Dressed in a white, button-down shirt and jeans, Dean Spade sat in a conference room in the Chelsea office of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a legal advocacy group for transgendered and gender-variant people nationwide. When his hands were not busy keeping his long brown hair from falling into his eyes, he was gesturing emphatically.
“We are really focused on putting governance power into the hands of people who are affected by the work,” he said of the way the agency is run.
The three-year-old group is governed by a collective of 20 people who meet twice a year—once to set the group’s agenda for the year and six months latter to assess that work. The collective is made up of staff, former clients and community activists.
Fifty percent plus one of the collective members are people of color and 50 percent plus one are intersex, transgendered or otherwise gender non-conforming. Those qualities are determined by how the members identify themselves. Spade hopes the collective membership will grow to 35 this year. Roughly 100 volunteers support the project’s work as well.
“I don’t think any one person is the appropriate sole decision-maker for this kind of work,” the 27-year-old transgendered attorney said.
Spade, who founded the group under the auspices of the Urban Justice Center (UJC) in August of 2002, is one of three full-time staffers who all earn the same annual salary—$37,500. Salaries for the two part-time staffers are pro-rated based on that amount. The project, which is named for the late transgendered activist who was active in New York civil rights struggles from the time of Stonewall until her 2002 death, has since moved out on its own from its UJC origins.
Its $250,000 annual budget comes from some foundation support, but “a very large chunk of it is individual donors,” Spade said. The agency has served some 450 clients from across the nation since 2002.
A major effort is battling changes in New York State Medicaid policy that denied coverage for sex reassignment surgery in 1998. Some clients in that government-run insurance plan for the poor were still able to get hormone treatment paid for until 2002.
“They were already enforcing it around surgery, but in 2002 they started enforcing it around hormones,” Spade said.
Transgendered people in New York who had been getting hormones through Medicaid can no longer obtain that medication.
“Huge numbers of trans people who are Medicaid recipients were being blocked,” Spade said. “We had clients who were unable to leave their homes.”
To get both hormones and surgery can require a diagnosis of gender identity disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the official list of disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. Medicaid denying coverage to such people constitutes discrimination based on diagnosis, Spade said.
SRLP has assisted clients who are struggling to get the correct the gender listed on government-issued identification. The standards for changing such information after gender transitions vary from state to state and, within states, from one government agency to another. That is not a small thing. A government-issued identification can be required to get public benefits or even to enter a government building. When the person’s presentation and the stated gender on the identification do not match that can create problems.
Some government standards require that transgendered people complete sex reassignment surgery in order to change their identification, but not all transgendered people can afford or even want such surgery.
“We want to make it clear that there shouldn’t be a genital test,” Spade said. “Psychological gender is the only reliable indicator of gender.”
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, with tightened regulations on government-issued identification, it has become much harder for transgendered people to change the gender listed on birth certificates and driver’s licenses.
“We are seeing major, major effects of the war on terror,” Spade said.
With Congress looking to force the states to adopt even stricter standards for driver’s licenses, that may get even tougher. The proposed federal legislation is meant to prevent illegal immigrants from getting licenses.
“We think it was motivated by anti-immigrant bias, but I don’t think anybody was sad to see trans people get caught in it,” Spade said.
Then, in the name of combating terror, states and the federal government began comparing driver’s license rolls with Social Security data and Internal Revenue Service records. Some employers got letters from government agencies asking about employees who had mismatched genders effectively outing those transgendered people, Spade said.
“We are entering a time when no transgendered person is going to be able to apply for a job without revealing themselves,” he said.
SRLP also spends a great deal of time training other activists, government officials and private agencies on how to handle things like sex-segregated facilities, including bathrooms, jails and prisons and group foster homes.
SRLP has produced a 30-minute video called “Toilet Training: Law and Order (In the Bathroom)” which deals with public toilets. Bathrooms can present a problem for transgendered people who may be stopped or questioned by others who feel they are in the wrong toilet. Spade was arrested in 2002 by a Port Authority police officer while using the men’s room at Grand Central Terminal.
SRLP is one of three legal organizations in the country dedicated solely to assisting transgendered people and it is the only one that is run by transgendered people. The other two, the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco and New York City’s Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, are run by gay men.
While Spade said that “we serve everybody who fits our criteria,” he was also clear that SRLP is a poverty law firm that serves those who have the least resources.
“It’s an organization focused on racial and economic justice,” he said. “We believe in the most vulnerable first.”