We caught up with Co-Executive Director Tobi Hill-Meyer to ask some questions about her time with Gender Justice League, and the past and future of organizing for trans justice and liberation.
*This interview was conducted December 2020.
What does gender justice mean to you?
When I think about what gender justice means to me, I need to start by centering what justice means to me: it is a world where peoples’ basic needs are met, a world where exploitative systems are dismantled and taken away, and a world where we recognize all the different ways that individually, interpersonally, and institutionally, people are being held back and treated unjustly. Anger is a really important emotion in a lot of this, because anger shows up inside your body to tell you when something is unjust, and you should not accept it. When I look at all these things, it feels really important to me to have a space to focus on gender justice, and being able to address issues and concerns specific to the trans community; being able to look at gender based violence; and to pick apart all the different ways we are kept down, hurt, and harmed by the people in our lives and the institutions and the safety nets that are hypothetically there to support us, but we know have never really served that role. Being able to advocate for gender justice means looking at the whole picture and saying “This is unacceptable. We need to go in and do something to change this, and make things reflect our vision of a just world.”
Why does Gender Justice League (GJL) matter?
Gender Justice League was created at a time when there had been such a focus on marriage equality for so long, that a lot of LGBTQ+ organizations didn’t have much of a focus on trans rights. When we achieved marriage equality, suddenly all the funding for marriage disappeared, and there was a search to pivot to the next big topic. A lot of organizations decided that trans rights would be the next big topic. However, many of those organizations only had one or two trans employees. They were getting a lot of funding to do trans rights work, but trans people weren’t necessarily the ones doing the work. This created momentum for trans people to form our own organizations, and find ways we could support ourselves to do that work. When GJL first started, we got a big break with a $20k neighborhood grant in order to put on Trans Pride. That was an incredible experience that surpassed our expectations. We used the energy from that event, and all the people coming together, to advocate for policy change, specifically trans exclusion clauses, which were the norm in insurance policies. Even organizations that didn’t want those exclusion clauses would have to fight with their insurance company to get them taken out. One by one, GJL went through WA State making sure the public employees benefits board and Apple Health took out those exclusion clauses, before finally getting the insurance commissioner to put out a bulletin saying that exclusion clauses were illegal discrimination, and wouldn’t be accepted with any kind of insurance plan under Washington jurisdiction. That was a wake up moment for us, for me in particular, that we do have the power to make change. When we come together to push for what is right and just, we can see significant change—that’s what the vision of GJL has always been, and that’s why it’s so important.
What community needs do GJL meet?
From the beginning, GJL was founded on values of racial justice, disability justice, sex positivity, and supporting sex workers. A big part of that has been recognizing how much the deck is stacked against us in all these immediate ways, and how much that impacts peoples’ immediate needs. A lot of the needs we’ve been focusing on have been those immediate needs related to healthcare, housing, income, and employment discrimination. One of the key things we’re trying to do with this strategy is to build a community that is stronger, and has more capacity to support each other to survive and thrive; and to use that additional power that we have by supporting each other to see more change in this world, and to reflect what is just for trans people.
How has GJL impacted your personal life?
Before I was part of GJL, I’d been involved in a lot of activism, but so much of it was on my own, or trying to push a larger organization to do more work on trans rights. One of the things I really liked about the idea of GJL—taking that ‘justice league’ part of it—was the idea we were made up of dozens of individual activists who were superheroes on our own, but often isolated without support or backup. Through GJL, we could have each others’ backs. For example, we could call a local business to tell them that something they posted in their window is transphobic, and we could say “Gender Justice League has been receiving complaints about this” as opposed to saying “I think that’s messed up.” This lent us a lot of power. Further, being able to come together and learn more of what the expectations are in some of the more “professional” advocacy and nonprofit circles, in order to understand how to navigate these institutions, was huge as well.
How has GJL impacted trans communities?
I think it’s easiest sometimes to see the impact that GJL has had on trans communities when you look at Trans Pride. Trans Pride is an opportunity for people to celebrate and for artists to have their work showcased. We try to make sure every year that at least half of the dollars we’re spending on Trans Pride are going back into the pockets of trans people, and that at least half those dollars are going into the pockets of trans people of color. Seeing people coming together from all corners of the state who might be dealing with isolation, to share joy with each other, is incredible. One other moment that stands out to me was right after we got the trans exclusion clauses removed from all insurance policies under WA jurisdiction. I ended up getting a part time gig as a healthcare navigator, going around to all the queer bars and sitting in the corner at a table, with a tablet and a sign that said “Want to sign up for health care? I’ll tell you all about it and can sign you up on my tablet right here.” What was so amazing about that was not only did we have the affordable healthcare act, making insurance a financial possibility for people, but to be able to tell them this is the first year every single plan on the market was trans inclusive. Going to all of these events and shows and telling people that we have trans inclusive healthcare, and it is affordable, and I can sign you up in 15 minutes in this corner of the bar, I kind of felt like santa claus: going around giving out this amazing gift that people were so struck by and overjoyed that this was possible. It was such an important reflection for me that a core human need like healthcare has been unmet for so long in our community, that being able to have that accessible was just so incredible.
What has participating in GJL programming been like for you?
There were a couple years where my only role in Trans Pride was being a tabler and a participant, and I loved the energy in that space. Being at a table with my little 30 second elevator speech, I would go for 90 minutes straight saying that same thing again and again to different people and talking more with those who were interested, with barely a pause in between, until finally I needed to grab someone to give me a bathroom break. It was such a high energy. Everyone was excited and happy to be there, wanting to share with each other the different things we’re working on and the different things that are available. I loved being apart of that, and when I could get away from the table for a little bit and watch the performances, or stand in the crowd and take a moment to look around, and see all the different people there and how they were engaging with each other—a minute or two of people watching to take in the environment and what was going on—it was incredibly powerful to see people coming together, and especially so many trans people who experience isolation, and don’t necessarily have many spaces like this.
What has it felt like to be engaged in the policy work you’re doing through GJL?
Personally, I’ve been involved in sex work community for a very long time now, so when there was a moment for GJL and the Sex Worker Outreach Project to collaborate, it felt really natural. It was 4 or 5 years ago when there was a legislature that had a whole bunch of bills that would increase the criminality of sex work, and increase police involvement in sex work, and they had bipartisan support and were ready to sail through without anyone having any opposition to it. We worked together to get half a dozen sex workers down to Olympia to testify at a hearing. As far as I know, this was the first or one of the first times that sex workers were able to testify in that kind of a setting and have their voices heard. However, when we first got down there, the people running the hearing rearranged the agenda, put those bills at the very end of the meeting, waited until there was no more time, then let 3 of the supporters speak, and didn’t let any of us speak. That was so incredibly frustrating, but we did not stop there. We actually got involved with the media, and got a story out about how the legislature had denied sex workers the opportunity to speak about legislation about sex work. That got them to decide to hold a second hearing. So, we needed to get everyone in the car again, drive down to Olympia early in the morning again, but we finally got people the opportunity to testify, and to share how these bills, laws, and the criminalization of sex work is personally impacting people. That was such a powerful moment: it opened up legislators’ eyes to the fact that some criminalization can be a bad thing. To be able to hear from some of the people being impacted by these policies, and not just the people who ideologically wanted to stamp out sex work, that created a change. We spent that year on the defensive, desperately hoping that none of these half dozen bills would make it through. Since then we’ve been able to work together, even with some of the anti-trafficking people, to pass some common sense legislation that would make it easier for people involved in sex work to reach out and call 911 for support without having fear of being arrested and prosecuted if it was found out they are involved in sex work.
Can you speak to the current policy work you’re doing?
Right now one of the big areas we’re working on around policy is housing. A couple years ago, GJL got our own office for the first time, and when we got this office, it just happened to be rated for commercial and residential—full bath and shower, loft, laundry facilities on site, a kitchenette—and we realized that with so much need for housing in our community, we could not let that go to waste. So, we turned it into a 1 bed shelter, started putting people up in that space, and started getting connected to the city structures for housing and shelters, and gender based violence programs. We’ve always known the existing shelter system is inadequate, but to actually be in the middle of it advocating for people, going down to some of these shelters and talking with the administrators, has been really eye opening. There was one moment in particular where we were advocating for someone who had been experiencing anti-trans harassment in a shelter. The shelter staff initially did the right thing and said “that’s inappropriate, it’s not ok, you shouldn’t have to experience that” and they told the harasser that if it happened again they would be kicked out. But then the harasser did it again…and again…and again...and the staff didn’t do anything about it. So, we went and talked to the staff and the administration and asked them what was happening, why they were not following through, and they said they just didn’t have the capacity; they said they had a training on trans issues, but turnover was so high that after a year there are so many new staff who hadn’t been to that training, and that they had 20-something clients per staff person, they were overwhelmed, and it was just not possible for them to make sure anti-trans harassment didn’t happen in their spaces. That made me realize that no matter how much we work with these shelters, it is not going to work to try to make these shelters better spaces for trans people; we need to start completely fresh and have some programs, like our SafeHouse program, that are specifically for trans people. We received a housing advocacy grant with the WA Black Trans Task Force, and are doing a big advocacy push to try to get funding from the government at some level for trans specific housing programs. Our number one goal this year is to try to obtain some kind of funding for a transitional housing program that the WA BTTF is planning on putting together. That is something that would turn things around for so many people. Having people in our community who are not just in survival mode, have their basic needs met, and are able to be on track to have a better experience in the world, is a core building block of what makes our community powerful.
What compels you to give to GJL?
For me, it was when we actually saw the change happening around healthcare exclusions. That had been something I had been working on for years. I think the first time I did something around that was 2008: trying to get my partner’s health plan to be trans inclusive. Their workplace wanted it, but still couldn’t actually get the insurance company to give them a trans inclusive plan. I had been working on this for 6 or 7 years in different areas, and constantly running into this incredible injustice. Then seeing that moment when we could convene 30-40 people every 2 weeks to plan and follow through, and get people to show up to a hearing to explain how much this stuff was impacting people—then I realized there is so much more we can do together than we can do on our own. That’s when I became a monthly donor to GJL. It really felt important to be able to support this work. This is the strategy for how we can really be represented in these different arenas and make change.
How do intersectionality and anti-racism impact your work?
Earlier in my activism, I saw so many organizations that were focused around a single identity group, and really didn’t understand the value of intersectionality and looking at all the different kinds of oppression that affect people, including people in their own identity group. Trying to get LGBTQ+ organizations to address racism or to address transphobia…trans people were almost considered inherently an intersectional issue because it was always this secondary or tertiary concern with gay and lesbian rights, the movement for marriage being the primary concern. It really gave me this perspective, as an Indigenous and Latina trans woman, as someone who has been involved in sex work, to be able to see how different it looks when you focus on those intersections. If there is an organization that’s working for gays and lesbians, but not taking into account any of this, they will help out the wealthy white cis gay men and lesbians, but they’re not really going to impact anyone else. If you actually look at some of the people who are the most marginalized, if you focus and center Black and Indigenous trans people who are dealing with poverty and homelessness, then whatever you do to affect and support those communities are going to be there to take care of everyone. It is impossible to actually support our community unless you are supporting the most marginalized people in our community. Any attempt to do so without that is ultimately going to fail. That’s why intersectionality is not even a question to me—it’s where you have to start.
What does trans organizing look like in the next year, as we center BIPOC lives?
As one of the few trans people of color whose been involved with GJL throughout its entire existence—as one of the few people who have been involved with it throughout its existence—I think it’s really important to look at how we can address and center issues of racism, and center BIPOC lives. That’s one of the things that’s really becoming a priority, and I really appreciate the opportunity to take the helm of this organization. The past couple of years have been a lot about just getting our institutional structure up to where we need it to be, and now I want to see us prioritize that value of racial justice that has been there since the beginning. One of the things that’s different now than it was when we started, is there are a lot of other groups out there doing similar work. When we started, there really wasn’t much—or any—organizational work that was focusing on policy advocacy and trans justice. Now, we’ve seen Ingersoll grow and take on that role, and create a whole bunch of staff roles to be doing that work; we’ve seen other organizations shift their focus as well, like UTOPIA WA, and we’ve seen the WA BTTF come together in the past year or two. All these groups that are coming together to do this same kind of work from different perspectives, with so many different people and organizations, makes this an amazing time to be in. The opportunity for partnership and collaboration, and building upon each others’ strengths, is really incredible. One of the things I think about for this next year is that this country has spent a long time dealing with things at the federal level, so now that we are looking at a democratic administration with President Biden, a lot of people are breathing a deep sigh of relief—but we can’t let that keep us off guard. We know that we always have to push. There are a lot of ways that trying to advocate for trans rights under a Biden administration will look a lot different than it did under a Trump administration. But, we still need to advocate. We’re going to be seeing change at a federal level, and all the ways that’s going to affect us locally, but we need to continuously push for that; making sure that promises that were made actually get followed through with, and making sure that opportunities that now exist don’t get forgotten. We know how easy it is for our political allies to have our backs when it’s expedient, but forget about us as soon as things get difficult. We need to be constantly present and engaged in a way where it is never easy for them to do that.
What is the future that trans people deserve?
I love this question. What is the future that trans people deserve? I think so often we get caught up in what is realistic or what is possible, what negotiation or compromise we might get. Being able to take a moment to think about what is the future what we actually deserve and should have…I think some of the core things are: all our basic needs are met, ready access to housing, income, healthcare…but going beyond that, too, there are so many structural inequities that I think really need to be addressed. We look at policing as a huge issue, and accountability for police violence, as some of the really basic things that have to change before people can experience true justice. We want to involve some of these criticisms, theory, debates, and ideas around what it would look like if we could take apart different pieces of capitalism that are reproducing these problems. Some of the economic injustice that happens with workplace settings—how much power an employer has over your life, especially with healthcare being tied to employment—it can literally be a life or death dynamic with your employer. Having that kind of power imbalance is always going to make it harder to have a healthy experience and a balanced workplace. I want to be able to address all of these challenges, and talk about them, and make sure that when we are looking at different reforms that could actually fit into the next 6 months, that we don’t forget how deep some of these things go. If we really want to get to the future that trans people deserve, we need to be looking at and dismantling all of those injustices.