This seemed like a pristine location. Clean, spacious, professional office space with a bridge over a pond that could at times be thought of as a moat and guarded by suspicious watch of Canada geese. For the start of a new trans support group, I could not have asked for a better place. Nor could I have asked for a better person to facilitate the first meeting: a female-to-male transsexual psychologist who had transitioned decades ago who desired to set up resources for transpeople in North Orange County, an area which had lacked such resources.
What transpired in that first meeting represented both hope and a bit of apprehension. I could see it in the doctor’s eyes. Would this embryonic group grow into a dynamic organization or would it do what so many support groups have done?
Let me explain. Was it a good discussion? Definitely. Of course, discussions have limitations, especially as relates to the necessary element of confidentiality. What anyone says in such a discussion stays in that room. But from talking to people before settling into that meeting I could tell that the staff had greater things in mind than just a support entity built upon the group therapy model.
Is there anything wrong with such a model? Of course not; and just of course, if a group gathers together for a group therapy session, a professional would have reasonable right to take a fee for psychological services. Psychology Today provides links to such groups which anyone can find simply by googling “transgender support groups in ___,” and enter a particular locale.1
Believe me, plenty of these proliferate, led by a therapist or maybe even a psychologist, and that’s a good thing. But support groups built that way run the risk of building a rut of stagnation if they remain just discussion groups. Such a group could plod along year after year like a horse plods along with blinders to keep it focused upon its task. Clearly, that was not the intention of the facilitator.
Before the discussion began I talked to the staff about what they envision and some of the possibilities. I asked concerning the prospects that what they do could become an avenue of education and outreach beyond its own trans members and to the larger communities of Orange County, even beyond. The eyes of both staff members lit up at this.
Let’s look at the principles of education and outreach for a moment and see in the light of trans support groups in history why they matter. The following list of both issues is by no means exhaustive:
- Providing a system of mentoring for transpeople who recently become involved in the trans community.
- Advancement of literacy for transpeople who had been educationally disadvantaged due to discrimination and family rejection.
- Advancement of academic tutoring within the trans community, especially for trans youth.
- Teaching medical safety including defenses against the onslaught of drug and sexual abuse.
- Teaching skills of deportment.
- Teaching the ways and means of transition where indicated.
- Teaching the heritage of transpeople from antiquity.
- Teaching cross-cultural communication.
- Interaction with people outside the trans community, exposing them to who transpeople really are.
- Projects addressing local needs of those outside the trans community.
- Liaisons to religious, educational, civic, legal, and vocational entities.
- Speaking engagements to schools, churches, companies, and civic entities concerning trans issues.
- Cooperation as transpeople with other service organizations such as Lions or Rotarians to build a better world.
- Cooperation as transpeople with civic entities to build a better world.
- Advancement in literacy as transpeople with people outside the trans community.
- Academic tutoring as transpeople to people outside the trans community.
- Mediation in disputes in cooperation with the local Human Relations office.
- Public communications through publication and video.
- Cooperation with other trans support groups for projects.
Education and outreach were areas of focus for Joanie Shelton and Ginny Knuth when they first organized the Educational TV Channel (ETVC) for San Francisco in 1982. This emphasis translated into the actual organization of their club. Their “Executive Committee” or “Ex Com” would not just consist of the usual President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. Their “Ex Com” also included a Social Chair, an Education Chair, and an Outreach Chair, all of whom applied themselves to their respective projects over the year.2
ETVC didn’t just grow. It exploded, becoming the hub for other trans support groups throughout Northern California. ETVC boasted hundreds of members in its heyday then took a new name reflecting greater inclusiveness, Transgender San Francisco (TGSF). But changes came that impacted their mission: the rise of the Internet trans community and the rise of civil rights legislation in California. TGSF again needed to redefine its mission. In the process the educational and outreach programs declined and the annual program that drew media attention, a beauty pageant called The Cotillion, exacted a crushing overhead. Eventually TGSF became “a shadow of its former self,” eventually having to reorganize with new leadership. TGSF still uses the same “Ex Com” structure today and is in position for a rebound during a period of tightening of anti-trans political action.3
In the Philadelphia area a different model of organization built in 2 cooperative directions: that of Creative Design Services (CDS) and Renaissance. Joann Roberts and Angela Gardner worked together beginning in 1987 to build one of the most remarkable networks for the trans community ever known. They built their network through LadyLike, a magazine published by CDS for the United States and Canada. The magazine did 4 things pertaining to education and outreach:
- It liberally published information for correspondence including a forwarding code to assure confidentiality.
- It promoted support groups in the United States and Canada including but not restricted to Renaissance.
- It promoted conferences over the course of the year and sponsored Paradise in the Poconos.
- It promoted the online support group Transgender Forum in 1996, partnering with Jamie Faye Fenton and Cindy Martin of TGSF.
After 2006 when Joann Roberts took full control of Transgender Forum as “TG Forum” Joann turned her attention homeward and toward her cancer treatment till her death in 2013.4 LadyLike ceased publication. Without the same level of leadership and cooperation and because new leaders elsewhere formed the cutting edge of trans activism, TG Forum’s influence declined but still operates under the leadership of Angela Gardner.
In light of these examples, is leadership essential? Absolutely. But many support groups have leaders that have not put the emphasis in education and outreach that made TGSF and Renaissance/CDS Publications the powerhouses they became.
Today the need for leaders to emphasize education and outreach, seeking more creative avenues for these principles is direr than ever. In recent decades, the rise of Internet has resulted in immense communication among transpeople who otherwise would have been severely isolated. Face it. Internet has been a huge boon to the trans community. Much of the trans community is now in fact an online community. But that could change more easily than we think. Consider this quote from Forbes in December 2016:
“If Trump decides to build a great firewall, he may not need Congress. Section 606 of the Communications Act of 1934 provides emergency powers to seize control of communications facilities if the president declares there is a “war or threat of war” or “a state of public peril.” In 2010, a Senate report concluded that section 606 “gives the President the authority to take over wire communications in the United States and, if the President so chooses, shut a network down.” With a stroke of a pen, Trump could invoke it.”5
Consider also what happened in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate. In 2015 the military government shut down Internet providers. The precipitous drop in communications blocked the prospects of the kind of organizing that brought about the Arab Spring in the first place. Dissent was forced into localized activity. Similar results could be expected if the federal government shuts down the American Internet.6
Such an action, for whatever cause, could easily force trans activities away from the global and back toward the local. Support groups can no longer reel people in by throwing up a website or a chat room. For that matter, it wouldn’t have to take a presidential declaration of a state of public peril. We can easily cite the recent actions by YouTube in which transgender videos pertaining to civil rights were suddenly designated as “inappropriate”, very likely bowing to pressure from the dominionist Evangelical Alliance to prevent their “precious godly children” from being infected with other views in which “abominable” transpeople exist or that such have ever been oppressed.7
Without the power of Internet, which has been taken for granted by a generation, the local support group must stand ready to interact with those in need. Without education and outreach, a local group cannot build a full spectrum of support.
Any new group must decide early on to define education and outreach in its mission statement after they become acquainted and commit to operating as a support group. If a group already exists, it needs to consider redefining itself through a new mission statement recognizing education and outreach as objectives. Mission statements can take weeks, even months to hammer together. The more members there are to contribute to it and the greater their diversity, the longer a mission statement takes to form. But the mission statement can be likened to the cornerstone of a building or the source code for an operating system. Any group must approach its mission statement with care.
Once a mission becomes established, a group determines positions of responsibility to execute its mission. If a group intends at some time to become a non-profit corporation, they may do well to designate a president, secretary, and treasurer consistent with a state’s requirements for its Department of Corporations. A group may name them differently. A president could be a chairperson, chancellor, or even the Great Poo Bah. All that matters in this case is that the names of offices correlate to state equivalents. Other positions could be named and described as the members agree.
These are the first things to do to draw and effect a constitution and bylaws, acceptance of which must come from member’s votes. If education and outreach find a place in the mission statement, the constitution will direct how education and outreach may be executed over the life of that organization. Actions by the group to that end will be defined for years, even generations. They become principles greater than a flash in the pan.
These are principles this writer urges upon the aforementioned support group or any support group. Education and outreach will contribute much in the overall balance and health of a support group. The balance also removes the blinders endemic to many groups whose introspection has not been balanced by reaching beyond and expanding its members’ vision. Education and outreach will offer even more: a continued future in growth and development, even in perilous times.
- For California: (n.a.) Transgender Support Groups in California (n.d.) Web: Psychology Today: https://groups.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_results.php?state=CA&spec=187 . Retrieved March 20, 2017. Similar pages exist for other states and localities.
- (n.a.) History (n.d.) Website: Transgender San Francisco: http://tgsf.org/history/. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
- Facts personally known by the writer as a former member and from contact with other past members.
- Gardner, Angela. TGF Founder JoAnn Roberts has passed away (June 13, 2003) Web: TG Forum: http://www.tgforum.com/wordpress/index.php/tgf-founder-joann-roberts-has-passed-away/. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
- Lawson, Sean. The Law That Could Allow Trump To Shut Down The US Internet (December 2, 2016) Web: Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/seanlawson/2016/12/02/the-law-that-could-allow-trump-to-shut-down-the-u-s-internet/#2a16623f4dac . Retrieved March 20, 2017.
- Richtel, Matt. Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service (January 28, 2011) Web: New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/29/technology/internet/29cutoff.html . Retrieved March 20, 2017.
- Elizabeth, De. YouTube Blocks LGBTQ Videos Under Restricted Mode (March 19, 2017) Web: Teen Vogue: http://www.teenvogue.com/story/youtube-blocks-lgbtq-videos-restricted-mode . Retrieved March 20, 2017.