In celebration of Gender Justice League’s 10-year anniversary, this blog post is part of a series called Ten Years of Gender Justice, a commemoration of some of the key players throughout GJL’s history. Throughout this series, we’ll highlight a few of the collaborators, organizers, and activists who have worked within or alongside GJL to make strides in advancing gender justice in Washington State and beyond.
Danni Askini (they/she) has served for over 20 years as an activist, policy expert, and organizer in Two Spirit, trans, and LGBQIA+ communities across the United States and Europe. As GJL’s founding Executive Director, Danni helped lead the organization in expanding access to transition-related healthcare, banning conversion therapy throughout Washington State, defeating 6 anti-trans legislative bills, crushing 2 anti-trans ballot measures, launching our mutual-aid project to support survivors of gender-based violence, and successfully producing 9 Trans Pride Seattle events. In 2018, after being targeted by the Trump Administration, Danni was forced to seek asylum in Sweden, having been denied a passport to return home. Upon returning in 2020, after settling her case through the UN Human Rights Council, Danni relocated to Washington DC, and splits her time in Seattle where she has deep roots. In 2021, Danni reprised their role as GJL’s Executive Director and has since worked tirelessly to set up new systems to keep GJL sustainable and ensure a smooth delivery of support to trans and gender diverse community members.
Note: this interview was conducted in December 2022.
You’re one of the original founders of GJL! How did GJL come to exist?
The idea for GJL came about in the summer of 2012. I worked throughout the spring [of 2012] for the marriage equality campaign in Washington State (ref. 74) and there were some pretty significant challenges around trans people being included in the campaign. For instance, the communications team was not interested—or willing—to have trans people represented in the couples that were going to be featured in the TV ads. It was also really clear that, based on where attacks were headed against non-discrimination laws, the shift was increasingly towards “men” using women’s locker rooms—like in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where there was a local non-discrimination ordinance campaign that featured attack ads targeting trans women. We also saw this very clearly in Houston Texas, as well, with their non-discrimination campaign when Annise Parker was their mayor. That was the shift, but it was starting to focus more on trans people.
So, Elayne Wylie and I and a lot of other folks—Jessica Littenberg, Jenn Guinan, Rachel Popkin, Jessica Udischas, Gwen Yeh, and a bunch of other folks—got together in July/August 2012 to talk about local trans organizing. There was Ingersoll Gender Center, which provided weekly support groups for trans people, but there were no real attempts in Washington State to address structural inequities that trans people were experiencing through policy change.
At that point, I had been a trans activist for 17 years. I’d run lobby days in California, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Louisiana. I’d traveled and done a lot of work all over the country, and so I pitched this idea that we start a trans justice organization or group. Initially, it started as “the witches of the seven hills,” which was half a joke in Jessica Littenberg’s living room. We started asking ourselves: what would an organization look like? What would we call ourselves? How would we start to form?
Throughout the fall of 2012, we started to formalize. At the very beginning, I was one of the people that worked to add structure and get fiscally sponsored by Gay City Health Project, so we could start to raise and spend money. We started to build ideas about what we might do, and the idea of Trans Pride Seattle (TPS) was born. We kicked off planning [for the first TPS] in January of 2013. We also focused on advocacy with the city, county, and state, and what that would look like focusing on issues of HIV prevention, healthcare, and housing/homelessness.
A really important thing at that time was also that I had been diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia / bone marrow failure the year prior (2011). I had gone through treatment, and then in the spring of 2012, I went from being in remission to being extremely sick again. Aplastic anemia is often a terminal illness. We were searching for a bone marrow donor for a bone marrow transplant, and I was receiving pretty heavy and intensive chemotherapy. So, GJL was starting to form at a time when I was facing a terminal illness. It kind of grew out of this deep impetus for me and my friends to do something. I wanted to work on a project that felt really meaningful for me at the end of my life—which is weird to say now that it’s 10 years later. That sense of urgency really guided a lot of what we did and how we did it when there were a lot of objections, obstacles, and people poo pooing our vision.
How did the group decide what the priorities were going to be for GJL in terms of advocacy, events, programs, etc.?
We had a bunch of community listening sessions, community forums, focus groups, a community survey/needs assessment, and a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). We heard from a lot of people that health insurance coverage and health care access were really a high priority, along with housing, access to jobs and education, and combating discrimination in the workplace. We were keenly focused on an intersectional analysis, thinking a lot about racial justice and working at the intersections of sexism, transmisogyny, and racism.
We started out as a very open group that met weekly. Anybody who came was considered a member, and any member could vote on any initiative. It was a really challenging format, and it was like that for the first three and a half years. It was great in that it brought in a lot of ideas, but it also meant that we were trying to put out a lot of fires constantly. People who were in crisis would show up and need support around [things like] being evicted, and people were bringing lots of stuff that was contemporary, but maybe we were more of a reactive group at that time. It also meant that we were constantly revisiting past decisions and catching new members up on past projects, making it extremely difficult to move projects forward.
As we started to professionalize, it became really clear that a lot of the things we wanted to change, such as getting insurance inclusion for gender-affirming care, would require longer more strategic coalitions and partnerships, and more infrastructure to have sustained engagements with policymakers; which would also require more engagement with the media and the community, with clear, ongoing points of contact.
By 2015, it became really obvious to us that the burden of who was doing the work of the organization was not evenly distributed across the people who were showing up to meetings: it was really a few key people who were not being compensated, who were also working full time or part-time jobs. I was on disability [benefits], for instance, other folks were students, and some of us were on SSI. There were several people who were doing a lot of the labor, and as much as we wanted it to be a collective effort, people’s lives didn’t allow it to be a huge collective, even though that was our initial idea.
A really big step for us was creating the Coalition for Inclusive Healthcare with Pride Foundation, Ingersoll Gender Center, ACLU of Washington, Legal Voice, Planned Parenthood Advocates Northwest, Tacoma Rainbow Center, Seattle University School of Law, and many others—I think there were about 45 organizations at the start. The coalition was a formal policy coalition to advance gender-affirming care inclusion in public, private, and self-funded health insurance plans in Washington State. Gender Justice League took a lead role in our efforts to get inclusion in Apple Health (Washington’s low-income Medicaid program) along with Seattle University School of Law—first through a lawsuit filed by Seattle University, and then a petition for rule-making change with the Healthcare Authority of Washington. A huge number of trans folks had Medicaid, and [we figured] if we could solve Medicaid coverage that it would put pressure on private insurers and larger companies that self-insure—like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon—to do the same. I was the lead on [changing] Apple Health and getting rulemaking changes from 2014-2018.
How else has GJL made an overall positive impact for trans people in Washington?
I always see the areas where I wish we could have more of an impact that often feel like incredibly difficult issues for a very tiny organization to address—like the housing crisis in Seattle and King County.
Knowing that we’ve served and provided direct mutual aid to almost 700 people feels incredible. Knowing that we have shifted policies, which then have then permeated the country—that we were the model that other states looked to for the gender-affirming treatment act, for example—that feels really powerful and really incredible.
I also think about the thousands of people who’ve attended Trans Pride Seattle, and knowing firsthand what a profound experience that has been for trans and gender diverse young people to see themselves reflected in community—that’s also something that I see as being a huge overall positive impact, because without GJL, those spaces wouldn’t otherwise exist.
What are you most proud of in your work with GJL?
There are three big things that I’m really most proud of.
I’m really proud of the fact that we created and have sustained Trans Pride Seattle. [TPS] is a vibrant and amazing opportunity to create community and impact people broadly, and for us to see ourselves in each other. I’m proud that we’ve kept it going for so many years. It has, at times, been a labor of love as it’s extremely physically and emotionally demanding, and I am not really an event producer.
I’m also really proud of the work leading up to and including the Gender-Affirming Treatment Act. Although I wasn’t here when that act passed, I think the work that I did for years leading up to that [made a difference]. I’m proud of the fact that people can get gender-affirming care in Washington State that isn’t available elsewhere in the country. Knowing that people have access to that care [now] is incredible to me. When I see people posting on social media that they are gaining access to life-affirming care, it honestly brings me to tears.
The other thing I’m really proud of is when we defeated the second ballot measure attempted anti-trans bathroom bill (I-1552). Having been at the forefront of some of that in the press, in the public, and with lawmakers, I’m honored that I got to be so heavily involved in that. I felt really blessed then, and I feel blessed now, that I have gotten to do that work.
Sex work advocacy has also been a big component of GJL’s organizing. Can you tell me more about that?
I don’t know how publicly known it is that GJL was founded by several folks who were sex workers, and that many of us have done sex work while being involved in the organization. It feels very dangerous to talk about that publicly, often, which is why we haven’t, but it’s known within the community and it’s known in the organization that at the core of a lot of our work is understanding how legal principles and cis heteronormative people’s views of sex work and what sex work is, who’s involved in sex work, and why people are in the sex trades in general. People apply deep moralistic meanings to sex work(ers), and I think we have focused very heavily on what we call a materialist analysis—what are the real lived conditions of people who are in the sex trades—and that that’s always been a huge part of our work. We’ve worked in and alongside various coalitions and community partners to do advocacy by, with, and for folks in the sex trades, and we continue to do that.
It feels like such an important aspect of understanding—particularly for gender diverse, non-binary, and trans femme folks—that there is this deep historical relationship [with sex work], and that that’s different than a lot of other communities. This oftentimes finds us at odds with our partners who consider themselves feminist organizations. A lot of cis, white feminist organizations come from a place of particular economic and cultural privilege where they’re moralizing about who does sex work, why people do sex work, and what sex work represents. There has been a huge growing movement that uses the term “trafficking” to paint all people in the sex trades as being coerced—that being in the sex trades is inherently and always coercive—which we don’t agree with, because that’s not the lived experience of the people that we work with, who we serve, and who have been in our membership and leadership. That can be deeply frustrating for us, because organizations with that narrative are able to leverage government and state-sanctioned dollars, mobilize the support of very wealthy upper-middle and upper-class people to donate to them, and their savior narrative is very financially appealing—so, often, it feels like we’re very outgunned in those conversations.
We try to mobilize our community of people who have experience in the sex trades to talk about their experiences. A lot of the folks who are doing advocacy on the other side of us are people who do not have experience in the sex trades, but who have a moral, religious, or ideological value that drives them to take a particular position.
It’s been really challenging both for me personally as a sex worker, and collectively for other people in our organization, to have sustained engagement on sex work-related policy. We often feel very easily dismissed in those conversations. If you come from a by-and-for perspective—if you disclose that you’re a former or current sex worker—you’re immediately dismissed. It’s happened in a lot of coalitions that we’ve been a part of and can be very, very challenging, and can come up over and over again. It’s been a core part of our work that we have tried very hard to sustain coalitions and relationships with other organizations that are by-and-for people in the sex trades.
It’s so fascinating to me when people attempt to dictate their narrative onto other people. I recall a meeting very recently where somebody told us ‘if you were out working with people who are working the stroll,’ i.e. out on the street doing sex work, which not a ton of trans women do because of safety issues, ‘if you were out here and you saw this, you would know that it’s always exploitative.’ That’s their limited experience and their perspective from one area. The sex trades are large and multiple, and there are many different ways that people can be involved in the sex trades—we work with folks who are doing web camming, OnlyFans, escorting, phone or chat sex work, stripping or dancing, and so on. We work on a model that is focused on supporting people in reducing potential harms from their work, understanding their rights, building collective safety, and mitigating the stigma associated with working in the sex trades.
It’s very fascinating to often encounter condescending people painting over other people’s experiences and narratives when it doesn’t match their political ideology or belief system. Often from a very righteous and condescending place that somehow by complicating the narrative, we are not wanting to help people or something, by rejecting certain labels—like the idea that all of the sex trades are all inherently coercive—and by rejecting that, we’re somehow wanting to harm people. It’s very much tied to the far right need to demonize people and to paint them as immoral, trying to corrupt people, or wanting to harm other people—when in reality, we want to make sure that everybody can feel seen and heard, and if they want to seek services, that they feel safe in entering a place and not be dictated to, and not have their narrative rewritten by somebody for a political purpose. I see it a lot in a lot of other movements as well.
In your time with GJL, what organizing lessons or wisdom have you learned that can be relevant to us moving into the next 10 years?
What I think is really relevant is being thoughtful about how difficult and complicated sustained engagement on issues that are close to people’s personal lives can be. Burnout happens: this work is incredibly hard, and also extremely vital. Sustaining close relationships and helping people feel supported internally are some of the most important things for us to continue in order to move forward and grow the work. It’s also okay for people to step away for a while and then come back—that can be necessary and vital for people. It’s also hard to be in a position of high visibility where people are going to make assumptions about your motivations, question your competence or ability, and actively work to undermine you. Rotating people in leadership, shifting roles, and supporting new people to take on leadership roles feels essential to our collective survival.
What wisdom or advice would you give to younger trans people (or anyone) wanting to get involved in movement work?
Finding a place to plug in, taking your fiery, burning passion and pairing it with an openness and willingness to learn and listen to elders and other folks who have been doing the work longer. Find a way to advocate and to push, but also to try to listen and understand the complexity. It can be really challenging to balance those things.
As I’ve aged—I’m 40 now, and I started doing trans activism when I was 14—I think one of the things I’ve learned is that a lot of work is done through relationships. That can be relationships with policymakers—whether you want to be in relationship with them or not, ultimately they have the power and decision-making to influence people’s lives—or relationships with other community organizations, community members, other people both inside and outside organizations, board members or staff members. I think the thing to focus on is how to build and sustain relationships. Think about relationships as a key part of the way that activism happens.
I think a lot of times we focus on political ideals, our utopian “best” policy, and act with righteousness, and I think of this as a continuum between being righteous (always right) and being in relationship with people (which can mean having to make necessary compromise). I started out with very strong, idealistic, moral-based ideas about how the world should be—very black-and-white, very cut-and-dry—and you were either on one side or the other. That often eliminated the complexity of people whose experiences were not like mine, and whose lived experiences, resources, or access to privilege looked differently. I think that righteousness is a really vital step: obviously, when people are attacking your fundamental rights, there is no way to negotiate with that—there is no room for compromise on our humanity. We are in a righteous, locked battle to persuade people to our side. Being in relationship with [people vehemently opposed to us] is not going to be meaningful—we’re not going to be able to impact them or change their beliefs if they’re vehemently opposed to our existence. However, there are many more people that we need to be in relationship with, and the way to change people’s hearts and minds is through those relationships.
Shifting people is often a slow process: it takes many points of contact, many conversations, people getting to know you and your story, and them getting to know other people in the community and their stories. That’s the piece that I wish I had understood a little bit better when I was younger and I was thinking about getting into activism. A large number of communities are very small, and if you burn relationships early on, it’s going to limit your ability to do work in the future. It took me a while to understand that you can easily burn through relationships, and then those people are not going anywhere—they’re always going to be there—and you are going to have to work with them whether you want to or not. That’s the piece that, as a leader, I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I think as a young person would have been more helpful for me to know. A lot of activism, culture change, policy change, and interpersonal change, is all based on relationships, how you create those relationships, and how you shape and influence people through those relationships.
For me, as an autistic person who can struggle with building, sustaining, and maintaining relationships and ongoing communication, it has been a challenge to be in a leadership position and not always able to meet neurotypical people’s expectations about how much, when, or what my communication style will look like—that’s a unique struggle for me—but I would urge young people to also consider how they want to show up in relationships, and to attend to that in an intentional way!
Do you have a favorite or funny memory from your time with GJL?
Before we were our own 501(c)3, we had this retreat on Whidbey Island with our board and volunteers, around 2014-2015. We were kind of under [our fiscal sponsor] Gay City, so we didn’t have a formal board, but we did have a core group [of organizers]. It was a weekend retreat, and I was recovering from a bone marrow transplant so I had this really cute blonde hair.
There was so much joy, laughter, and amazing work that happened at that retreat. I also was coming out from having been terminally ill and so it was so celebratory—and funny, we were joking all the time. That’s one of my favorite memories: the loving community that can form in those spaces. I think what fuels you as an activist are the friendships and relationships that you build in the community, that help propel you forward.
Another favorite memory: I have met people in Seattle who were directly impacted by the policy changes that we fought for, and that has been so sustaining. For instance, meeting a 23-year-old trans woman who had access to facial feminization surgery because of the eight years of GJL fighting for that in insurance coverage, and realizing that is healthcare I always wanted but could never afford, was incredible. All those shitty meetings and fighting with medical directors who would say violently transphobic stuff to me felt worth it in that moment!
How has your relationship to movement work shifted over the last 10 years?
I went through a period of really intense lack of physical safety from 2016 to 2018. I’ve been pretty public about the fact that I was sexually assaulted by a police officer while doing advocacy work. I also was targeted by white supremacist organization(s), who were ultimately convicted of felonies and sent to federal prison. They targeted not just me, but many other organizations and journalists in the Pacific Northwest.
The shift in my work has been an increased awareness about how visibility can be a spotlight, kind of like a spotlight of a guard tower, where if you’re visible it also can mean that you’re a target. When there’s absolute darkness, it can mean that you can be concealed in a way, where you might not be targeted in a very specific fashion. What has changed for me is an incredibly increased awareness of the amount of violence in our country—there were 45,222 gun deaths last year—and how much of that is targeted. There are political killings in this country, even though we don’t call them that, and when people are targeted, there are not a lot of resources. There are reactive resources: once you’ve been shot, then you can call the police. Once the crime has happened, then you can get protection. It’s retributive. The state then engages in a pattern that is to prevent harm from future people, not to prevent harm to you.
What’s been really challenging since 2018 is finding a way to continue to be engaged in this work while also remaining physically safe, and having to take increasingly drastic steps to protect myself while also trying to stay engaged. What happened to me in 2018 has been embarrassing and it’s been hard. A lot of it has happened in public. There have been public feuds with the Trump administration that I didn’t ask for, but that I had to take on. I had to leave the country for a while for a sense of safety before the federal prosecutions against the white supremacists happened and until I felt safe coming back. While it can be hard for other people to understand and it may seem dramatic, it was a decision that my family and I made together. Our decision has often been framed as being overreactive and dramatic, but I think it’s because people don’t understand how vulnerable all of us are to gun violence in this country. We see mass shootings all the time and people think about it in an abstract way, but when you become targeted in a very real way by people with guns, where your physical body is put on the line and the police / state refuse to help, I think it does shift a lot about how willing you are to put yourself out there.
It’s hard to be doing the work while surviving traumatic stuff. That’s been a huge part of how my activism has shifted in the last 10 years since GJL was initially formed. I feel less safe in public. I feel less safe when I’m traveling. I feel much more mindful of my physical security, and I worry a lot more about my family members being targeted or our organization being targeted. I have taken a much less visible role in the media, and on social media, I’m less open about my life and family, less transparent about my political beliefs, and so on.
With the shifts to being an all-digital office since COVID, I honestly sleep better at night: I worry less about the safety of our staff, volunteers, and clients. I never realized how having a physical location would create an opportunity for us to be targeted, stalked, and followed by hate groups. That’s what happened to me in 2018: we had an office, and even though it was confidentially located, people followed me from the office to my house. Becoming an all-digital, remote organization has actually created a sense of safety for me and allowed me to re-engage in a big way, that I don’t think I would have been able to do otherwise because it’s harder for people to locate me now. It’s weird to say that that allows me to do my activism, but it really does.
It’s hard with the way transmisogyny operates. Anytime a trans woman discloses anything, it’s often filtered through the lens of being dramatic, outlandish, or hysterical. The ‘hysterical woman’ label gets applied to you immediately, and people instantly downplay the severity of how violent the hatred and animosity towards trans women and femmes is. It often feels unimaginable to people that something [violent] could happen, but then we see events like Nancy Pelosi’s husband getting attacked, shootings at LGBTQ+ bars and clubs, fire bombings of Planned Parenthood clinics—the threats to our safety are very real. It’s a reminder that, for activists who are opposing the state in certain ways or holding the police accountable, those people can’t rely on the state to protect them in the same way. It’s been challenging to navigate some of that. I wish I didn’t have to, but I do.
What else has felt challenging to you in doing this work?
People tend to identify an organization with one or two people as key figures, and one of the things that’s been hardest over the last 10 years has been communicating how many people have been involved, and how essential those people’s work has been in securing our achievements. I want more collective recognition and acknowledgment for the hundreds of people who have been involved in GJL to move our work forward.
It can be not as obvious to people what the intersections of the identities of the people within GJL are, and the fact that a vast majority of folks at GJL have always been non-binary, trans, Two Spirit, and gender diverse people with disabilities. Additionally, trans femmes have been and continue to sustain the organization in really powerful and important ways, and I feel like that is unique.
I think also one of the biggest challenges that I feel as one of the leaders [of GJL] is that people can feel very frustrated when they want more from an organization, or when people’s expectations are not met by what the capacity of an organization is. As someone with multiple disabilities, few people are used to engaging with a leader who also has challenges caused by their disability. I want to live in a world where people with disabilities can and are actively leading—but few people know how to provide accommodations to people in leadership. Many people have the expectation that as a leader, you have zero access needs.
I think a lot about what it means to create an organization by-and-for community that has been structurally shut out of so much of public life, including job opportunities, leadership opportunities, and financial capital and financial resources. On the flip side, our organization is held to the same legal, compliance, and grant expectations as organizations that have existed for 130 years that are run by cis, white men who maybe don’t have disabilities, and have access to networks of privilege that have a lot more resources.
One of the things I’m so proud of is that our approach has been very diligent, strategic, and methodical in moving the community forward while also trying as hard as possible not to reproduce the harms that our community experiences. We don’t always get that right, of course, but it’s something I think a lot about and that has been a really powerful, intentional piece of GJL, for better or worse.
What would you like to see GJL do in the next 10 years?
I would love to see us expand our work nationally to support other communities of trans activists to replicate some of our successes and learn our lessons about how to fundraise, put on events, impact policy, and build strong coalitions. I would love to support other trans organizations and communities in building their own local capacity to address the needs of their trans communities in other states and communities, especially as attacks feel unrelenting and continue to permeate across the country.
GJL’s ten-year anniversary feels historic! It’s really incredible and such an honor to have been around for the 10 years that GJL has existed. It’s a testament to our collective community and the ongoing support that people have shown us. It’s so powerful, and such an honor and a privilege, to be able to do this work for 10 years. It’s literally been my lifelong dream come true to be doing this work.
The fact that we can have trans justice organizations exist and persist is so amazing and so important. It elevates and creates a space for there to be leaders in conversation so that we’re not being talked about without being at the table to talk. That feels so incredible, given the history of our community and the lack of institutions that we’ve had, that we’ve created for ourselves. I just feel honored to be part of it.