By Stevie St. John
From the outside, the Willoughby building looks like a West Hollywood apartment complex. But once you’re buzzed in, you cross the threshold of a building that houses a motley mix of offices.
In one sun-dappled former apartment is the headquarters of Gender Justice Los Angeles (GJLA, formerly FTM Alliance), an organization that works “build the power” of the transgender community in Los Angeles.
“There’s something about local work that feels powerful,” says Rodrigo Lehtinen, the organization’s membership director. Lehtinen initially moved to Los Angeles to work with a national organization, but said he “really wanted to do local work with my people.” In 2011, he joined GJLA’s staff.
In addition to offering support groups for trans* people and their loved ones, GJLA does trans advocacy work. For example, several GJLA members were among activists who signed and delivered a petition to the L.A. Times to protest its coverage of Cassidy Vickers’ death. (GLAAD and some trans community members met with Times staff member earlier this month to discuss the Times story.)
L.A.’s trans community has won some important victories with regard to how trans people are treated by law enforcement officers. Previously, trans people who were arrested were housed based on their genitals, which Lehtinen says led to “drastically unsafe conditions.” Last year, L.A. became the first city in the country to allocate a pod of cells for people who self-identify as trans.
GJLA also offers “Theatre of the Oppressed” workshops that help trans people and their allies build leadership and advocacy skills. During these interactive Sunday afternoon workshops, people can discuss things that have happened to them. Then participants are assigned parts in a role playing exercise to explore possible strategies.
For example, a student might share that she is having trouble with a teacher who refuses to call her by female pronouns. The student hasn’t yet been able to legally change her name and gender markers, and the teacher insists on using the name listed on the school’s official paperwork.
In a Theatre of the Oppressed session, one person will take on the role of the student. Another will be the teacher. And others will be the trans woman’s classmates. They’ll act out a scenario, periodically stopping with “freeze frames” for the group to discuss options. What could the trans woman say to advocate for herself? How could her classmates show their support for her?
Lehtinen said the idea of the workshops is to “be real and honest about emotions and what you can do to advocate for yourself.” It’s about finding ways to speak up for yourself and your friends. Lehtinen stresses that, while allies are welcome, participants should already be knowledgeable about trans issues.
The idea of going beyond a “Trans 101” understanding has been on my mind lately. Working alongside trans activists at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center (including GJLA board president Drian Juarez), I learned a lot about the issues that affect trans people’s lives, such as rampant employment discrimination and alarming rates of hate violence. I got a grip on terminology, such as the difference between sex and gender.
But as I recently read Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, in which she talks about the complexity of her own experience with gender, I thought about the fact that my education on trans issues still has gaps that I should strive to fill.
For example, I recently spent time learning about the Center’s Transgender Health Program. I knew that some trans people take hormones as part of their transitioning process, but until I watched the Center videos with Dr. Maddie Deutsch explaining the effects of hormones on trans women and trans men, I didn’t know much about how the “second puberty” patients experience and the specific effects of the hormones. (Serano also talks about her experience with hormones in Whipping Girl.)
Another recent read for me was Two Spirits, One Heart. Author Marsha Aizumi (whose Spectrum Q&A you can read here) kindly presented me with a review copy. I can’t exactly give an objective take–not only is the book is by and about folks I know, I’m actually mentioned in it. But I will say that reading it gave me insight into a family member’s perspective as Aizumi shares the journey she and her family experienced when her son, Aiden, transitioned to male.
I’m excited that the visibility of trans issues seems to be increasing. Chaz Bono’s transition (as well as his book, documentary and his turn on Dancing with the Stars) is one example of an activist raising public awareness. But I am wary of one media story after another–many with incorrect pronoun use–focused on trans people using bathrooms and locker rooms.
I hope we’re headed for a deeper social understanding of trans issues. And I hope that Lehtinen, who penned this Guardian item, is correct when he assesses trans rights as “the next big political movement.”
For more information about GJLA, visit the organization’s website or follow GJLA on Facebook. For more information about GJLA’s Theatre of the Oppressed workshops, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*I’m using the term trans in an effort to refer as inclusively as possible to those who are transsexual, transgender, gender-nonconforming or otherwise identify as part of the trans community.