An Interview with WA State Senator Marko Liias
We sat down (virtually) with WA State Senator and trans justice advocate Marko Liias to discuss the importance of community led policy advocacy, investing in leadership development, and the power in collective work towards gender justice. This interview was conducted in December 2020.

What does gender justice mean to you? What is your personal stake in it?

Gender justice is the systematic redistribution of power, opportunities, and access for people of all genders and gender expressions—and that means dismantling harmful structures like the patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia. My personal stake in gender justice comes from my identity as a gay man. I appreciate and understand what it’s like to face discrimination and marginalization—I felt that in my own life. I also recognize, as a white cis man, that I have so much privilege, as well. I try to blend those two perspectives in my work.

What community needs does Gender Justice League meet?

Gender Justice League helps me connect with fighting oppression, and also challenges me to step up to use my position of privilege and power to help advance equity for all.

We know in WA State that our trans community—and particularly trans women of color—face some of the largest obstacles in accessing opportunities, healthcare, and other critical needs. Gender Justice League does critical work in ensuring that some of the most marginalized communities in our state are at the table, and fighting to ensure that all people—especially our most vulnerable community members—have access to the same opportunities. And really, that we’re dismantling systems of oppression that are holding back people in our community to help achieve that vision of justice for everyone.

As policymakers, while we work on tackling important issues facing the LGBTQ+ community, it is critical we have authentic community voices as part of the dialogue. From the outside, I’ve witnessed the elevation of important issues affecting trans community members, and I’ve witnessed Gender Justice League bring the voices of those most impacted to the table. To me, as an ally and as someone that is engaged in this work, that has been incredibly valuable. Gender Justice League provides that connection to the grassroots voices of folks impacted by the decisions we’re making. They connect them to those of us that are making policies and passing laws, to ensure the decisions made are inclusive of those who are most impacted, and that everyone’s voices are heard in the process.

How has Gender Justice League impacted your personal life?

Gender Justice League has educated me over the years around the unique and important issues and needs of folks in our trans community, and really helped me understand the intersectional challenges that folks in the LGBQ and trans communities face. Like so many Washingtonians, I’m actively engaged in developing my own anti-racist understanding, and actively becoming more anti-racist. Groups like Gender Justice League are critical to helping educate me as a cis white man in understanding the lived experiences of other people, the challenges and systems of oppression that hold people back, and how we can work together across the LGBTQ+ community as allies to tear down these systems of oppression to move everybody forward.

What compelled you to first give to Gender Justice League?

What first compelled me was knowing Danni Askini and some of the initial founders, and that sense of excitement and allyship that Gender Justice League’s mission embodied. As the organization has grown, changed, and developed over the years, I continue to have admiration for the mission’s effectiveness, and for the really important perspective that Gender Justice League brings to our conversations. I want to have some skin in the game, making sure that I’m personally supporting organizations that are aligned with my values, and that are challenging me to do better.

I’ve been involved with many nonprofits over the course of my life and my public service, and I know that what is really critical is to have that sustaining support. It turns out that the costs of this work take place every single month: there’s rent to be paid, utilities to be paid, and salaries to be paid. When we become monthly donors, we support that ongoing infrastructure that ensures that organizations like Gender Justice League have the resources they need to have the impact that we need in our communities. Whether it’s Gender Justice League or other nonprofits, I think being a sustaining donor is critical to ensuring that day in and day out, organizations and voices like Gender Justice League are able to do the work. In the case of Gender Justice League, by the way, ‘overhead’ costs mean giving meaningful job opportunities to people in the trans community to grow and develop their skills. So, we shouldn’t think of it as overhead, we should think of it as leadership development for the future.

On an individual level, a donation to Gender Justice League signifies a commitment to a vision of gender justice, where trans people and allies are working together to dismantle systems of oppression. A donation is our personal commitment—it’s our personal stake in that mission. On a broader level, a donation means we’re empowering and coalescing voices to make the change we need. Each of us individually and collectively, as a community, need to be making this investment of our time, energy, and also of our financial resources as we’re able to, to advance gender justice for all.

I have continued engaging with Gender Justice League because of the open hand of partnership that GJL brings to this work, while challenging and demanding justice. We work best when we come together, find solutions, and move as forcefully and as quickly as we can. Gender Justice League does an excellent job of challenging and demanding more, while also reaching a hand out in partnership to forge those connections, to make the change that we need to.

As you know, some of Gender Justice League’s main focuses are safe housing, food access, and healthcare access for trans and gender diverse people statewide. Why are these things so important?

Housing is one of the most fundamental human needs we have. The data is clear: when folks in crisis have safe housing, it creates the stability to provide other necessary support. When we create safe housing, we unlock the opportunity to really address some of the other fundamental challenges that folks are facing. We know in our state that the trans community, and the LGBTQ+ community broadly, is overrepresented in youth homelessness. Safe housing is the first step towards providing stability and support for communities, and helping people take steps toward self-sufficiency.

For many trans Washingtonians, access to healthcare and medication is critical to affirming their genders. Ensuring access to gender affirming care—and ensuring that there are culturally competent providers who understand the unique needs of trans communities that are prepared to provide healthcare—is critical. It is a challenge that is present everywhere, from the urban core of Seattle, to the most rural parts of the state. There’s not a community in Washington where there’s not a lack of gender affirming care. We need to make sure that every single Washingtonian has access to the care they need, when they need it. For our trans community, that need is really being unmet right now. The work that Gender Justice League is doing both to help us address these inequities, and to help us build a healthcare system that is affirming, is so critical as we move forward.

Just like housing and healthcare, food is one of those most basic human needs. We also know that for many Washingtonians, food insecurity is the product of housing instability and a lack of access to health care. Folks who have to choose between access to life saving medications and food will often make the choice to focus on their healthcare needs. Providing food access is literally providing someone the energy and sustenance to keep pressing forward—and it’s a critical need to be filling in this moment. The COVID pandemic has really underscored the fragility of our food security system; the number of people who have faced food insecurity has grown exponentially during the pandemic. Gender Justice League addressing this fundamental human need was important before the pandemic, but even more important now, to sustain those who are most marginalized in our communities.

One of the key legislative victories that Gender Justice League has been part of was defeating the anti-trans bathroom bills around 2016. Why does bathroom safety and access matter for trans people?

The right to pee is one of the most fundamental human needs that exists out there. If you can’t find a safe place to go to the bathroom, there really probably isn’t any other safe space for you in our society. The right to access a bathroom, and the dehumanizing effect that these anti-trans bills had, was really important to confront. Gender Justice League was a critical partner in not only raising awareness to the dehumanizing elements, but also to bringing voices into the process that could help cisgender lawmakers understand the importance of the issue. Gender Justice League brought courageous Washingtonians forward to tell their stories, to be vulnerable and honest, and to demand an end to these dehumanizing practices. I was proud that we defeated the bill on the Senate floor, but I was heartbroken that it was defeated by only one vote. Since then, we’ve thrown some of those folks out of office who supported these dehumanizing practices, and I think that’s a tribute to the work we did to organize and to explain to Washingtonians why these policies were so harmful.

Gender Justice League is in the conversation, whether policymakers want to hear from the trans community or not. I think there’s power in that persistence, there’s power in that advocacy, there’s power in challenging those of us that have positions of privilege to speak out.

How does self-advocacy fit in with policy work?

The reality is we don’t yet have trans folks in the state legislature or in positions of power in Washington. So, it’s been really critical to build a community that can advocate for itself in the face of transphobia. It isn’t enough to expect that cisgender lawmakers will understand these issues and make the right decisions—we need the trans community to have the power, and to self-advocate, to demand the kind of future we know is possible. Gender Justice League has been critical in building that capacity in the trans community, building trans leaders who can step up and advocate for the trans community on a granular level. These leaders challenge not just cisgender, heterosexual lawmakers, but also challenge our LGBTQ+ caucus to be more open, understanding of, and responsive to the unique needs that affect our trans community, and to realize the intersectional challenges, and to be anti-racist, in the work we’re doing. The self-sufficiency that Gender Justice League is building in individual leaders and in the community is making a huge impact in helping advance justice for all Washingtonians.

Nationwide, we have our first trans senator Sarah McBride (Delaware), and Danica Roem (Virginia), and others—we have some visible faces, and it is changing the conversation. I know from colleagues in those states that it changes the conversation dramatically when you have that perspective in the room. I think that is definitely a vision and a goal for all of us [in Washington]. In the meantime, we have to be working to make sure trans voices are still heard.

What does organizing for gender justice look like in the next year?

Having more out trans elected officials will empower, enable, and create space for the next generation of movement leaders. Taking power for our communities requires a renewable process of folks who step up to lead, and creating space in the movement for new leaders and activists. I’m excited to see the new faces that are joining the political conversation, and also the space that’s now made for new movement leaders who will press officials in positions of power to make change. To me, that’s the power of Gender Justice League: is it not just an organization that exists in one moment. It’s an organization that exists across time. We are constantly cultivating the next generation of trans leaders and trans activists who will continue this fight as we continue to make progress.

We’ve already seen new trans voices elected to positions of power. I’m excited to see out trans and BIPOC officials that will take their place in the Biden administration in the coming weeks and months. We’re going to have two leaders at the highest levels of our government that are interested in moving forward the agenda of equity and progress. We won’t achieve as much as we hope, but we finally have a moment to begin moving forward as opposed to moving backwards. For our brave trans soldiers who have faced so much oppression from the previous administration, we will now have an administration that affirms and honors their service, and is sympathetic and committed to achieving justice for trans people. I think this is a pivotal moment, and a moment we need organizations like Gender Justice League—at the local levels, and all the way up to the federal level—pushing for that vision of gender justice.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic of historic magnitude. In my mind, that means recentering on issues of health equity, health access, and health justice for all people—but particularly for Black and Indigenous communities of color, and for our trans communities. Black and brown people have been more likely to contract COVID and to die from it. That disproportionality exists in so many other areas of care, but COVID has given us a lens—particularly for white middle class folks—to really understand this health equity challenge in a way that unfortunately, people weren’t connecting with before. In Washington, there are still too many barriers to health access and health equity for trans people and BIPOC. That’s not acceptable at any point—but especially in the midst of a global pandemic, when public health threats are so real, and people are literally becoming sick and dying around us. We must bring more urgency to this work and ensure that health access, including gender affirming care, is at the center of what we’re doing in this moment, to ensure that everybody has access to the lifesaving treatments they need—not just in the face of this pandemic—but in the face of all the healthcare challenges in our society.

Why is intersectionality important in organizing and achieving gender justice?

First, we know that the challenges faced by the trans community are intersectional. We know that Black trans women face far more obstacles to opportunity than other parts of the community. That’s a reality in addressing the complexity of the situation that we face. There’s also a second reason: solidarity. All of us, regardless of where we’re at in society, owe a duty of solidarity to those that are struggling and facing the most obstacles. By building an intersectional movement, we not only acknowledge the real meaningful roadblocks and systems of oppression that affect folks in our community—we also demonstrate solidarity with the broader movement for racial justice and equity across communities. When we come together intersectionally, we bring in more voices, more resources, more allies, and more support. In a democracy, we’ve got to get to a place where we bring in as many allies and supporters as possible, so that we can win at the ballot box, so that we can win in policy discussions, and so that we can address those intersectional needs within our own community as well.

When we come together and tear down the barriers affecting those most exposed to injustice, it has a ripple effect of tearing down those same barriers for so many others. We know that in the movement for racial justice—as we all work to become more anti-racist—the barriers that are affecting our Black, Indigenous, and communities of color are also barriers that are holding back LGBQ and trans people. We have to work together to tear down those systems of oppression, and recognize that the common seeds of transphobia, homophobia, and patriarchy are hatred and intolerance. When we work together to tackle that hatred and intolerance, it tears down barriers, and expands opportunities for all of us. It doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, be intentional and identify who faces the most obstacles. We have to recognize that, at a systems level, any movement towards tearing down barriers is going to help liberate all of us.

What is the future that trans people deserve?

Trans people deserve the same access to the same opportunities as the rest of us do. I think that is ‘happy’ talk though—what it really means is tearing down systems that are transphobic and homophobic, and that reflect misogyny and the patriarchy. In order to achieve a future where trans people can access all the same opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have in my life, it means we have to confront systems of oppression and tear them down, and redistribute access to power and opportunity.