? We deserve everything!
How can people support GJL?
As GJL is expanding our programs and operations to include more people across Washington State—and even looking to neighboring states and thinking about how we can build something bigger than just Washington—we need your support more than ever.
Some of the most powerful donations are the big checks that we get at events, but I think that a more accessible way to contribute to GJL is through small monthly donations. If you can’t write a $100 check, maybe you could give $8.30 per month—at the end of the year, that’s nearly $100, and that can feel really good to look back on. It’s really powerful to see those dollars add up and to know that when you are donating to GJL, you are supporting a team of people that are trained and specialized in working hard to meet the needs of our community.
Giving $10 to GJL can help a trans person take a Lyft to a safe location, or to a doctor’s appointment that they might not have been able to make because they didn’t have the money. Giving $25 can help somebody buy groceries, help pay down one of their utility bills, or help them get a cell phone to look for jobs. Giving more can help trans people get their very expensive name changes. Did you know it’s over $300 right now to change your name in King County? The hurdle of saving that much money all at once can be a months or years-long struggle for someone, lengthening the period in which they are subject to increased risk of harassment and violence from providers and authority figures who access their documentation.
Even today, we’re working with so many local and statewide advocates on areas of healthcare and health insurance, housing, employment, and public accommodation (to name a few), as the struggle is never-ending. However, unlike in 2012, we’re no longer struggling to be heard. We’ve been joined by professionals and passionate community members who are pushing back hard against the creep of indifference and marginalization. Together, we’re building something stronger than any of us thought possible a decade ago.