Five Questions With: Danielle Askini, Gender Justice League

I met activist and Gender Justice League founder Danielle Askini a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. She was then, and remains to this day, one of my favorite trans activists and educators.

1. Tell me something about how you started Gender Justice League, and why, what you do as an organization.

The idea behind Gender Justice League was really to build on what I had come to learn from other organizations I had participated in the past such as GSA Network (where I was National Program Director) and Outright, Maine – Where I was a youth activist. Really the idea is to bring the community together through community building, social and community education events, and then to recruit and train Trans and gender non-conforming folks as leaders to engage in community wide education and training and then advocacy work both on a one-to-one level and a policy level – such as removing Trans health insurance exclusions.  The idea is really to start by building a community that is connected, informed, and educated and then develop our skills to organize, educate, and influence cultural change. As an organization what we have done has greatly varied, we have done things like hold Trans Pride Seattle – which brought together about 2,200 people in June – by far the largest single event by and for Trans folks in Seattle, we got King County Public Health and all HIV Prevention Providers to agree to both serve Trans women but also include images, messaging, and information about Trans women in HIV prevention materials, we also held a community gathering to discuss Fighting Trans Misogyny that was incredibly well attended. This is all outside of our internal training on grant writing, meeting facilitation, web/social media networking and advocacy training.  I’m so excited for all we have yet to do in the next year or two as we launch our speaker’s bureau and education plan, partner with University of Washington for a Transgender Medicine class for medical students, social workers, and nurses, and many many more things!

2.. We were talking recently about the intersection of community and politics, specifically when it comes to trans people. Do you think one has to come before the other?

I think this is a really interesting question!  As someone who transitioned in Maine — Portland specifically, a “city” of only 65,000 people — there was not a huge Trans community that was active when I fist came out. Over time, more and more trans folks and gender queer folks came out — but most identified as trans men/trans masculine which left me feeling a bit isolated.  My activism in Portland was really focused on “LGBT” activism and youth in foster care activism (I spent my Junior year homeless, and my senior year in foster care) — but it was extremely isolating to be the ONLY trans woman around in many instances. There was a sense of ‘community’ to some degree — but often I didn’t really feel “seen”. Portland is a tricky example, as everyone watched me transition quite publicly (it’s a small town) and to many, I would forever be that “Gay boi / drag queen!” that they had seen in high profile shows; this often invisible my identity as a woman. That is not to say that I wasn’t deeply effective or influential, I think even though I was young, in college, and often busy — I was of a vanguard that pushed the largely L & G leaders to include Gender Identity and Expression in Maine’s 2005 non-discrimination law. I think community is vital — but I found my community online at that time! Now, I walk out my door and have dozens of friends which is amazing. I certainly think having a solid online community through livejournal was vital to my early activism — a place to vent, get resources/connect, and feel ‘seen’. For folks who are not in major cities — the internet has really revolutionized that process. So that is to say — find a community online, do online activism, find strength where you can no matter what — but doing activism everywhere is vital!  I think that was the key for me, finding community online, doing activism even when I felt isolated and alone as a very young trans woman.

3. I think of you as a radical activist, and I mean that as a compliment. Tell me something about how you think of trans rights in the light of other social justice issues.

I would definitely describe myself as a “radical activist” in the kindest sense of the word — I am often making demands for “radical” and “complex” ideas… I like to joke to people “can’t we walk and chew gum!!!” That is to say, I often try to think about the complexities and unintended consequences of ‘simplistic and digestible’ arguments. I think that much of marketing / messaging in LGBT communities over the last 15-20 years has been ‘dumbing it down’ for a general audience and removing any complexities in order to make legal gains.  In light of all that is happening outside of Trans specific issues — there are a lot of important connections — for instance, NSA surveillance –as a Trans person and an activist, I can clearly see a connection about how collecting massive amounts of private data (such as trans-specific websites, support groups you attend tracked by cell phone gps etc..) could and in the past HAS been used against Trans people. I also look back at history and see ample examples about why Trans people should be organizing across issues.  Similarly, I look at the economic, cultural, and social disparities that we know Trans women in particular face, and I look at communities of color and see many of the same things! Widespread violence, increased HIV rates, heightened policing that leads to increased incarceration, huge amounts of harassment/violence/microagressions on a daily basis, employment discrimination — and I see myself!! That is why I am deeply dedicated to understanding the larger systems that keep us all oppressed and understanding my position in this society (especially as a white person with legal status!) and how that privileges me. For as much as I complain about negative experiences I have had — I see many other people, particularly people of color facing far worse! Stop and Frisk in New York for example. Racial profile both in public and private settings (on the street and in stores), job discrimination, and so all. All of these issues are deeply connected! I think that organizing together, across identities is the only way to “fix” the hatred, violence, discrimination, health disparities, and poverty that I see directed at my community.

4. You transitioned young. What are some of the most common misconceptions from older transitioners about young transitioners?

I have encountered a great deal of beliefs by older transitioners about “how easy it must have been!” and how much they “wished they transitioned younger!”  I think often these narratives are meant in jest — and the grass is always greener on the other side –certainly. But for myself, transitioning in high school was filled with unbelievable obstacles and pain. Things that people often see as “a plus” (such as being a very small person at 5’5″ and 120lbs) — also served against me in many instances! I was often the target of physical assaults — in high school the State of Maine Attorney General prosecuted and convicted 3 people of hate crimes and implicated another 11 of conspiracy! Much of that had to do with qualities that many people now see as “positive”.  I also was frequently told that I was “mentally ill” — a charge leveled at all trans people generally speaking — but as a minor, who was in state custody this had pretty grave consequences such as being mandated into therapy, onto psychiatric medication, and often discredited in my activism by fellow LGBT activists who disagreed with me.  Transitioning younger also ended up being a large part of why I ended up being homeless. As a 16 year old who was “pretty” — I couldn’t get a job (without parental consent!), but I could turn tricks to feed myself and pay for clothes/a roof over my head even if temporarily, and supplies for school.  I think people often don’t take into account the other struggles that people can face transitioning younger and only look at the upside. To be certain, there were some hassles I avoided — having facial hair! Hallalu I didn’t have to do electrolysis!  But having to deal with sexism and misogyny from an early age was no bonus!  Also only having a career as a woman (and really being hoisted into a female dominated profession that is heavily under paid — social work!) has meant that my income has definitely not matched my peers who transitioned later in life.  I think, no path is all peaches and cream or all rocks and hard knocks! That is basically my message! It is easy to think everyone else had it easier or is “lucky” — but looks aren’t everything — I definitely carry around some serious scars from those early years of my transition!

5. When are you going to write a book?

Ha! That is SUCH a good question! It is hard to find time in between activism to write a book, but I need/want to do it!  I have been slogging away at chapters since 2003!  I just need to get up the guts and courage to finalize it and publish it!