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.
From volunteer, to board member, to Trans Pride Seattle Stage Manager, and GJL Program Manager—Yani Robinson has worn many hats across their work with Gender Justice League between 2014-2020. A 1.5-generation Thai-American public school educator and union organizer, Yani remains deeply dedicated to social justice, restorative practices, and culturally responsive pedagogy.
Note: this interview was conducted in December 2022.
What led up to your involvement with GJL?
I started by organizing a top surgery fundraiser for a friend. At the same time, more or less, I also started with the Seattle LGBTQ Commission—which feels like two very different wings of community organizing. I noticed that the legal-ese bullshit and the committee work where you all have to use Robert’s Rules of Order [didn’t work for me], so I bailed pretty quickly. It helped cement in me that what I was actually committed to was community organizing, not some sort of future City Council member-type thing.
I don’t think there is any one way [to organize] that’s better than another, but what was really helpful about organizing the top surgery fundraiser was to think really local and small: how much money do we need to raise? What do I need to do to organize a small event in a club I already work for? Seems pretty easy, right? I was hoping to raise $8,000 for this friend’s top surgery, and I was hoping he would put that back into a pool and micro-grant it out to other people, who would then return it—so it gets passed around to lots of people, instead of doing these constant one-off surgery fundraisers. A million people do them and there’s nothing wrong with it, but I had a different vision in mind. When that went sideways, it felt frustrating, but I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to keep doing that.’
What roles have you had during your time organizing with GJL?
I started as a volunteer with GJL in 2014 and was invited to join the board later that year. In April 2017, I was hired as a Program Manager, and by then, I had already been super involved in Trans Pride Seattle [for a few years] as a planner, booker [of stage talent], and day-of stage manager.
I remember feeling really honored that, as a first-day volunteer, I could sit in on board meetings. I didn’t voice my opinions immediately, but I gradually came to enough of the meetings, and met enough leaders like Elayne Wiley and all the other board members at the time—who were involved in other organizations, too, [including] a Socialist Labor Organization, SeaSol—and they would talk about different actions, what they would do in response to a bank that wouldn’t let a trans client change their name on their account… So, getting into those kinds of things back in 2014, right when the board was getting off the ground, I was just honored to be able to sit in on those board meetings.
Eventually, I had shown up enough that they asked me to join the board. Then, they offered me a position working as Program Manager. By then, I’d been a volunteer for over a year. I sort of became an ad hoc events coordinator / community organizer type. I eventually became the stage manager of Trans Pride Seattle. I would also organize GJL’s fundraising gala called the Gender Justice Awards.
I was basically someone who helped actualize other people’s ideas. [I’m] very logistics-minded. Classic Virgo moon. I love the little details of things, contacting people, and making sure that different pieces get done. I was involved [with GJL] more or less until I left Seattle in 2020.
What did you work on as Program Manager and Stage Manager for Trans Pride Seattle? What was going on at the time?
At the time, we were seeing the first wave of [anti-trans] bathroom bills in rural Washington. I was doing a couple of community organizing gigs, and tagging along to Elayne’s speaking gigs out in rural WA around the bathroom bills. At the time, the bills hadn’t hit Seattle yet, but they did hit Kitsap County.
I was getting involved with GJL at the same time a friend was getting started at Ingersoll Gender Center, and other friends were starting at other organizations. We all started at the same time at these different places and kept dialogues with each other going so that we could coordinate our efforts. What it sounded like to me was that, in classic Seattle fashion, the LGBTQ+ organizations had all siloed off into doing independent initiatives, and stopped talking to each other. That felt like a waste of energy and organizing potential. So, one of the things I tried to do was partner with [other] organizations as much as possible to better use a HUD grant, for example, instead of trying to do everything on our own. I hope the way I planned events and organized has made a lasting impact.
I also pressured GJL at the time—but got buy-in pretty immediately—that we should do more for trans folks of color. At the time, Seattle organizations had been called out for being “snow cap” organizations—white people at the top—and not really letting decision-making or leadership be in the hands of folks of color. GJL was sort of part of getting called out around those things. I think people knew that I, as a white-passing person of color, was committed to changing that, and committed to refocusing and re-centering our work on folks of color. That included starting an affinity space for trans folks of color. In classic Seattle fashion, we started one, and then Ingersoll started one. It sounds like competition, but it really wasn’t—it was just two organizations trying to serve a population.
As I see it, the work that I did with GJL helped to create more relationships with organizers of color and helped to recenter priorities based along many intersections, one of them being race.
At the time I was stage managing for Trans Pride Seattle, I was also a booker for Kremwerk [night club]. I had all these booking contacts, and I made very explicit booking decisions for the galas and for Trans Pride to center artists of color—drag queens, performers, and musicians—and have the organizations of color be the ones giving keynotes. I flew people in from Mexico City who were doing work with imprisoned trans women to be the keynote speakers at Trans Pride. I did the extra work of making sure [ASL] interpreters were available. I made sure that from start to finish, I was creating an event that would feel comfortable for the Latine trans community to come in and attend—not to just feel represented in some sort of academic way. The whole thing had to feel like a comfortable space. We even started a POC area. The spoons tent was also started—not by me, but during my time—for folks with different sensory and accessibility needs.
I hope that I can come to Trans Pride sometime when I visit Seattle and there are even more spaces that I didn’t help start.
How else did you work to make Trans Pride a more welcoming space for trans people of color?
Instead of booking only super polished acts, we tried to also book local talent—people who were just up and coming.
We also focused on accessibility by having a spoons tent, consulting with and centering disabled trans folks, and asking them what was needed in the space to be super comfortable—in terms of seating, sound, and ways to get away from all the sound.
I think it’s also really important that Trans Pride is free, and that it partners with lots of organizations of color. We worked with many different partners, some of whom we already had as community partners, and some were new, intentionally cultivated partnerships, like Entre Hermanos and Somos Seattle. We made sure to book a Spanish-speaking interpreter and a Spanish-speaking ASL interpreter, in order to build an accessible event. I think that was the first step of a larger dream: that we should honestly be doing this all the time.
What I really liked, too, is the feedback I would get about Trans Pride, even from old white cis gays. They’d be like, ‘This is an actual community pride event. That doesn’t happen anymore.’ Pride has become this corporate monster. Keeping it at the community level as much as possible, making sure it feels like a community pride event still, instead of some corporate nightmare—that’s the energy that people want.
The argument that I really had with folks on the GJL board was like, ‘Look, we’re a table of mostly white, middle-aged trans women. No problem with that—but what if we tried to represent everyone in the trans community? What would it change about our work, our focus, our values, and our mission to really think about representing the entire trans community, including people who have it hardest?’ For some people, this was a bigger stretch than for others. [I think about] trans youth who are houseless, and undocumented trans women of color who are locked up in a detention facility.
I think going big picture and working with organizations like La Resistencia (an organization dedicated to shutting down Tacoma Detention Center, in addition to other organizing efforts on behalf of undocumented people in WA State) helped GJL broaden in scope.
Were there other important events you were part of around this time?
During my time, we had a Pulse vigil, but admittedly, that was mostly Danni [Askini] and Elayne putting it together. It was super, super helpful. [When the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in Orlando in 2016,] it was so frustrating [to notice] people put out these written statements or emails or whatever, reflecting on or condemning what happened—but no organization wanted to come forward with a vigil. So, we did.
We pulled a vigil together pretty spontaneously at Cal Anderson Park, and thousands of people were there on very little notice. The community really needed it. You could tell people really wanted to come together. It was a beautiful moment. It felt like the right way through that situation.
Similarly, we didn’t get all that involved with Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR). My vibe is much more Trans Day of Revenge. When we did get involved as a partner in somebody else’s TDOR event, I think we handled it really well in terms of centering the community and asking people to come up and share things. I wouldn’t say that I was instrumental in that by any means. It felt like what people wanted to do at the time was—not just get some famous trans person to say some sad words—but to actually center the people being affected by this [violence]. Read off the names, do a candlelight vigil, and actually honor people.
What felt challenging about your time organizing with GJL?
Some of the conversations that we had around values were tough. They’re probably tough in any organization. There were definitely members of the board that I would struggle with about centering folks of color and what exactly that meant; about how to work with our first community partners of color; and what it meant to give over agency, decision-making, and leadership in really impactful ways, not just in a window-dressing way. The harder thing, the more impactful thing, is to give real power and leadership away to folks of color.
The other challenge though, honestly, was straight up that I lost my job because of Trump and the administration changing over, and the organization not having money anymore [because of it]. I’m not saying it ruined my life—I got a job waiting tables and then went back to school and became a teacher. It just sucks that so much of our funding is so connected to and tied up in whoever is in power. We should have the funding and the ability to realize our full potential no matter who is in leadership in the country.
It always felt like GJL was some sort of scrappy organization trying to do a lot with so little funding. I feel similarly, as a teacher. [I have to figure out] how to stretch an annual classroom budget of $200, and that’s ridiculous.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time with GJL?
Elayne and Danni are both so funny: they would always have the funniest commentary about things while we were at the office together.
[A favorite memory of mine is] Trans Pride 2017. I was just fresh from working in Mexico City through UW. I was staying with Casa de Los Amigos, but the organization was Almas Cautivas. They were so clear about their values and mission—as trans women who have been incarcerated—and working to organize direct services and advocacy for trans women in Mexico City in the prison system. After meeting them and working with them briefly in Mexico City, I thought, ‘We have to have you at Trans Pride.’
We also brought up Bamby Salcedo from TransLatin@ Coalition in LA to keynote right before the leaders of Almas Cautivas (Ari Vera Morales and Daniela Vazquez).
That year felt important to me in terms of all the detention center stuff coming to a head. Jennicet Gutierrez coming up from California to start doing work on closing the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center; connecting the struggles of Latino and undocumented people all along the west coast; going down to Mexico, and thinking about it more holistically, instead of simply as a border issue or an issue for one single community. It really felt like we were starting a whole network across the country—going both ways between DC, LA, Mexico, and Seattle—supporting trans women.
What are you most proud of in your work with GJL?
Doing the vigil work, really honoring people and honoring loss. [Nowadays] we’ve kind of sped up into this weird reality where we don’t process grief or death or loss anymore. We just keep refreshing our timelines and inventing penis rockets and doing absurd bullshit to avoid processing loss and grief and death. It feels like we don’t [grieve] anymore in our culture, in our country, which is strange. At the same time, I get it. If we start to slow down and process all that grief and loss, it can feel impossible to move forward. But, I think back on that time and I think it’s actually really important.
I think the pandemic has been really strange for people. The hyperviolent culture that we live in is difficult to process, as is the fear that people experience daily. Nobody’s really talking about it.
What are you most proud of that GJL has done overall?
In a broader sense, GJL met the community need of being a grassroots organization that wasn’t connected to any one political organizing method. GJL was bravely calling out Ed Murray before Ed Murray called himself the fuck out. We led the charge on so many things like that. We were the ones helping to organize a city council town hall-type event on hate crimes where the politics can really go all over the place. There were people going up and saying idiotic things about how homeless people are “causing crime.” We were always steadfast in our values and our community priorities, shutting shit down that people were saying, throwing our weight behind advocating for the most marginalized, and doing what we could—with very little funding—to actually put that work into action.
Other organizations have tried to do that as well—we’re not the only ones, by any means—but at the time, I didn’t really see anywhere else that I could fit in and feel like I was with a bunch of like-minded trans and nonbinary friends, and people who are drawn to that kind of thing—who have the understanding that we are here for the most marginalized parts of our community, especially trans women and undocumented people.
How do you think GJL has made an overall positive impact on trans people in Washington?
I know people travel from all over to attend Trans Pride Seattle, and that it’s really important to plenty of people in the state.
From the statewide organizing that GJL has done to the more national organizing that I see y’all getting into now… GJL doesn’t have the funding or the people power necessarily to be like Transgender Law Center—and we don’t need another Transgender Law Center. GJL is—and I hope always will be—a really cool, accessible, safe, comfortable, community grassroots organization that any trans kid or adult should feel comfortable coming to.
I don’t know if GJL wants to become a direct services one-stop shop. I could see GJL going in so many different directions. The impact there hopefully is that there’s another resource for trans youth. There’s another resource for an older trans person. There’s another resource for an LGBTQ+ kid struggling in their school, and they’re not really sure what to look at, but they can look at this Trans Pride event, or something else GJL is doing, and hopefully see themselves represented.
What would you like to see GJL do in the next 10 years?
If GJL can’t become a one-stop direct services shop, I’d love for GJL to help create an LGBTQ+ one-stop shop for direct services. That seems really important. I don’t understand why it still doesn’t exist.
I’m really bummed out having moved to Philadelphia that the one-stop shop here is as overwhelmed as it is. Here, it’s called the Mazzoni Center, and they have hormone doctors, you can get labs and prescriptions, and there are community classes with a continuing education component. They serve people from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—so obviously, they’re overwhelmed. I’m on a six-month waitlist to talk to a provider about my hormones and mental health needs.
We have so much need to meet because, for better or for worse, Gen Z and the generations afterward are coming out and realizing who they are younger and younger. We’re going to see an increasing need for serving trans and gender non-conforming and nonbinary folks. We’re going to see more of them. We’re also going to see more states that don’t want to care for them, more states that are going to cut off access to health care. We’re going to need to turn to more community organizations to meet that need. What I’m hoping is that if GJL can’t be the one-stop shop due to funding or not wanting to do more direct services, that they at least get to advise on how a one-stop shop in Washington runs and prioritizes [clients].
Creating a lasting legacy through a one-stop shop: that’s what I think about with the Black Panthers doing their work founding the Odessa Brown and the Carolyn Downs community clinics. That’s still standing 44 years after the Black Panther chapter disbanded. That is what people are going to still be able to go to.
There’s a reason why a lot of organizations out here [in Philadelphia] look at Seattle as leaders. Seattle continues to be a leader in LGBTQ+ care across the U.S. I can’t compare anything that I’ve experienced growing up in Baltimore, or being out here in Philadelphia, to experiences in Seattle where it was so much easier to get a provider, so much easier to get a prescription [for hormones], so much easier to do every aspect of the nitty gritty medical transition health care.
Is there anything else that you want people to know about GJL?
I wish people would stop blaming GJL for all the inter-organization beef. I don’t know if it’s still happening, but there’s been long-running beef between different LGBTQ+ organizations in Seattle, and (a) I wish that they would all drop it, but (b) I wish that, in particular, people would stop blaming GJL as the only problem. I wish we could all just get over ourselves and get it together already.
A larger problem that I have with Seattle political organizing, in general, is that there’s a little bit of a passive-aggressive avoidance of conflict, avoidance of confrontation, and an assumption that if you were to bring anything up that was challenging somebody else, that they will ice you out or something and never speak to you again. That’s just not actually true.
Just go ahead and disagree with somebody, and you never know, it might change their mind. They might back down. They might not be as sensitive as you imagined them to be. Just go ahead and be honest with each other. Also, get over yourselves and start working together!
What forms does your organizing take nowadays?
As a public school teacher, the energy that I have is [going towards] starting a really basic LGBTQ+ club at my school. The kids really need a space like that at most schools, and most schools are probably not running one when they should. That’s kind of what I have the capacity for at the moment. If teaching ever changes—if we ever start actually funding public education, giving people time to do stuff—that may change. I aspire to that reality, but I’m not holding my breath.
My other organizing is union organizing. That feels very independent of my identity as an LGBTQ+ person—and more like, I’m a fucking communist.
March 2023 update: Since this interview, I have been elected the Building Rep for my school, and joined the Working Educators Caucus in the PFT union (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers).