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5 Ways Funders Can Help Grow the Transgender Movement In This Time of Crisis

Wednesday, October 21, 2020
by Alexander L. Lee, Project Director, Grantmakers United for Trans Communities, Funders for LGBTQ Issues

As the country hunkers down for a potential third wave of COVID-19 infections and an uncertain upcoming presidential election, it has become impossible to ignore the ways our federal government has devised policies that put so many of us directly into harm’s way—from immigrant families at the border to threats of white supremacist violence against Democratic officials. 

Transgender people and communities have also become a target for the Trump administration who depict us as a threat to energize their base. While we welcome recent legal wins, including the landmark Bostock v. Clayton County earlier this summer, the administration and right-wing state governments continue to cast us as a danger to cisgender women and a threat to religious freedom. The recent announcement by HUD of its intention to end protections for transgender people in HUD-funded housing and emergency shelters, as well as HHS’ removal of healthcare protections for transgender people this past summer, point to specific targeting of transgender people, under the guise of protecting white cisgender women.

Meanwhile, discrimination, poverty, and homicidal violence mark transgender people’s lives, endangering transgender women of color and Black transgender women in particular. Philanthropy is now seeing transgender people and our movement in ways it never has before, both as part of the sector’s re-examination of its failings to support transgender communities and the real lives lost, as well as in renewed commitments to do better by us.

Despite the historical inattention to the needs of trans communities from mainstream philanthropy, I am grateful to a small group of plucky, pioneering transgender-led funders like the Trans Justice Funding Project (TJFP), the Third Wave Fund, and Borealis Philanthropy’s Fund for Trans Generations, who have charted a path for many more funders can learn from today. After experimentation and research-informed by their grantee partners, they have arrived at a set of recommendations to funders on the best ways to support transgender communities and the increasingly visible and influential social justice movements we lead. Their recommendations take on a new sense of urgency as the right’s attacks on transgender communities continue to amplify.

Recommendation 1: Support a diverse ecology of trans-led and trans-focused organizations.

Because transgender people face discrimination and exclusion in nearly every sector of society, in nearly every part of the country (yes, even in liberal California), and are more highly represented among communities of color than in white communities, the transgender community, and the movements of which we are a part, are diverse and wide-ranging. Our work can be found in nearly every foundation portfolio, even when the connection is not visible to the foundations supporting it. Yet, the universe of transgender-led and transgender-focused groups is small. Underinvestment means fewer than 10 such organizations have built budgets over $1 million. As a result, in many places, a single transgender grassroots group is doing its best to address all the needs of trans communities in an entire city, region or state--receiving little or no help from existing nonprofits and service providers that routinely exclude transgender people. Funders have an opportunity to strengthen the ecology of transgender organizations by supporting and strengthening groups of varying types and sizes to help open opportunities for this resourceful community.

Recommendation 2: Build the capacity of grassroots transgender groups working at the local level.

The Trans Justice Funding Project (TJFP) has identified and supported dozens of trailblazing transgender-led groups across the country, some incorporated as 501(c)(3)s, and some not. These groups are doing invaluable work, though most have no staff, and many are new to fundraising and resource development. Funders have an opportunity to build the capacity of these community assets, particularly those led by Black transgender community members and groups working in hostile or isolated locations. Capacity-building support is a key way funders can continue to grow the transgender social justice movement, increasing our political power and resilience to weather scapegoating attacks from the right.

Recommendation 3: Provide support for increasing transgender cultural competence of mainstream service providers and systems.

Transgender people often face difficulties accessing basic services, from healthcare to government assistance, due to lack of awareness, competency, and outright hostility in many mainstream service providers and systems. Funders can work with their cisgender-led grantees to support training programs and partnerships that build service providers’ capacity to serve transgender communities effectively, including increasing their hiring of transgender staff. This work is particularly important in rural areas, where people are less likely to have access to trans-specific programs and services.

Recommendation 4: Nurture transgender participation in philanthropy at all levels.

Transgender people have a long history of giving generously through informal and formal networks, including via institutional philanthropy, but mainstream organized philanthropy has been slow to welcome transgender people as coworkers, peers and trustees. We estimate fewer than 60 out transgender staffers are employed at U.S. foundations, and many foundations still do not include gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies. The Grantmakers United for Trans Communities initiative at Funders for LGBTQ Issues hosts the only professional development fellowship program in the industry for binary and nonbinary trans and gender nonconforming foundation staff, the GUTC Leaders Fellowship. Foundations and other institutional funders have an opportunity to improve their own inclusiveness of transgender communities and to develop programs that build a pipeline of transgender leaders in philanthropy. Investing in this leadership pipeline is an effective long-term strategy to amplify transgender community voices in funding decisions that impact our lives.

Recommendation 5: Support efforts to improve data collection on gender identity.

Most federal programs and major surveys do not collect data on gender identity. The 2020 U.S. Census, for example, limits gender identity responses to “male” or “female,” excluding nonbinary people and shunting aside the rich diversity of transgender lives. This lack of data again renders us invisible and makes it challenging if not impossible for funders to fully understand the unique needs of transgender communities. Funders have an opportunity to support researchers and data collection agencies to integrate gender identity into ongoing data collection efforts respectfully. The philanthropic sector also has the potential to improve its own data collection on transgender communities by including questions about gender identity in assessments of board and staff diversity and in data on populations served by grantees.


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