Ten Years of Gender Justice: A Conversation with Sara Ainsworth


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. 

A collaborator with GJL since 2013, Sara Ainsworth notably brought legal and policy expertise as the Advocacy Director at Legal Voice to help win gender neutral markers on WA State licenses; access to reproductive and gender-affirming care across numerous states; and so much more. As the Senior Legal & Policy Director of the national organization If/When/How, Sara continues to support and oversee litigation and policy advocacy in service to gender justice. Sara has also taught law school courses, including Reproductive Rights & Social Justice, at both the University of Washington School of Law and Seattle University Law School; and was a co-founding board member of Surge Reproductive Justice, a non-profit that works for reproductive and racial justice in WA State.

Note: this interview was conducted in February 2023, and updated August 2023. 


How did you begin collaborating with GJL? 

I’ve been collaborating with GJL for about nine years, starting right around the beginning of GJL’s work. I remember first encountering the great advocates at GJL at a reproductive justice conference. We were on several panels together talking about the significant need for access to medical care, discrimination folks were facing [in medical settings], and the intersections of that with reproductive care more broadly. As a cis person, I learned a lot in the conversations that GJL brought me into.

At the time, I was working at Legal Voice and teaching at the University of Washington Law School. At Legal Voice, we served people of all genders, and the people that I was teaching in law school were people of all genders—so, it felt really, really important to not just be doing advocacy work in collaboration but also to be really deeply aware that every time I was talking about reproductive health rights and justice, that the conversation that I was having was making sure that those perspectives were acknowledged, honored, and heard. 

What have you and GJL worked on together? 

There were different advocacy projects that we worked on together. Pre-Trump administration, we shared a grant with different folks around the state to bring housing discrimination issues training to the fore. The administration was supporting our consortium to work together to train people about legal problems that people who had experienced sexual assault and other kinds of violence were experiencing when they sought housing. For example, people were being denied housing on the basis of their experiences of violence; experiencing violence while in housing; or experiencing discrimination because of their gender identity. 

We were doing a series of trainings around [WA] state for advocates on how to watch for these issues and how to get people legal support if they needed it. Unfortunately, we also experienced what happened when the administration changed, and they switched up this grant and stopped supporting us to talk about gender identity discrimination. We worked together to be like, ‘Well, okay, fine, we don’t need that money to do this work. We’re going to continue to talk about this together as a team.’ That experience was one of the things that led to a deeper relationship between Legal Voice and GJL—along with all the excellent work of my colleague at Legal Voice, David Ward, who collaborated with GJL on numerous issues. These experiences helped lead our organizations to work together on gender marker change policy on Washington State driver’s licenses. 

One of the things that I learned and really benefited from in that particular collaboration was the opportunity to be a community lawyer. To me, that meant not insisting to a group of people ‘I’m a lawyer and this is what needs to happen,’ but rather being a part of the community that GJL had convened to hear from people directly: what are your needs, and what are you working toward? It was complicated to talk about the different needs of different communities—a Two-Spirit community, a community of nonbinary people, a community of binary transgender people—identifying themselves within the context of a driver’s license and being told by the state ‘Here are the options for how you can identify.’ How do we advocate to get everybody’s identities honored and heard in that context? As a lawyer, my task was to help figure that out and give advice to the community on the different ways we best advocate for what people need and want. 

It was also a meaningful experience for me to watch the community come together, to be present at those hearings where people testified, and to see people’s demands and needs actually get met by a state agency. I feel emotional just thinking about it. It was this moment of victory—and yet it was a tiny step on the road to being acknowledged by the state, with all of the administrative power that it has over people’s lives. 

What was your process for figuring out ways to honor everyone’s identity while advocating for gender marker policy changes—especially considering many people also want to abolish gender markers altogether for safety and surveillance reasons? 

My process from a lawyer’s perspective was to both set aside any preconceived notions I had of what that should look like, but also to have to, unfortunately, share with people the limits of what we can do using the law. The law and the administrative state are a limited body for honoring people’s identities. So, we’re going to, unfortunately, meet resistance in certain moments. I wanted to make sure that I really did everything I could do to research the extent of what was possible, and then make sure that what I had learned was transparent, so that people understood these are the parameters that we’re offered here, and this is what we can do here, in this context—and that doesn’t mean that this is the end of that advocacy.

As a person whose entire career was dedicated to gender justice, it was and remains absolutely necessary that the perspective of trans and nonbinary people was brought to the fore in all the different issues that my work touches on. My approach was to hear from people I really relied on at GJL, recognizing GJL’s role as a convener of people in the community and its relationships with other advocacy organizations and individuals. It was critical to cast myself as the non-expert in these conversations. I can answer questions about the legal process, but I’m not the expert on how the law affects my colleagues, friends, and loved ones who are transgender and nonbinary —so let’s have that conversation led by the people who are affected. That approach was really the only effective way to do it. At the end of the day, we weren’t going to get a process that was what everybody wanted to be honored, but it was as close as one could come given the limitations of that context.

What other things have you worked on with GJL?  

We also worked together on changing WA State’s reproductive freedom law to be gender neutral and to have very specific legal protections and guidance around reproductive healthcare, including gender-affirming care. We also all met regularly with groups like National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender Law Center to discuss advocacy around other state bills that they were working on, to make sure that our language was leading in the field throughout the country.  

It was wonderful and complicated work. We didn’t get everything we wanted for immigrant survivors and immigrants seeking care, and that was hard and complicated as a coalition, but there were successes. One of those successes was in being forward-thinking about how our [WA State] law defines reproductive healthcare.

What results have we seen from your work on gender marker & reproductive healthcare policy?  

The driver’s license gender marker change was a success, and the results of that have multiple layers. Community members showed up from all over the state to come and speak in favor of these changes. The anti-faction was definitely there, but they were so blown away. They were nothing compared to the showing from the community. That moment, in and of itself, was a success.

To gain a rule that allows people to have their gender marker and name acknowledged on a state document—that felt like the rockfall that started an avalanche of better policy. Not perfect, for sure, but better. Although it was only one of many steps that are still needed, it was very edifying to see that.

Similarly, with reproductive health bills—the law already protected people’s access, regardless of gender and sexual orientation—but actually honoring people by stripping out gender-based language (like using only ‘women’ in a statute) will have both short-term effects on inclusivity, and, I hope, long-term effects that we have yet to see. I remain hopeful, despite all the scary stuff that we see, that achieving that is going to make a difference in the long run.

What movement lessons, kernels of wisdom, or organizing tactics are you taking with you into this present time?

Attacks on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color; attacks on survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault; attacks on people seeking abortion and gender-affirming care—these are the same attacks. They’re drawn from the same root of white supremacist misogynist evangelical hegemony. Dividing amongst ourselves, or not having each other—as, unfortunately, we white cis women have done for so, so long—feels so foolish. I think that time is just over. That is no longer acceptable.

Our movements are not siloed and our movements are not small. Together we are big. We are so much more powerful than we once were—even though we are more assailed, particularly trans youth. My hope is that trans youth are no longer isolated in the way that they once were by the reproductive rights movement or by the women’s rights movement—but rather now we are all a movement for gender justice.

What’s felt challenging in doing this work? 

Some of the challenges that are always present are where there’s a lack of funding or support for the work of people who are most marginalized. Making sure that their voices are heard and that they’re financially compensated for their time and work is vital.

Practical stuff that takes money and time is always really hard. For example, the work it took GJL to figure out who was going to come to this hearing that’s all the way in Olympia: who’s going to drive who; who’s got the money for gas; who can actually take time off work; how can we get the state to let people give virtual testimony as a regular practice when arriving in-person is such a barrier?  

I’m really keenly aware of resource allocation and equity when collaborating with other organizations, especially now that I work at a national organization that does have more resources. When we want to be partners with other groups, how do we shift our resources so that we’re saying, ‘Hey, we can come in and help you, but we’re also actually gonna give you money to support this.’  That feels like the approach that we need to take when we can.

Do you have a favorite or funny memory of your time working with GJL?

It’s dark humor, right? [Laughing] GJL showed up to support work that we were leading at Legal Voice to try to get ‘crisis pregnancy centers’—you know, those fake clinics who claim to provide reproductive health—to have them put up a sign in their windows if they were open in King County that just said ‘We’re not a health care clinic’ in a few languages.

Not the biggest deal, you would think, but at the hearing at the King County Council: people showed up, they cried, they called us Nazis, and there were five or six nuns in full habit that showed up. I just remember being with my friends from GJL and we just were like ‘Oh, my f*cking god. What in the world is happening?’ [Laughing] ‘We’re making nuns cry’. Just laughing together at the absurdity of it all. The sense of camaraderie and just dark humor: it’s what gets you through.

What do you feel most proud of in your work? 

Honestly, when I think about the work around the gender marker change, I felt like I was doing the best kind of lawyering. I was really able to be in the background and just be the one that was like, ‘Yeah, this is how you have to do it. This is how much time you get at the hearing.’ The really practical, nuts and bolts parts of my job were actually really helpful to people, but I didn’t need to lead. To me, that was a really powerful experience, and one I feel really good about. 

What would you like to see GJL do in the next 10 years?

GJL was—and is—so needed. GJL created a space where people showed up as advocates, but also showed up as themselves, where there was joy, fun, and a celebration of people by giving them a place to be and to lead. 

I’d like all of us to continue collaborating together to keep what we have, and also to protect people against what we’re seeing in other regions, so that we are a sanctuary where people can grow up feeling like they get to be who they are, and the law is not going to come down on them; their parents aren’t going to be investigated; their health care provider is going to provide them care without discrimination; all of those things that we made inroads in. 

There are limitations because we’re stuck with what the federal system imposes on us, but I want us to continue to work together to expand how our state laws protect us. If you weren’t born here, you should be able to change your birth certificate anyway. If you are an immigrant, you should have all the protections that Washington State law can offer. There are also a million other ways in which organizing is equally important—I’m just speaking from the lens of the tool I’m most familiar with. 

What are you working on now? 

Nowadays, I’m the Senior Legal & Policy Director at If/When/How: a national, all-remote legal organization. We have people and law student chapters all over the country who, when they come into the chapter, can access training on racial and reproductive justice. 

We always define reproductive justice to be inclusive of gender-affirming care and trans rights, including that everybody who has a uterus may potentially need an abortion, so everybody is at stake in the work that we do.  We’ve recently created a joint project with Transgender Law Center to fund defense for anyone criminalized for getting gender-affirming care, called the Trans Health Legal Fund

Our legal work focuses primarily on the criminalization of people who self-manage abortion care, and the rights of young people to access abortion care without forced parental involvement. We know from new research—and it just makes sense—that one of the reasons people are more likely to choose self-managed care is because they’ve been discriminated against based on their gender identity when they’ve sought medical care in the medical system. They’re more likely to fall into that category, and they may be more likely to be criminalized because of their identity.

We have a litigation program where we defend people who have been criminalized. We also have a helpline called Repro Legal HelplLine—which [already] had a lot of calls before the Dobbs decision came down in June [2022]—but now it’s off the charts. Now people all over are fearful of being criminalized for seeking abortion care. They have questions about their legal rights. They don’t know where they can go, where abortion is legal, or if they can order abortion pills into their state and manage their own care. We recently hired three more lawyers to staff that line because the number of calls got so voluminous. 

We also do policy work. Last winter we worked on the Washington State bill HB 1851, which GJL also testified in support of. That bill remade our reproductive freedom law so that it is now a gender-affirming statute; it also ensures that providers besides physicians can provide abortions. We helped write a section of the bill to say that no one can be criminalized for having an abortion, miscarriage, or any kind of pregnancy loss, and no one can be criminalized for helping someone else access that care. Washington is one of the few states that now has that specific provision against criminalization. 

We also work in other states trying to improve the laws there. We advocated for a similar bill in California last year that is a little bit more expansive: it gives somebody the right to sue the state if they actually do get investigated for having an abortion or miscarriage. We are working with advocates in Oregon right now on a package of bills to protect health access, and that coalition is actively seeking to make sure that everything in that statute is gender-affirming.  

We try to help people in the states where things are really hard, and each state is unique. The people who live in the state are the people who should drive the work, but we can also be like ‘Look, here’s how we’ve seen this play out. When we researched this, when we’re representing people, we see the same patterns from state to state. Here are some suggestions for how we think you can target these patterns to protect people’s rights.’ [For example,] if everybody gets turned into the cops by the ER doctor, let’s educate the ER doctors and remind them of their HIPAA obligations to their patients. It does help to have a national perspective.

Anything else to add? 

I’ve always felt so welcomed organizing with GJL, and also super ready to be held accountable as a cis, white person. GJL holds people accountable with love. That always felt really clear to me. I felt like I might mess up, and I will be lovingly told so while also being valued. For all of us as organizers, all of us who do this work, bringing more of that always feels really good: more honesty, transparency, and support.