One of NCTE’s founding board members reflects on the last 15 years of trans equality — and offers thoughts on the next 15.
by Jay Wu
Stephen’s reflections are part of NCTE’s 15th anniversary celebrations. Celebrate with us in person by joining us in Washington, D.C. for the Trans Equality Now Awards on May 17!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the basics: tell me a little about yourself! Who are you, where do you live, and what do you do?
I’m just about to finish up a nine-month stint at the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia, which is one of the largest LGBT health centers in the country.
Before that, I had a long career. I worked in architecture for about 25 years, but that entire time, I really had a second LGBT rights and human rights career. I was fortunate to have been asked to lead a coalition to pass sexual orientation-inclusive nondiscrimination laws in Baltimore, which were finally passed in 1986.
When I bought a second home near Gettysburg, PA, I spent more time there and got more involved in Pennsylvania politics. In 1996, I was asked to chair the Pennsylvania Statewide Rights Coalition. We worked extremely hard and passed the first hate crimes law in the U.S. that included gender identity or expression as well as sexual orientation.
Pretty immediately after that, in 2001, Gov. Rendell was elected and I was appointed to be the first openly gay state official in Pennsylvania.
This was when trans rights were very nascent and not on most people’s radar screens. I first met Mara during the passage of the statewide hate crimes law. Mara and I became very close friends very quickly, and she was an integral partner in getting this legislation passed. When it passed at the end of 2001, Mara started thinking about her career.
Mara and I would go on long drives across the state, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Out of many of these talks emerged NCTE.
She decided to really strike out and do something for the national trans rights movement. She and I started talking about what this might look like. We would go on long drives across the state, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and we’d have five hours each way to talk about this. Out of many of these talks, and I’m sure talks with other people, emerged NCTE.
I was, among several others, a founding board member, which I was very honored and proud to do. I served on the board for seven years and then went off the board and onto other things.
Can you tell me an especially good or vivid memory you have from your time working with NCTE?
The early days were incredibly challenging. The early 2000s saw a host of statewide constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage. We were very much under assault.
We were working person by person, trying to corral people and get them on board to understand the importance of supporting NCTE’s work and mission. It was really groundbreaking, what Mara was doing with a very, very small support staff. The board was very committed, but it was — like many founding boards — focused on activism and not necessarily on as much fundraising (although I do remember hosting a number of fundraisers).
That’s my strongest memory of back then — that local legislation was the most positive thing we were doing.
The thing that strikes me about those early years is that we were very much on the defensive. We were doing a tremendous amount of education. The advances we were making were primarily in local policy and legislation. So we were pushing hard to get cities across the country to pass inclusive nondiscrimination laws.
It certainly felt like we were constantly on the defensive under George W. Bush, but really even under Bill Clinton. We had to tolerate DOMA, we had to tolerate Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And it was much more about the LG and much less about any understanding of the T.
So I think that’s my strongest memory of back then — that local legislation was the most positive thing we were doing, fighting all of the constitutional amendments and anti-LGBT legislation, fighting for trans visibility and recognition, and creating a greater understanding of what trans meant and didn’t mean.
When you talk about being on the defensive and fighting back against anti-LGBT proposals on the state and federal levels, it feels like we’re in a similar place now. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen between 15 years ago and now?
You’re correct, but the landscape and the political climate are so different now. We’ve achieved so many things in the 14 years prior to Trump’s election that our ability to fight back and deny the administration the ability to exclude us, marginalize us, render us invisible, deny us access — those things are much more successful for us.
We’re able to be much more successful because we now have extraordinarily important laws in place that have created a greater sense of equality — not full equality, obviously — but having the Windsor decision and the Obergefell decision, along with EEOC’s work in including gender identity and sexual orientation under the rubric of sex or gender in nondiscrimination laws — all those things have given us a base of success and legal standing which we never had before.
And if you remember, there were no iPhones until 2011. There was no social media in the first seven years of NCTE’s existence. Our ability to disseminate information and gather support, coordinate and cooperate with other organizations, do studies to debunk many preconceptions and mythologies about trans people — all of these things have created a much stronger environment in which we’re able to rally our supporters and beat back some of the really noxious and toxic attempts to deny us involvement, access, and inclusion.
What do you think the next 15 years will bring for NCTE?
The flippant answer is, I hope we’ve achieved everything and we’re out of business. But obviously, I don’t think that’s realistic.
I think once we witness how this Trump presidency dissolves and is reevaluated by the next generation, it will reveal a future that is really unknowable at the moment. We’re in such an unusual time that no one could have predicted, and it feels so alien.
While I’m always optimistic, there are these times in history when hateful forces have really been allowed to flourish from leadership that allows divisiveness and fear and ignorance to advance a political agenda that can be very difficult to turn around. So I think we’re going to go through some years of beating back very bad public policy that is perpetuated by extremely untalented, uncaring, biased individuals.
We’re going to have several years of turning this around before we see real progress, but our advances can go even more rapidly once we overcome the hurdles we’re experiencing.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It’s important to say that working with hundreds and hundreds of trans people in my life and career, learning from them, and becoming close friends with many of them has been one of the most influential experiences of my life. Trans people really changed my world in a very, very positive way.
I am perhaps one of the greatest admirers of the strength and courage that trans people consistently bring to our society in believing in themselves, in beating back extraordinary limitations, in exhibiting heroic courage.
Young trans people will fulfill their own dreams in ways no other generation has been able to do. And I think that is going to radically alter the world.
They really inspire people like me to stay in this movement and never give up, because the challenges that most trans people face are so extraordinary and so beyond what most people conceptualize that I stand in awe of my trans friends.
My hope for the future is extremely high when it comes to social justice and social policy. It’s just a bit constrained by the current political landscape.
But more and more organizations, I predict, are going to provide opportunities to young trans people to fulfill their own dreams in ways no other generation has been able to do. And I think that is going to radically alter the world for trans people and gender nonconforming people in ways that we can’t really begin to imagine.
Stephen Glassman is interim CEO of the Mazzoni Center, a multi-service, community-based, health and social service provider aiming to advance the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities.
Jay Wu is the Communications Manager at NCTE.