HRC Blog

Michigan’s Transgender Community Organizes around Ending Discrimination

Post submitted by HRC volunteer Paulette Niemiec.

MI SummitMore than 70 people filled the AFL-CIO headquarters of Lansing on Saturday for the first ever Transgender Empowerment Summit. HRC staffer and transgender activist Allison VanKuiken and Kalamazoo Gay & Lesbian Resource Center Program Director Jay Maddock organized, produced, and facilitated the first time event. The summit focused on providing those who are transgender with a briefing about important non-discrimination legislation happening on federal, state, and local levels, in addition to a grant writing workshop, and transgender policy workgroups.

For more than three decades, the LGBT community has been organized, held rallies, raised funds, campaigned for equal rights and raised a lot of eyebrows along the way. There have been pride marches across the country, several attempts to legalize same-sex marriage, city ordinances passed for equal rights and a list of things which have brought the movement into the mainstream of American consciousness. Organizations like Unity Michigan, Equality Michigan, among others, have long been the voice for the LGBT community, but often, as by their own admission, have forgotten or neglected the "T" in LGBT.

VanKuiken, who works for HRC and has been an activist in the trans community for several years, wanted to organize something like this for a long time. "I pitched the idea to Unity (Michigan), they voted on it, they agreed to it and assigned me the task of getting people there. So I did," she explained. "We had a team of people with Unity to make it a success." Maddock and his assistants comprised much of that team.

This workshop was sponsored by Unity Michigan and facilitated by Maddock, a transman who works for the organization. He stressed throughout the seven hour education program the importance of being included when it comes to legal issues and of how change must come from within the transgender community. Maddock repeatedly emphasized the importance of working with the whole LGBT community, to be more visible in the community at large and to have a voice when it comes to legal and protection issues.

Maddock gave the specific example of the law commonly known as "ELCRA," the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which does not include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. "We don't support any legislation that doesn't include both sexual orientation and gender identity," Maddock explained. "We need to educate, mobilize and empower the masses to fight for our rights to freedom from discrimination in this state!"

Maddock proposed that transgender folks get involved in the community in which they live. "We need to have civil engagement, we need to tell our stories to politicians, we need to talk to others about the laws, get out and vote, attend local city council meetings. We need to do all these things that have been suggested by you people here today," Maddock told the energized crowd participating in the discussion.

In the morning, the workshop focused much of its attention on the idea of writing proposals for a grant sponsored by Unity Michigan. The coalition is offering $10,000 to the transgender community to educate the public and inform political leaders on issues which are important to transgender men and women. This advocacy includes the passing of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and other acts of legislation which protect sexual orientation and gender identity.

The afternoon session was less serious, but no less important, as teams presented issues which are specific to the transgender community. It was agreed that the trans-community faces several difficult issues every day including, workplace and housing discrimination, unemployment and under-employment, and access to health care. Presentations on all these problems, along with possible solutions, were given during the last two hours of the workshop.

As the workshop came to a close, Maddock thanked the crowd who responded with a rousing ovation. "I think this was an excellent day and an important start of new things for us who are transgender," Maddock exclaimed.

VanKuiken, who spent weeks organizing the event, agreed. "I think Jay did a great job," she said, explaining how proud she was of the trans community. "I am so pleased to see that something like this can be organized by trans people. We had four goals we wanted to achieve. We wanted to get as many trans activists together in one place at one time as we possibly could, and considering the fact that we had over 70 people, showed we met that goal. We wanted to work together on issues that are important. We did that. We wanted to write a proposal to get a grant for money to fund what we want; we did that. We wanted to discuss trans issues and come up with possible solutions, and we accomplished that as well. I'm so proud of everything we accomplished."

The questions at the end of the day were: What Now? What's next for this highly energized group of new transgender activists determined to have their voices heard? "The next step is for the people to write the grant proposals. There's excitement with this now. We have to stay together and create visibility for the trans community," said VanKuiken. 

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