National Center for Transgender Equality ED speaks on org’s mission

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen headshot
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen. (Photo: Devon Rowland)

In terms of representation and rights for transgender people, society has come a long way even in the last two decades or so. However, “with progress comes backlash,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). That backlash manifests in many ways, from bills curtailing trans rights being introduced and passed in state legislatures, to anti-trans policies tossed around on school boards to an uptick in violence against trans individuals and the bullying of trans youth. 

NCTE’s mission is to combat those attacks by advocating to change policies and revise the public narrative around trans communities from one of misconception and hatred, to one of understanding and kindness. Heng-Lehtinen spoke to PGN about what the center staff does to tackle some of the biggest issues facing trans communities today, some ways to change the harmful public narrative about trans people and what accomplices and allies can do to advocate for trans rights. 

What are the biggest issues facing trans communities in the U.S.?
One huge issue is all of these anti-transgender bills spreading like wildfire in the state legislature. That is undermining people’s rights and it’s sending a message that there’s something shameful and wrong with being trans. We have been successful in defeating most of these anti-trans state bills in the [U.S.] But still, the fact that these are even introduced and debated by the leaders of a state on the House floor means that there’s less acceptance. It still makes a transgender person living in that state feel like they have a target on their back. Even when a bill doesn’t pass, it still does harm. There are the actual concrete barriers that these bills put up when they pass, but there’s also the mental health impact of making people feel so isolated and alone.

Another problem is violence. Support for transgender people is growing in some ways, but the violence against us is growing at the same time because progress often comes with backlash. This rise of visibility means that we’re also in the crosshairs at the same time. We are seeing murders and other physical attacks against transgender people still growing, and that’s been a huge issue in Philly in particular. That’s also something that NCTE works on: we track this violence and coordinate with the Department of Justice to sometimes help the federal government intervene where local police departments aren’t stepping up. 

We also do an annual remembrance report around Trans Day of Remembrance to really portray these people as human beings. A lot of the media coverage around a transgender person who’s murdered is usually sensationalized, and doesn’t really share anything about who the person was other than that they happen to be trans. We make this annual remembrance report to remember that as human beings, as people with personalities [who had] people who cared about them and hobbies — [we] portray them as three-dimensional people. We’re showing that we are human and we’re honoring who they were, not just how they [were] lost.

What is the NCTE doing to fight against some of the state restrictions on trans health care and to protect gender-affirming care in states that don’t have outright bans? Trans people in Philly are pushing for protections for trans health care even though there’s no Pa. law against it. 
It’s really understandable to have that fear right now regardless of where you live. This year, we’ve seen over 500 anti-LGBT bills introduced in state legislatures, most of which were specifically anti trans. Of those, 140 or more of them were outright bans on transition-related health care of some type. When it comes to Pennsylvania specifically, it’s unlikely that such a ban would pass in Pennsylvania thanks to our pro-equality majorities in Pennsylvania’s house and the governor. But it’s still really essential that people, even in states like Pennsylvania, do speak out because it is by us causing that kind of uproar that we can deter that kind of legislation from growing even more. 

[NCTE] is working on fighting these bans all around the country. One of the biggest things we do is public education. There is a ton of rampant misinformation that anti-transgender politicians are spreading. We do a lot to provide testimony in state legislatures around the country, to speak directly with lawmakers, to conduct media outreach –– all to get accurate information out there.

We have found that most people, whether they are politicians or everyday voters, have a lot of misconceptions of what transition-related health care even means. Therefore, they fall for this misinformation and these myths and these lies. But when we’re able to really share the truth and reassure them that this is supported by the American Medical Association; this has been researched for decades; this is perfectly safe –– some of that resistance starts to go down. A lot of what we do is really that basic bread-and-butter education. That’s the most important thing. 

We also do lots to mobilize people around the country — busing people to public hearings to provide their own testimony. We’re tracking all these bills, so we do a lot of coordinating with state groups to answer their questions about — what does this amendment mean? Or has this happened in other states? How does this compare? We do a lot of policy analysis to help groups on the ground. 

With our NCTE Action Fund, we’re supporting the campaigns of candidates for office who are pro trans, whether they’re trans themselves or they’re allies. [We’re] doing a lot to make sure we even get the right kind of people elected to office in the first place.

How does the NCTE work to counteract the misconception that the existence of trans women is a threat to cisgender women and that trans activism translates to grooming?
There are threats to the safety of children and cis women in this world, but they aren’t coming from transgender people. There are threats like gun violence, the rise in school shootings, underfunding of public schools, the school-to-prison pipeline, the fact that a lot of kids still go to school hungry because they don’t have enough food on the table at home. Those are real problems that our government should be aiming to solve, and none of them have anything to do with the fact that some people happen to be transgender. 

This is definitely a whole new narrative that we need to be combating. Some of that is about humanizing transgender people. Most of the American public still doesn’t think that they know someone who’s transgender. There are some figures that show that as many as 70% of Americans think they have never met a transgender person before. Probably they have, and they just didn’t realize that someone in their life is trans. But they still think that they don’t know somebody who’s trans. Therefore, transgender people are a blank space in a lot of the public consciousness. Now we have these anti-transgender ideologues coming in and filling in that blank space with outright lies and attacks. What we’re really striving for at NCTE is to introduce a new face of what it means to be transgender – to really put a face to our community and show that transgender people live all around the country and are part of the fabric of society as much as anyone else. It sounds maybe a little naive, but all the evidence shows that that really is compelling, that that really is what it takes. Those of us who are transgender and allies can make a lot of progress by showing the truth of who we really are.

We also have the U.S. Transgender Survey, the biggest study of transgender people’s experiences in the U.S. We run that every five years and we’ll present that data to really paint a picture of the kinds of barriers that our communities are facing. 

Lastly, we partner with supporters too because there are these organizations that do serve children and women’s rights organizations that are definitively pro trans. Those are groups like the National Women’s Law Center, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Women’s Sports Foundation — all of them are super strong supporters of transgender people. We try to really let people know that these organizations that are feminist, that are fighting for women’s rights are actually pro trans.

Do you think that the more trans folks are represented as everyday people, the violence and discrimination toward them will decrease?
Absolutely. A lot of what’s underneath the attacks against transgender people — whether attacks on policy or outright physical attacks — is that either the perpetrator is someone who has been told these lies and myths about transgender people, or they’ve noticed that transgender people are so marginalized in society that they can attack a trans person and get away with it. Sometimes the perpetrator of either policy or a physical attack has outright animus against transgender people. But sometimes it’s even more calculated and callous than that, where they notice that transgender people are treated like garbage in society a lot, so they think they can attack us and get away with it.

NCTE and all these other transgender activists around the country can turn that tide around and really show who transgender people actually are, that we’re just as human as anyone else and that we have supporters who will notice and care if you hurt us.

Growing public acceptance is not the only solution that we need. We also need a lot of policy reforms on economic justice to do things like make housing more affordable so that no one’s homeless. That’s just one example. We need some concrete policy changes so that transgender people aren’t in such vulnerable situations to begin with. But we also need that growth in public support and understanding so that we’re not seen as someone you can get away with attacking.

What can accomplices and allies do to help advocate for and support trans folks?
Call your lawmakers. I understand that people can feel like it won’t make a difference, but we’ve seen through experience that it really does make a difference. At the end of the day, politicians want to be reelected and they do work for you as the voter, not the other way around. When a critical mass of us really do call or email or write letters [to] our elected officials, they notice; they have their staffers literally keep tallies of how many contacts they got for and against a piece of legislation. Most of these lawmakers –– there are a few who are really ideologically anti transgender, but most of them, frankly, are kind of blowing whichever way the wind blows. If we can show them that the wind is blowing the pro-trans direction and they’ll be on the right side of history by voting our way, more and more of them really will.

And do not assume that just because you live in a big city like Philly, that the lawmakers are going to be pro trans. Still take the time to call so that they don’t cave.

Also, volunteer. At NCTE we’re getting a really revamped volunteer program up and running. There’s a lot of organizations here in Philadelphia, too, that I know are always looking for volunteers. Donating your time is huge, and then donating your money if you can. A lot of our nonprofits really work off of these monthly donations, and giving $10 a month is the backbone of a lot of our budgets. That’s what allows us to hire staff to do all the rest of the work.

Lastly, talk to the people in your life. Even people around you who might seem like they’re generally pro LGBT still might have a lot of misconceptions of what it means to be trans. We see even cis LGB people sometimes still have concerns about transition-related health care because they’ve just been told all this inaccurate stuff. Even just speaking up and sharing that information with people and making sure that the people around you actually understand the issue is really, really significant. If you’re friends with them, you’re going to convince them a lot better than we can as strangers.

As difficult as things are right now, this is all the more evidence that we’re going to come out the other side and we’re going to win at the end of the day. We saw in these last 20 years or so this massive increase in visibility of transgender people, which was good. It led more people to be supportive of their transgender neighbors, but it also inspired a tiny minority to be very upset and consequently super motivated to attack us. That’s why we’re seeing this rise in violence and all these anti-trans bills being introduced all around the country. But that is the backlash to our progress and that’s progress we’re going to keep making.