Leaving Trans Organizers in the Dust
Emily Augusta began her transition in September 2012. Underemployed and without healthcare, she started taking illegal hormones she purchased on the street. She had moved to DC from Connecticut in the height of the Occupy movement, where she had gotten involved with the DC encampment’s labor committee. Augusta came from a poor, working class family in Connecticut, where she lost her mother at a young age. By the time she was 20, she was working full time to support herself. “I remember working in this sweatshop in Seymour, Connecticut,” she said. “It was so hot in some areas that the boss had a nail behind the thermometer so that the needle never moved past 120 degrees even though it got way hotter than 120 degrees.”
Shortly after she began her transition, she became involved with a coalition of labor groups working to rebuild the labor movement. Augusta was contracted to salt – which is when a worker joins a workplace with the intent of organizing it – at a corporate bakery. When she was hired at the bakery, she informed her bosses that she was transitioning and requested they use her proper pronouns. These requests were swiftly denied and she received constant harassment at her work. Her transition remained a secret to her fellow organizers and friends.
“The lead organizer I was working under had a kind of ‘whatever it takes’ mentality [when it came to organizing],” Augusta said. “Since that was really early on in my transition, I was dressing more masculine. I was forced to uphold these masculine roles.” Augusta was encouraged to question workers’ masculinity if they didn’t sign on with the union and to pursue workers very aggressively. The intense hyper-masculinity that her organizer pushed her into triggered an intense bout of gender dysphoria. Ultimately, she decided to put a pause on her transition and stopped taking hormones for several months.
In May 2013, Augusta’s organization held its first strike. In the aftermath of the strike, the entire organization went on a week-long vacation, leaving Augusta, still a salt, to pick up the pieces. “We had a couple workers that were detained by DHS [Department of Homeland Security],” she said. “One worker almost got deported.”
After the break, Augusta was transferred to a different turf and was assigned a new lead organizer who was incredibly queer-friendly. “She probably was one of the most important people that I ever met,” Augusta said. “She really encouraged me to start back on the transition.” Under her new organizer’s encouragement, Augusta resumed her transitioning, this time on a doctor-prescribed hormone regimen. Despite her lead organizer’s support, the organization itself was not willing to welcome Augusta’s identity.
In July 2013, Augusta was promoted to a salaried organizer. “It took 8 months before they started using preferred gender pronouns,” Augusta recalled. “For the longest time my boss would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey brother, how’s the revolution going?’”
It put Augusta in an uncomfortable, precarious place. On the one hand, the organization provided her with a badly-needed paycheck to fund her transition. On the other, it fought against her at every turn. “I started thinking maybe I wanted to leave,” she said. “I spent a good six months going back and forth about it.”
In late February 2014, the DC municipal government mandated that health insurance providers within the district had to provide funds for transgender residents. Augusta, excited at the prospect of having her transition covered, sent her employers an email asking if she was covered under the new mandate. Her organization responded by CC’ing their lawyer and informing her that they were not required to under the mandate. “It was a very aggressive email,” she said. “When I got that email, that was when I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Still, Augusta suspected – despite the trouble she had caused – that the only reason she was kept on as an organizer was thanks to her identity. She was one of the only, if not the only trans person within her organization. She was only as useful as her ability to be a token minority. Ultimately, Augusta saw her organization as a tool to use workers to pass legislation and not a way to empower workers themselves. The organization’s disregard for their own workers mirrors their disregard for Augusta’s own identity within the workplace.
Augusta is not alone in this. The pressure for results can often leave trans organizers in the dust. Sam Acker was first introduced to the labor movement through the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) chapter within their college. They were involved with USAS for a couple of years and during this time they constantly saw their needs and the needs of other trans and genderqueer people being pushed aside to work on “larger issues.” At the last conference Acker attended, a small regional summer conference hosted in a large union’s building, gender-neutral bathrooms were not initially provided. They approached the organizer, asking that the problem be corrected. Eventually, she agreed to put up a sign over the existing bathrooms, denoting them as gender neutral. The building management, however, had a problem with this and made organizers take the signs down. Someone from the union was attending the conference and Acker approached him.
Acker told him, “Look, I’m having a problem with your building. You’re not letting us create a gender neutral bathroom. This is really important for me for my mental and physical well-being.” The union and the conference organizers were mad at Acker’s challenge and reprimanded them. “That was a big trust breaker for me,” Acker said. “That was the last thing I ever did with USAS. I ended up walking out of the conference and I just went home.”
Though USAS has structures specifically for the inclusion of trans and genderqueer people at their larger conferences, this did not trickle down to Acker’s experience. Acker was not specifically excluded from the conference. They admitted that the conference organizer “was trying to find a solution that would work, but she was not doing it as a very high priority in terms of everything else she was organizing.” That seems to be a common theme with labor organizations. It isn’t that they are a trans-exclusive space – simply that they are not trans-inclusive. Acker went on to salt in a restaurant. While their lead organizer has proven to take their gendered concerns very seriously, after two years of working with the union, the president of Acker’s union still misgenders them.
The contrast of this experience with trans and genderqueer people’s experiences within other leftist organizations is stark. Cayden Mak worked for a teaching local at SUNY Buffalo during their time as a student there. Mak found that while they were tolerated – there were no spaces intentionally carved out for them. This same theme is found again and again. Trans and genderqueer people are never explicitly denied access to structures within the labor movement. Rather, they are implicitly excluded through things like lack of gender-neutral bathrooms and a lack of effort to learn correct gender pronouns. That can often be the reason why trans and genderqueer people who do find themselves in the movement don’t stay very long.
Mak noted that “I think it is not as though it is [always] necessarily bad environment to work somewhere where people are tolerant; but it is a whole other ball game to work somewhere where people are beyond accepting of your identity and your life experience.”
The refusal on the behalf of larger unions to accept trans and genderqueer identities is indicative of a larger trend that puts single-minded results over the workers that they actually organize. A movement that ignores trans and genderqueer identities is a movement that ignores an important portion of its workforce. A labor movement that not only tolerates but embraces the identity of its trans and genderqueer organizers and workers is a movement that better understands the people it works with. “People in my community experience high jobless rates, high poverty rates, high management employee abuse,” August noted. And that’s just it. A movement that focused on including and listening to the stories of its trans and genderqueer organizers is a more complete and sustainable movement, one that can not only tolerate but accept and organize for its most vulnerable workers.