Transgender Community Comes Together To Organize And Plan For The Future

By Paulette Niemiec

LANSING - More than 70 people filled the AFL-CIO of Michigan on Saturday for the first ever Transgender Grant & Planning Summit. Transgender leaders Allison VanKuiken and Jay Maddock organized, produced, sponsored and facilitated the first time workshop. The event was sponsored by the Unity Michigan Coalition, which includes the ACLU of Michigan, Affirmations, Equality Michigan, the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, Kick, the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, and the Ruth Ellis Center.

The summit focused on providing those who are transgender a chance to create proposals for grant funding and discuss issues relevant to those who identify as gender non-conformists.

For more than three decades, the lesbian and gay community has been organized, held rallies, raised funds, campaigned for equal rights and raised a lot of eyebrows along the way. There have been gay pride marches across the country, several attempts to legalize same-sex marriage, city ordinances passed for equal rights and a list of things which have brought the movement into the mainstream of American consciousness. Organizations like Unity Michigan, Equality Michigan, among others, have long been the voice for the LGBT community, but often, as by their own admission, have forgotten or neglected the "T" in LGBT.

VanKuiken, an activist in the trans community for several years, had wanted to organize something like this for a long time. "I pitched the idea to Unity (Michigan), they voted on it, they agreed to it and assigned me the task of getting people there. So I did," she explained. "We had a team of people with Unity to make it a success." Maddock and his assistants comprised much of that team.

This workshop was sponsored by Unity Michigan and facilitated by Maddock, a transman who works for the organization. He stressed throughout the seven hour education program the importance of being included when it comes to legal issues and of how change must come from within the transgender community. Maddock repeatedly emphasized the importance of working with lesbians and gays, to be more visible in the community at large and to have a voice when it comes to legal and protection issues.

Maddock gave the specific example of the law commonly known as "ELCRA," the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which does not include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. "We don't support any legislation that doesn't include both sexual orientation and gender identity," Maddock explained. "We need to educate, mobilize and empower the masses to fight for our rights to freedom from discrimination in this state!"

Maddock proposed that transgender folks get involved in the community in which they live. "We need to have civil engagement, we need to tell our stories to politicians, we need to talk to others about the laws, get out and vote, attend local city council meetings. We need to do all these things that have been suggested by you people here today," Maddock told the energized crowd participating in the discussion.

In the morning, the workshop focused much of its attention on the idea of writing proposals for a grant sponsored by Unity Michigan. The coalition is offering $10,000 to to the transgender community to partner on projects that educate on the need for nondiscrimination protections. This education includes the importance of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and other efforts which protect sexual orientation and gender identity.

Six proposals were created and voted on by the group, three of which will be presented to Unity of Michigan for consideration this Friday. All the proposals were well organized and were based on ideas presented by all those in attendance, with the finished proposals put to a group-wide vote.

The afternoon session was less serious, but no less important, as teams presented issues which are specific to the transgender community. It was agreed that the trans-community faces several difficult issues every day, including housing, unemployment, under-employment, living in or at poverty level, legal battles, social integration and several special interest issues revolving around the military and veterans. Presentations on all these problems, along with possible solutions, were given during the last two hours of the workshop.

As the workshop came to a close, Maddock thanked the crowd who responded with a rousing ovation. "I think this was an excellent day and an important start of new things for us who are transgender," Maddock exclaimed.

VanKuiken, who spent weeks organizing the event, agreed. "I think Jay did a great job," she said, explaining how proud she was of the trans community. "I am so pleased to see that something like this can be organized by trans people. We had four goals we wanted to achieve. We wanted to get as many trans activists together in one place at one time as we possibly could, and considering the fact that we had over 70 people, showed we met that goal. We wanted to work together on issues that are important. We did that. We wanted to write a proposal to get a grant for money to fund what we want; we did that. We wanted to discuss trans issues and come up with possible solutions, and we accomplished that as well. I'm so proud of everything we accomplished."

The questions at the end of the day were: What Now? What's next for this highly energized group of new transgender activists determined to have their voices heard? "The next step is for the people to write the grant proposals. There's excitement with this now. We have to stay together and create visibility for the trans community," said VanKuiken.

For more on the Unity Michigan Coalition, visit http://www.unitymichigan.org. More information on the ACLU Lansing branch can be found at http://www.aclumich.org/lansing.
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