TRANSCRIPT: Translash Podcast Episode 68, ‘Trans Bill of Rights’

Imara Jones: Hey fam, it’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. There’s nothing more right now in the balance than trans rights at the legislative level across the United States. So far, we have seen close to 500 bills introduced in 47 States that seek to block our community from receiving basic healthcare, education, and the right to simply exist. That’s why it’s more important than ever for our political leaders to step up and protect trans rights on the federal level. The Transgender Bill of Rights resolution is one effort to do just that.

Originally introduced in Congress in 2022, just last year. It would call for the Amendment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include the specific protection of gender identity in our laws. This would codify equal access to services and public accommodations, employment, and healthcare. It also calls for the creation of a new liaison within the Department of Justice to oversee the enforcement of civil rights for trans people. With the need for explicit human rights protections for our community being so vital right now, I’m looking forward to this conversation today with two people who are working tirelessly to begin cementing trans rights at the federal level. First, I’ll talk with co-chair of the Congressional Transgender Equality Task Force, congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, about her work to introduce the Trans Bill of Rights.

Pramila Jayapal: But my hope is that we can at least get every Democratic member of Congress on this Trans Bill of Rights and that they hear from their constituents, from your listeners that this is important.

Imara: Next, I’m joined by the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen to discuss the need for firmer policy protections for trans people.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen: Even though we’re under siege right now, public support for trans rights is still growing. So like, we are gonna win this eventually, but is it gonna take five years or 50 years? That’s sort of on us and how hard we fight and how well we organize and lives are gonna be won or lost in that time period.

Imara: But before we get to these enlightening conversations, even in these dark and stormy times, let’s start out as always, with some trans joy.

[ TransLash Theme Music]

Imara: As you know, the rights of trans kids in this country are under attack right now, from restrictions on gender-affirming care to sports bands. It’s a scary time to be young and trans. That’s why I wanted to highlight one of the young members of our community who is bravely fighting back against these attacks. 12-year-old Becky Pepper-Jackson is a student-athlete from North Carolina who is prevented from joining her middle school’s cross country team because of a ban on trans girls in sports. With the support of her mom, Heather, and a team of lawyers, Becky has been challenging the state in court so that she can finally run with her team. Here’s Becky to tell us more.

Becky Pepper-Jackson: It’s important for me to be on the track team because it teaches friendship and connection that you really can’t get anywhere else. During the last CrossCountry season, my coach told us all to raise our right hands, and she said everyone that has the right hand raised had made the team. And not only my team and I feel- felt joy. Our parents and everyone around us felt so happy for our whole team. When I’m running, I feel that I am changing the world and I feel very good about myself and what we are doing.

Imara: Becky Pepper-Jackson, you are trans-joy. Keep running. I’m so honored to be joined by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Representative Jayapal has served Washington 7th Congressional District since she was elected in 2016. At that time, she became the first South Asian American woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. Representative Jayapal came to the United States alone at the age of 16. She later went on to start the largest immigrant rights organization in Washington State before becoming one of only two dozen naturalized citizens serving in Congress today.

She’s been a lifelong organizer for immigrant, civil and human rights, and previously served as a Washington State Senator. As the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Right now, she is the lead sponsor of the Medicare For All Act, the College for All Act, and the Housing is a Human Rights Act among others. She also currently serves on the judiciary, budget and education, and labor committees. Among all these responsibilities, she is also vice-chair of the Congressional LGBTQ plus Equality Caucus, co-chair of the Transgender Equality Task Force, and the proud mother of a trans daughter. I’m especially excited to talk to her about her leading efforts to introduce the transgender Bill of Rights, Congresswoman Jayapal, thank you so much for joining us today.

Pramila: Imara, it’s really wonderful to be with you.

Imara: I wanted to just start out before we go into where we are on trans issues and the way that the resolution fits into that. You know, it hasn’t been an easy couple of years to be a member of Congress, being very polite here. You know, it’s been January 6th and then the chaos around the election of the new speaker. And you know, questions about whether or not even some of your colleagues wanted to enter onto the floor armed, which would just be astounding. And so I’m just wondering, as a member of Congress, how is it for you there personally now? Like how does it feel and how has it felt?

Pramila: Well, it’s- it’s tough. You know, I think this is a really tough environment for a lot of people across the country. And I think it’s tough in Congress. It is really hard to be in a body, particularly with people who won’t even acknowledge that an insurrection happened and that people lost their lives, that we almost lost our lives. And I was in the group of members of Congress who was trapped in the gallery even after other members were able to leave the floor. And so it was a terrifying experience, but it was also terrifying to see how close we came to losing our democracy. And I think the idea that that happened is one thing, but as I’ve spoken with Harry Dunn and some of the capital police officers who have been very vocal on this point, it’s a whole nother thing to have that experience completely denied and, you know, rationalized if it is even talked about.

Um, and I think that has been very difficult as well. And at the end of the day, I think, you know, we’re used to partisan environments. I serve on the Judiciary Committee, it’s one of the most partisan committees in the entire Congress. But I think that this is a new level of cruelty that we see every day. And that the extreme MAGA Republicans, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are the ones who are running the Republican party right now. You saw that with the speakers battle and you’ve seen it in terms of the agenda that they’re putting out there to eradicate certain communities, to cut social safety net services, to help propel insurrectionists that are trying to steal elections around the country. So it’s tough, but you and I know that we’ve been through a lot of very difficult times and we don’t stop, right? We just- we keep going because it is that important and it is still an honor to serve in the United States Congress and to- and to be in a position where we do have some power to make a difference. And that’s what I think about every day.

Imara: Yeah. Well, it seems like cruelty and, uh, erasure…

Pramila: Yes. Yes.

Imara: Growing hallmarks of the modern Republican party. And I also think that we keep going because one of the… I know that one of the estimations and assumptions that they have about Democrats, progressives, whomever, um, is that, uh, they’re ultimately going to fold and not keep going. So I think that to keep going is- is- is an important counterpoint to that. Of course, one of the things that the insurrection was designed to do was to ensure that Trump remained president. And what we know about President Trump is that, it became the road test for putting the weight of government behind specific anti-trans policies. Almost every anti-trans law now was road tested as some policy form during the Trump administration. And I’m wondering if, for you as a lawmaker, if you’ve been struck by the scale and the speed of these legal attacks, both through the courts and also through the state legislatures over the past two years.

Pramila: Yes. Well, I guess I should say yes and no because I think they are particularly good. The Republicans are at building institutional networks that allow them to move things very quickly. And we’ve seen this with anti-immigrant initiatives also moving through, you know, in rapid succession at particular moments in time. We’ve seen it certainly with abortion and we’re seeing it with, uh, anti-transgender bills that are, uh, really perpetuating so fast. And we know that they have all these lobbyists, all these institutions who write these bills and then work with legislators in states to get them passed, you know, work with school boards. And so I do think it is very rapid, but it’s also… they’re always looking for the next political football. And when marriage equality, um, passed and, you know, we were able to pass that bill and we were able to do it in a very bipartisan way, it took away one of their political football that they’ve been trying to make successful, but has not been successful.

Immigrants are still a political football and certainly trans people now, and particularly trans girls, apparently in sports is gonna be at the- at the tip of their spears. So they’re very good at moving these things quickly. I just think that they’re gonna fail at this just like they did with marriage equality, because this is not one of the top overriding concerns of people across the country. Transgender rights is not something that Republicans across the country who are just hanging out in their homes and saying, “Hey, this is what we should be focusing- focusing on.” It’s Republican politicians in legislatures that want to make it an issue. But I honestly don’t think that this is at the top of the list for people across the country. So that’s- that’s my hope is that as we educate, as we talk to people about this, that we are able to build the same kind of coalition to support trans rights as we were able to build on marriage.

Imara: I think that everyone listening shares that hope. So I’m wondering where the idea of this resolution of a trans bill of rights came from, sort of what was the genesis in the Congress? Why did you and some of your colleagues say, no, this is something that we need to do and this- this makes sense?

Pramila: Yeah, well, you know, you know that I’m the very proud mother of a transgender daughter. And so I have been really focused on these issues from a personal and a collective space. And it occurred to me that when we talk about LGBTQ+, um, rights, we often don’t necessarily focus on the very specific needs and barriers and discriminations against trans people. And so it felt like as I was watching these bills roll out in legislatures and I saw, you know, I could see the pathway that the Republicans were going down, um, to try to focus on this particular community and- and the cruelty towards this particular community.

And so a couple of years ago, I, um, got together with a lot of incredible organizations that are on the front lines of this issue. And we work together cuz this is typically how I create bills. I don’t do them on my own, I do them with, uh, advice and, you know, input of all the organizations that are doing the actual work on the ground. And from the Lavender project here in Seattle to the National Center on Transgender Equality, um, we were able to just say, let’s think about, let’s vision what a Bill of Rights would look like. Not just a single right that you need in one particular area, but all of the things that are important to being able to live your life fully for who you are and call out in that ensuring that transgender non-binary people have equal access to services and public accommodations, but also, you know, making sure that people have the ability to provide for themselves and their families and clarifying that it’s illegal to discriminate in all these different areas. Employment, credit, housing, based on gender identity.

And then also the positive view of ensuring that every kid has the right to grow up in a supportive environment by having their authentic identity respected, whether it’s in school sports or in terms of an inclusive curriculum. Healthcare was a big issue that came up at those tables. And really recognizing the right to bodily autonomy, to ethical healthcare. The all of the fights we’re having right now around Republicans trying to ban gender-affirming medical care. It was really important to put that in. It was also important to put in codifying the right to abortion. This is another issue I’ve spoken out about personally. And when I use the term pregnant people in the article I wrote about abortion, there were so many comments about that, you know, we’re still doing education about the fact that it is pregnant people we’re talking about that have the right to abortion and that that includes transgender people.

And so I think all of these things were absolutely essential. And then the civil rights and the safety, because we’re seeing so many hate crimes, so many horrific violent incidents occurring against transgender people that we felt really strongly about making sure that safety civil rights were also included. So that’s the way we process this. We said, what are the things that are important and what do we need to make sure we’re putting into an expansive and inclusive bill of rights? And I’m sure we’ve missed things and I’m sure we’ll continue to add to this, but it was a really important proactive vision of the world that we wanna create.

Imara: I’m wondering if you can give us a sense of what you think of the support is of your colleagues for this. The reason why I’m asking this is because I know that a lot of people in our community feel that even though there is an acknowledgment of our issues, that the people that, uh, most people, trans people vote for and support may not always be fighting as hard as would be suggested by, you know, gestures or even the naming, you know, by the president, thankfully, or acknowledging trans day visibility, which will have occurred, you know, just before this episode. So I’m wondering if you can just give us a real sense, what’s the temperature of your caucus for one, not only getting behind what you’ve done but also in general understanding that this is a really important battle, even if for most voters it is and it is a vector point for Republicans.

Pramila: Well, I think we’re- we’re doing the work, um, to make it more so I’m not gonna lie and tell you that every Democrat is fully on board or understands this issue. And I think, you know, sometimes there’s- there’s a real lag in terms of, I always say being a progressive means you’re just the first to the best and most just idea and then everyone else has to run to catch up. And I feel like we’re often out there as progressives saying, this is what we need to do. And initially, people are saying, oh, that’s… you’re going too far, or we don’t really need to talk about that, or this is a complex or controversial issue. And we always are on the front lines of defining it, of saying, no, we do need to talk about it, and here’s how we should talk about it.

But it takes people a little bit of time to come along. That said, I think when I introduced the resolution last term, there were 98 co-sponsors at the end of the term. This time, we’re starting with 104 right off the bat, you know, we introduced it with 104 co-sponsors, that’s still, of course only half of the Democratic caucus. So we do have more work to do. And this morning we had a wonderful town hall for Trans Day of Visibility and it was an hour-long town hall and we had so many different speakers and panelists and congress members and uh, state senator, uh, McBride was with us as well. And you know, we were able to have a deeper conversation about some of the things that maybe people are wondering about, right? Like what does transitioning look like? What kind of mental health support are people getting?

What is the health implications of this? Things that maybe people are afraid to ask.

And so we do have education to do and it’s frustrating to me sometimes that we’re not as far as I would like to be, but my hope is that we can at least get every Democratic member of Congress on this trans-Bill of rights and that they hear from their constituents, from your listeners that this is important. And you can’t just say you support trans rights if you’re not signing on to a resolution that is really about all of the ways in which trans rights need to be respected. So my hope is that we’re gonna use this session to do that education. Sometimes it is easier to do that when you have such a dramatic and horrific and cruel contrast. And I think of it as eruption and disruption in organizing that when you have a spotlight shone on an issue like it is being done right now in the most horrific of ways, there is an eruption and a disruption that actually allows us to clarify, see more clearly and organize more forthrightly about that issue and perhaps make far more progress than we would’ve if it stayed under the radar.

Imara: You let your organizing roots come out in that. I don’t know if that was intentional or it’s gonna change the way that you’re more concerned, a colleague’s gonna see you. [laughter]

Pramila: It was intentional.

Imara: Um, so take us to the other side of the aisle if you can. You know, we know that your Republican colleagues have signaled they’re gonna make this a legislative priority. They’ve already introduced the bill.

Pramila: Yeah.

Imara: It’s already been up for Florida debate on transports more likely are to come.

Pramila: Yeah.

Imara: And we know, you know, the things that Marjorie Taylor Greene did even in terms of just signaling with signs of disrespect on trans flags that members of Congress have put outside their door. So I’m wondering how you are feeling about the positioning that the Republicans are undertaking with regards to moving this from a state legislative priority to a federal legislative priority?

Pramila: It’s horrific. That’s what they wanna do. They want this to be a federal priority. Now, in some ways it is completely against all the other positions they hold about the federal government. And so there’s a very easy, simple federal overreach argument to make on this that some Republicans are starting to make. Not very many, but a couple that this is an overreach of the federal government. And Republicans don’t stand for that overreach in other places and so they shouldn’t stand for it here, but the vast majority of the Republican caucus has been going along with this cruelty. And again, by putting Marjorie Taylor Greene in a position where she dictates what the Republican Party is gonna do, it is a very terrifying moment even for this conversation to be occurring. And I’ll tell you, I’m on the Education on Labor Committee, and last week we had a hearing, a 14-hour hearing Imara that was on two bills.

One was the banning Trans Girls in Sports Bill, and the other was a bill that I’m gonna call the Politics Over Parents Bill, but it was, you know, their so-called Parents Bill of Rights, which was about outing [laughter] LGBTQ kids in school, outing them to their teachers and their parents. It was about banning books and book censorship. It was about everything except what parents actually want, which is mental health for their kids and making sure that their kids aren’t killed by guns in schools, and making sure that they’re able to actually provide for their kids. Those are the things that should be in a parent’s bill of rights, but that’s not what these bills were about. So I think for us, what we need to do is draw a very clear contrast, first of all between Democrats and Republicans. That’s why I think my resolution is so important. It’s our proactive vision.

Secondly, I think we have to- we have to push back on these bills with arguments that resonate for Republicans and for independence and people across the country. Federal overreach is one, but I think the other is, these are- are kids, you know, as far as banning trans girls in sports, by the way, they’re only focusing on trans girls in sports, which was- which was a point I raised during the hearing. It was Women’s History month and this was the bill that they put forward for a women’s history month. But we just need to make the case that transgender young people participate in sports for the exact same reasons as all their peers who are not transgender, to be a part of a team and to have, you know, physical challenges and sportsmanship and all of that. And so I think continuing to push back on this idea that we should in any way target our kids is really important.

And then continuing to educate about who the transgender community is. It’s part of the reason with my daughter’s consent, I wanna be really clear about that. I have brought my daughter into some of these hearings, um, brought her name into some of these hearings because it just boils my blood to hear the way they talk about trans people as if they are some other people, some, you know, socially unacceptable people. And I want this to be about real people. If that’s my daughter, if that’s other stories that I read from my constituents, I want to humanize this community and not allow them to otherwise our loved ones, our family members. Hopefully, at some point, it will be not just us as allies, but trans representatives in Congress as well. But for right now, it’s us as allies, making sure that we stand up and fight.

Imara: You just raised, um, bringing the name of your daughter into these hearings and your Republican colleagues know that you have a trans daughter. And one of the things that people listening may not be aware of is that, you know, the Congress is a relatively small place when it comes to the members that are there. And you all run into each other all the time. You’re on the elevators with each other. You can pass each other coming up and down the stairs. And I’m wondering if you have ever had a conversation with one of your Republican colleagues who is on the far right. Um, and if you’ve ever talked about, well, you know, this is- this is personal for me and this is harming my daughter, and this is what you should know. And if that’s happened, what have they said back to you?

Pramila: I did just have one of those conversations actually just the other day. And, you know, and I- I think that the person was listening attentively, was on the committee, so he had heard what I said on the committee and I said, you know, this is just so painful. I said, just imagine somebody talking about your child this way. And I think that’s what we need to remember is, the people that we’re talking about are people’s children. And maybe they’re not children of people in this room, but they’re children of somebody somewhere in this country. And I don’t think that you would want somebody to talk about your child this way. And he actually said to me, “I agree with you. I think we’re- we’re doing this wrong. For me, it’s much easier because it’s just a federal overreach question and that’s the way we should deal with it.”

And that’s fine. You know, I think that for me, um, it is a choice to bring, uh, my daughter into the conversation. And like I said, I always check in with her, and when I do, I will tell you that the room becomes pin-drop silent. You know, a lot of times in hearings for people who don’t watch them all the time, not everyone’s paying attention, especially for 12-hour hearings, 14-hour hearings, [laughter], there’s a lot of noise going on in the room. There are a lot of, you know, back and forth. People get crankier as the time goes on and it gets earlier and earlier in the morning, um, that we’re debating. But when I spoke about Kashi and I just, I kind of had, had it and just said, you know, this is ridiculous. What are you doing? This is my daughter you’re talking about.

There was a pin-drop silence. Now it didn’t lead to people voting down the amendment, the hor- horrific amendment we were debating. But I do believe that it makes it harder, it makes it harder for them to introduce these amendments, to vote for them, to speak on them when we are in the room talking about our own children being the targets of their cruelty. And so I am careful about how I do this, but I think it’s important for us to bring our own perspectives in and to humanize and let people know that we are not gonna let these comments go without standing up for- for our loved ones, for our communities, for our constituents, and making it hard for them to be this cruel. May not stop it, but I do think it makes a difference.

Imara: My last question is, you know, we recently launched the second season of our investigative series, the Anti-Trans Hate Machine, which looks into the entire ecosystem of disinformation that’s aimed at parents and legislators and policymakers that’s designed to get people to think that being trans as a young person isn’t real, but it’s a result of a social contagion. And that- and that’s been by designed, uh, we looked into that for a long time and found that to be true. And I am wondering for you, as the parent of a trans daughter, what would you say to a person, a parent, a family member, a teacher who is struggling to support a trans child, who may have believed or be susceptible to these ideas that are telling them not to believe this person and not to support them? What do you say to them as a person who supports their trans kid?

Pramila: I get these actually a lot from- from parents [laughter] across the country and also from kids who want me to talk to their parents across the country. Um, and I- I just say, this is your child, same child, same child that came out at birth, same child you looked at with love in your eyes. There is nothing different today. They are just being who they are. And you would want them to be who they are. You would want them to fully express themselves. And so just listen to what they’re telling you about what they need in their lives. That’s really your only job. You just have to listen to what they need and what supports they need in their lives from you to be fully who they are. And that’s true if they’re trans, it’s true if they’re not trans. And I think one of the big things we have to help parents to understand is, there are a lot of differences in our kids, and different kids need different supports from their parents.

And that’s [laughter] that’s really our only job. I also tell them that it is okay to not be comfortable right away, and it is okay to go through a process of learning and understanding because I myself was comfortable right away. That wasn’t an issue, but I wasn’t comfortable always with the language. I didn’t know some of the terminology, I didn’t know some of the health issues. I just wanted to make sure that my daughter was gonna get everything she needed. And she has been such a teacher for me in telling me how to talk about this in a way that doesn’t clench me up, you know, and make me feel like maybe I’m gonna say something wrong. And I think just acknowledging that for parents, this is a bit of a transition goes a long way.

Because a lot of times I find that it’s not that they are against anything, it is that they don’t know and they don’t know what to expect and they’re nervous and they do have cultural context from which they come. You know, for me that’s as an immigrant- as an immigrant from India, this was not always, even though it’s so deep in our Indian culture, actually, until it was eradicated by the Europeans who came in. Um, I think it- it’s not something that’s always talked about. And so I- I just say to parents, talk about it. You know, get information, ask questions, be graceful and yeah, just ask for grace and be gracious and love your child. That’s really all it is.

Imara: Well, thank you so much, and thank you for the grace of your time today on a Friday, which is precious for members of Congress. I just want to thank you so much,

Pramila: [laughter] Thank you so much Imara for everything you’re doing for your voice and for your wisdom every day.

Imara: That was Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. [music] Right now, I’m joined by the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen. Rodrigo is a transgender policy advocacy and messaging expert with years of experience in field organizing and media advocacy. Before joining NCTE as Deputy Executive Director in 2019. Rodrigo served as the VP for public education at Freedom for All Americans, a national campaign for LGBTQ, non-Discrimination Protections. He’s also worked on leadership and membership development programs with glad the Transgender Law Center, Gender Justice LA, and the national LGBTQ Task Force.

Over the years he’s trained thousands of volunteers for non-discrimination and marriage equality campaigns. His many successes include a campaign to update New Hampshire’s non-discrimination protections, which was honored by the New Hampshire ACLU with a Bill of Rights award in 2018. Rodrigo graduated from Brown University and now lives in Washington DC where he serves on the board of directors of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. Rodrigo, thank you so much for joining me today.

Rodrigo: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled.

Imara: I’m wondering why you think… as a person who heads an organization that’s focused on trans equality in DC, why you think a Trans Bill of rights is something that is important and essential right now?

Rodrigo: A transgender bill of rights is so important right now because it sends a message that trans people are worthy of love and support and that might not really be, uh, Congress’s traditional mission [laughter], right? The Trans Bill of Rights is not a full law, it’s a resolution, but it is still really important because it sends a message. It is still the leaders of this country, the elected officials who the people have chosen saying transgender people are our neighbors, are part of the fabric of society, are part of the United States of America and deserve rights and protections just like anyone else. And that’s especially critical because as we all know, trans people are otherwise under attack in all these other parts of our daily lives. Whether it’s outright violence in the streets, especially for black and brown trans women, or in State legislatures who are having hearings on all of these attempts to ban healthcare or ban sports participation for trans youth, all sorts of negativity is happening to us. So to have then Congress really stand up and have elected officials say, we see you, we support you, is really meaningful.

Imara: I know that NCTE was involved in helping Congresswoman Jayapal sort of shape this particular resolution as you mentioned. And I’m wondering when you got the call from their office, were you surprised?

Rodrigo: Well, representative Jayapal has been such a strong ally that I love that we didn’t have to be surprised to get that call from her, but we were really, really grateful. Trans people are so under siege even specifically in the policy realm that I feel like we can’t take anyone’s support for granted. So it means a lot for Representative Jayapal to be like, “Hey, I’m still gonna do this and do this transgender bill rights even in this really hostile climate.” So we were really thrilled to get that outreach from her office and credit to them. Not only are they running this trans-Bill of rights, like not only are they making it happen, but they also were really, really receptive to NCTEs and trans people’s input. So you know, we were like, this is great, and how about adding this and adding that? And her and her staff took that guidance so they made it be even stronger than last year’s, which is fantastic.

Imara: I would imagine though that from your perspective that both this resolution and the Equality Act are really essential pieces of the legislation for our community. Of course, the Equality Act would amend the 1965 Civil Rights Act to include explicitly gender identity. And so I’m wondering if you can just give us a state of play of the Equality Act that is to say we understand that the administration pushed and signed the marriage equality bill, but where are we on the Equality Act and what are you hearing?

Rodrigo: Well, the Equality Act is so important because like you’re saying, it updates our non-discrimination protections. Right now, a lot of people think that discrimination is already illegal, but it’s actually not in a lot of parts of our lives. Now I do wanna give a- a quick plug so that people really know their rights, that we do have explicit protections now when it comes to employment discrimination. So if you are trans and you are ever encountering a situation where you think you were denied a job interview because you were trans or denied a promotion or fired from a job, you… that is illegal. And you absolutely, even today right now, can file a complaint with your local human rights commission or some kind of group like that. So if you are in that situation when it comes to employment, you already do have protections. We don’t need the Equality Act for that in employment and you can absolutely reach out to NCTE and we’ll help point you in the right direction.

But we do need the Equality Act for some other parts of our lives, like especially public spaces. So things like, you know, if you’re harassed in a store or something like that and you know, we did manage to pass the Equality Act through the House of Representatives like through Congress twice, which is good, but we did not get a vote in the Senate and that was heartbreaking. I mean, we were pushing, pushing, pushing tons of organizations in the LGBT movement and trans groups in particular were funneling phone calls into Senate offices and trying to put pressure and it just wasn’t enough. So unfortunately, we never even got a vote on the Senate floor and that means it has not passed yet, but we shouldn’t give up. I mean, we should keep pushing this because it took us years to even pass it through the house, which means that there is still a chance it’s just gonna take longer.

And I’ll put on kind of my more political hat for a second, as a representative of the NCTE Action Fund, our political sibling organization to say this is why we gotta vote. If you are eligible to vote, please, please, please turn out and vote in your Senate races, it may not get as much attention as the President, but who your senator is can absolutely make or break things like the Equality Act. We don’t have the Equality Act because the Senate, we have the president’s support, but we don’t have the Senate. So vote, vote, vote, bring your friends to vote, help your friends get registered if you’re eligible. That’s how we’re gonna pass this thing in the end.

Imara: So I hear you on the need to vote. I don’t think that that’s lost on people why it’s important, but I think that in so many ways people feel like they’re voting defensively, which is a valid reason to vote. Let me just underscore it, defensive voting is really important. Defensive voting is when you vote for someone in order to not lose something or be in a worse position, right? It’s the way that African Americans have voted since black people got to vote [laughter]. But one of the questions that I know that a lot of people listing will have is that, when does the affirmative reason to vote come in? And what I mean by that is, you know, there’s a real question of whether or not the current administration has pushed hard enough on the equality act. You know, there is another bite at the apple when the marriage equality bill hit the Senate last year. And so I’m just wondering what is your answer to that? And do you believe that the administration is fighting hard enough for some of these protections that you’re underscoring?

Rodrigo: Well, not gonna lie, it is really hard to stay motivated and feel like there’s a long-term positive vision. Like you’re saying, affirmative reason in this kind of environment. I mean, we are so under siege politically and in daily life that you know, I, like anyone else really do struggle with how are we going to muster enough power to really turn this tide back? I mean, in the really big picture sense, what I draw inspiration from to get that like, affirmative feeling back is that even though we’re under siege right now, public support for trans rights is still growing. So like we are gonna win this eventually, but is it gonna take five years or 50 years? That’s sort of on us and how hard we fight and how well we organize and lives are gonna be won or lost in that time period. So I think I’m confident that in the really long-term time horizon we absolutely win. But how long is that gonna take and how can we minimize, how can we speed that up as much as possible.

To the part about the Biden administration in particular, you know, they’ve done a lot and there’s still more to do. I mean, what they have done is cleaned up a lot of the mess that the Trump administration made where they’ve rolled back a lot of Trump’s harm. But what we still need them to do is, I mean a lot of things, the two things I would really, really flag and like urge as being like pressing immediate, we’re looking for the Biden administration to do is number one, to update your Title IX regulations. And I know this sounds like a nerdy thing, but what that means is non-discrimination protections in schools.

Imara: Mm-hmm.

Rodrigo: so many trans kids have like a target on their back right now, we need the Biden administration to update the Title IX regulations so that kids in schools have better rights. And the second thing we’re really, really pushing the Biden team on is lifting the VA surgical ban. You know, if you’re a veteran and you rely on the VA for your healthcare right now and you’re trans, you actually can’t get transition-related surgery. Like, they just have a sweeping categorical ban on transition-related surgery within the VA, which is horrible and wrong. This is the only healthcare a lot of people can get. Those are two things in particular that we’re really aiming the Biden administration to do right away.

Imara: Do you think that they understand the way in which the attacks on our community are part of a larger political project, a part of the kind of authoritarian vision that’s now creeped itself into the heart of the Republican party? Or do they just think, oh this is just another attack on another group of people so-called culture war and we’ll just, you know, deal with it in that way? Like I’m- I’m just wondering if you feel that there’s actual genuine alarm beyond concern.

Rodrigo: I do think that there’s a lot of leaders within the Biden administration who do get that this is part… the opposition’s anti-trans are part of a broader authoritarian view to try to undermine democracy. I think a lot of other liberals don’t, which is a problem [laughter]. So we got..{laughter], like I worry about it with a lot of everyday Democrats that there’s a lot of people who are sort of casually okay with trans issues. Like meaning they’re not openly hostile to trans rights. They’re like, yeah, trans kids deserve to be, you know, protected and cared for like any other kid. So they’re vaguely supportive but they do, like you’re saying, see it as one box to check out of a long list of like, “identity issues”. Whereas like actually what’s happening is these anti LGBT groups are coming after us because they’re ultimately trying to control how everyone is allowed to look and behave. Like it is a controlling vision that they have for society where they are trying to make very, very strict rules about who you are allowed to be, and trans people they see as like the ultimate violation of those rules that they wanna instill.

So they’re coming after trans people, but it’s really cuz they’re trying to come after anyone who colors outside of the lines and they want ultimately this like very authoritarian vision of how society is governed. And I don’t think that everyday liberals see that. They see that they should be sort of casually supportive of trans rights, but they think it’s just one out of many things. They are not yet connecting the dots and seeing that this is about democracy at the end of the day and that they have skin in the game too. Like even if you are not trans, you should care about this because it is about your freedom to just be who you are, even if that’s a little bit different or for your kids and anyone you care about to be able to be who they are.

Imara: You know, you’re the child of a storied political family in Florida. Your mom was a member of Congress, you live in Washington, you spend a lot of time under the dome and I’m wondering if you can talk about what the atmosphere is like and how it’s changed at all since the Republicans have come to power. I mean sometimes when there’s a change in political power in DC, you can literally feel the difference. And I’m wondering if now when you enter the capitol, can you feel the difference? Can you feel the difference of, you know, the impact of Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert or Congressman Paul Golfer from Texas? Can you actually feel the difference? Does it feel more hostile?

Rodrigo: Yeah, it’s a lot more polarized now, which is really sad to experience. Going back,W like you mentioned, my mom being a Republican member of Congress, I mean going back even further, her family came from Cuba. She was born in Havana and they came to the United States and it was this whole like I grew up being told by my mom’s side of family all the time how important democracy is because to them it was like that’s why we came to America a very like textbook immigrant aspirational story. So I grew up being like really, really taught to value democracy and civic participation, whether you were Republican, democrat, whatever, just, like we have the right to vote and isn’t that amazing? We should take advantage of that. Coming from that place where like I really share that value, it has been heartbreaking to now experience what seems like a breakdown in the other side’s, willingness to even hear us out.

What feels different now in doing any kind of like work with Congress these days is that it seems like there’s a lot of fear among Republican leaders who are super, super vocal and so hostile. And the thing is that’s damaging it of itself, but also it’s instilling all this fear in all of these other Republican members of Congress and other Republican elected officials where they are being sort of pulled to the extreme right wing ends of the spectrum because they’re scared of being yelled at by those most fringe parts of their base. So it’s a lot more polarized in Congress these days because of this almost like magnetic poll that the extreme right-wing is having on other members of the Republican party.

Imara: I just wanna have a- a little bit of a talk about the organization that you run NCTE. You took over NCTE at a time of crisis relief for the organization. And I’m wondering what has been the rebuilding process that you’ve undertaken since the exit of the prior executive director in a moment of turbulence and accountability?

Rodrigo: Yeah, I mean it definitely was a, [laughter] was a tall order coming into leadership at NCTE and really trying to rebuild everything. So I appreciate the question. What I, as the relatively new executive director, I mean I started in um, summer of 2021, so been like a year and nine months now. What I’ve been trying to do during this time and working really, really closely with the whole staff to do is really rebuild that trust. NCTE always did this policy work under the dome and like very DC-focused and that works important. But there wasn’t enough engagement with the entire rest of the trans community. So in the best case scenario, people didn’t even understand what the hell we did [laughter] In the worst case scenario, we weren’t engaging with people, we weren’t getting feedback, we weren’t having any kind of organic back and forth with local partners.

It was like NCTE was in this tiny little silo. It’s not even the most effective way to work. Like you just won’t win that way. But it also is like emotionally it isolates you too much as an organization and it- and it undermines trust. So what we’ve really been trying to do this last year and nine months, whatever it was, what I hope is a- a new era for the organization is do so much more, not just like outreach, not just contacting but like real relationship building with groups and translators all around the country. And I really wanna shout out the staff because there’s no way in hell I could have done this as just one person. Like this is not just me. So for example, we started an entirely new department. We started a community organizing department for the first time ever at NCTE.

Like we decided yeah of course we’re gonna do this policy work cuz it’s important, we’ve always done it, but now we’re gonna add this whole community part to it. And so we’ve got full-time organizers on staff who are constantly in dialogue with local and state transcripts. So no longer is it NCTE in DC and on high coming up with stuff. It’s like we’re gonna be in conversation with people on the ground all over the country and not even just in all 50 states, but like in the territories too. Like we’re for the first time ever, building relationships with folks on Puerto Rico and we did outreach in Guam and different US territories for the US Trans Survey. I mean, we’re trying to really, really go deep and hard on that relationship building so that we can build that trust backup.

Imara: I mean I can’t imagine taking over an organization that is in crisis in a global pandemic. Yeah, you mentioned the NCTE survey and I hope that you’ll give a plug for that in your next answer because it’s- it’s really important and is a pivotal source of information for so many organizations about our community and it’s a chance for trans people to talk back to the world. So I hope that you’ll plug that.And I’m wondering if you can just talk about where we are in the 2022 survey, what it is, and why it’s important. I can say personally that I can’t count the number of times that I have used or referenced the 2016 survey and I know that countless other organizations have done the same thing. So can you just talk a little bit about the survey that you mentioned, where we are, and why it’s important?

Rodrigo: Absolutely. I mean the US Trans Survey is the biggest and most comprehensive survey of our experiences of all of these dimensions of our lives, of our lived reality as trans people in the United States. It sounds kind of nerdy to be like this is a survey, we’re doing data collection, but the thing is having this data is a deal breaker to doing all of this other advocacy. Like whenever we’re trying to gain our rights or our cert ourselves, we often as trans people have to prove that we even exist. We often have to prove that there’s even a problem to begin with before we can win the policy or- or the funding that would help fix that problem. So that’s really why NCTE started doing the survey, was because we would meet with elected officials and they basically wouldn’t believe us that they had transgender constituents in their districts and that transgender people are actually experiencing homelessness.

You know what I mean? It’s like we had to take that data collection into our own hands. Also, the data that’s otherwise out there about trans people is not usually with any kind of community input. Like usually it’s done by non-trans people who are not culturally competent and don’t really understand our lives. So it’s not even sensitive or like really capturing our reality right. We started this US trans survey years ago to fix that and to make this a trans community-driven thing so that we have something that is culturally competent and is sensitive and is comprehensive. You know, we have trans researchers involved and designing the questions, trans people doing outreach on it. I mean this is like trans through and through. The last set of data was from 2015, we were gonna do it again in 2020, but you know, COVID was a curve ball right for all of us.

So we ended up fielding it, meaning put the survey out again in December of 2022, like last December. So now, we’re crunching the numbers. And the thing is we were so glad that not only did we get a lot of respondents, we actually broke our own record way over it. Like we’ve got many times more the number of respondents last year than we did in 2015, which is remarkable. So thank you, thank you, thank you to anyone listening who completed the survey, that is super valuable. The thing is, we got so many respondents that it’s actually taking us longer to analyze all the data cuz more people filling it out, which is a good thing, means more numbers to crunch. So it’s a good problem to have. But anyway, we expect to have, uh, the top-level findings released by the end of this year, by the end of 2023. And then we’ll have even more next year.

So by the end of this year, we’ll have some of the summaries, but then over time, we’ll also have breakout reports of the experiences of, for example, black trans people, black Latine, Latin, Latina, Latina trans people, trans veterans, older trans folks. I mean, we’ll be able to break the data out in a lot of different ways. So anyone just going to our website will be able to get these really rich numbers and not have to paint all trans people with the same brush, but instead be able to drill it down into a lot of our smaller, more targeted communities, which should be really helpful.

Imara: My last question is, you’re in DC representing a trans organization, and as I said before in a time of crisis and that crisis is set to grow for the foreseeable future. And on top of that, we are about to layer in a presidential election in which every major declared or possible candidate for president on the Republican side is anti-trans. That’s a lie. And so for you personally, what are you doing to take care of yourself and how do you take care of yourself? And I’m asking that because I know that so many people listening are trying to figure out how to do that themselves. And so hearing what another person’s experience in navigating this moment and trying to stay well I think is an important one.

Rodrigo: It’s a great question. You know, I would be lying if I said that I have that fully figured out. I mean, I struggle with it a lot. I definitely work too much because it feels like the problems that we face are really big and it feels like we have this really limited window to fight these things back. So I am guilty of working too much, but I am working on that [laughter] and I mean the things that I have found are really helpful is really unplugging from time to time. Um, really, I… it’s funny, people will often assume that I have like watched any TV show that has trans characters or like, uh, really up to speed on trans stuff in pop culture. And not gonna lie, when I’m done with the workday, I try to be like, let me just watch the dumbest cat video on YouTube.

I possibly can. Like, I’m almost like I can’t do anymore trans advocacy, you know what I mean? So like just really giving yourself permission to unplug and for me, like really consciously having time off that isn’t even touching these topics at all, even in a light way, but instead is, you know, even more indulgent than that. You know, like I listen to, um, the Office Ladies podcast, you know, this really basic podcast about how the TV show the office was filmed. You know, something that is like really easy breezy is really powerful for me to like put more gas in my tank.

Imara: Well, I love of course that podcasts put gas in your tape for all the obvious reasons. And I think that the advice that you gave is- is spot on. Whatever is gonna get you through is gonna get you through. So do that. Well, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate you being on, I hope and I’m sure that this will not be the last time, and just want to say thank you for your work and for taking the time to chat with us today.

Rodrigo: Thank you so much for having me on. It was so great to talk with you. I appreciate it.

Imara: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. That was executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen. Thank you for joining me on the TransLash podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end of this show for something extra.

Special thanks to Afafanupa for giving us a five-star review on Apple Podcast. Afafanupa says, it can be so tiring to be non-binary and a world that seems committed to misunderstanding. Listening to this thoughtful and informative podcast is a breath of fresh air. Keep up the good work. Thank you so much for your kind words. Now, this is really important because we’ve been getting some hateful comments since being included in the Apple Podcast Women’s History Month collection. So if y’all want to help us drown out this negativity, just go over there and give us a great rating, five stars. And if you do so, you might just hear it on the show.

The TransLash podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Kleine and Aubrey Calaway. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show. And our sound designer digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. TransLash podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners just like you.


What am I looking forward to? I’m looking forward to the anti-trans hate machine content that’s coming out. I know that y’all have all gone over to wherever you get your podcast and you’ve already subscribed to the season of anti-trans hate machine cuz it’s the only way you’re gonna be able to listen to them all three at once. But in addition to that, y’all, we have so many other things coming out, including animated film explainers and infographics and just more and more information tied to the series to help you get your arms around, um, what is going on in these attacks. And so I’m excited for you all to see all of that because it’s been a year and a half in the making. And so it’s just not this podcast. It’s kind of this entire effort that our team is putting out to try to make sure that in as many ways as possible, you all can understand what these attacks are about and how to stop them. So just make sure that you sign up for our newsletter or you’re following us across all the social mediasz, sz, mediasz, um, because you’ll be able to keep track of all the stuff that’s gonna come out, um, through- through June. We have so much more coming.



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TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.



TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.


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