Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘There’s going to be loss’: A new guide to the hard work of becoming trans inclusive

"We're certainly not positing ourselves as the experts. This is an ongoing process."

Heath Fogg (left) and Celena Morrison
Heath Fogg (left) and Celena MorrisonRead moreKENZI CRASH / LEEWAY FOUNDATION

These days, diversity and inclusion are all the rage. Just ask any executive director, CEO, or head of HR.

But the question that's less popular is: What are you willing to lose to get there?

Both staffers and funders abandoned Alison Gerig, the former executive director of what used to be the Women's Therapy Center, when she wanted to offer services to trans people as part of the center's mission. But she knew it was necessary to turn her "white feminist" nonprofit into an inclusive one.

"There's going to be loss," Gerig said. "There's going to be pain."

This acknowledgment that the work of inclusion is messy, difficult, and constantly evolving is one reason the Leeway Foundation, which supports women and trans artists focused on social change, just released a guide for arts, culture, and philanthropic organizations that want to develop a supportive environment for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Produced by former Leeway scholar-in-residence V Varun Chaudhry, the guide aims to be a jumping-off point, a way to lead the self-reflection necessary for this kind of structural change by asking questions like: How does our mission statement approach questions of power? Why is inclusion important to our organization?

For instance, when some organizations say they want to be inclusive, they often "don't know what that looks like," said Celena Morrison, the director of programs at William Way LGBT Community Center.

At a launch event Thursday, Morrison and other trans advocates said they were glad to see a resource that went beyond pronouns and bathrooms, and urged the audience not to think of inclusion as a one-and-done kind of deal.

"We're certainly not positing ourselves as the experts," said Leeway's executive director, Denise Brown. "This is an ongoing process."

It also comes at a time where there's an urgency and a hunger to figure out how to become more trans inclusive. Brown says Leeway has put together materials many times over the years in response to arts and culture organizations seeking help navigating trans inclusion.

"We are in a moment where people want to be in the room for these conversations," Chaudhry said.

Gerig, whose former organization changed its name to the Therapy Center of Philadelphia, said it was important to put structures in place around inclusivity in order to avoid making decisions on a case-by-case basis. Heath Fogg Davis, a political science professor who runs Temple University's gender, sexuality, and women's studies program, added that having structures in place makes it easier for those who are transitioning at work, so they aren't forced to educate others or to ask for special allowances.

"Nobody has all the right answers," said Davis, who wrote a guide called "Building Gender-Inclusive Organizations." (And you shouldn't expect trans folks to, either. "As a trans-identified woman, people expected me to know everything," Morrison said.)

When Davis was transitioning 10 years ago, his mentor at work helped prepare him for his coworkers' reaction: They were going to want to know how this would change how they should interact with him, but they'd be afraid to ask.

It's important, Davis said, to apologize when you mess up. If you use the wrong pronouns for someone, you should acknowledge the mistake instead of just moving on and pretending it didn't happen, even if it's uncomfortable.

Morrison acknowledged that it can be hard for people to keep up with all the changes in the trans and gender-nonconforming community.

Davis encouraged using those changes as a way to start a conversation.

"Language is in flux," he said. "Embrace it." He suggested having discussions like: "We used to say transsexual, but we don't anymore. Why is that the case?"