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Let’s Recognize Trans Visibility in Rural Places, Too

/ Blog Post

By Dusty Weber LaMay, 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Lavender Rights Project

Photo of Dusty Weber Lamay
Photo of Dusty Weber Lamay

June is LGBTQ Pride month—a key opportunity to bring LGBTQ visibility and celebration into the public eye. As we recognize the long history of public policing, silencing, and harassment of LGBTQ folks while working to combat ongoing threats to our safety and rights, we make our way into the streets during Pride month to declare that we belong—and that we belong everywhere.

Images of Pride celebrations famously display concentrated populations of LGBTQ folks parading through dense city streets as hundreds (maybe even thousands!) of onlookers support from the sidelines—but where are the images of our proud and out rural queer and trans siblings? Too often, the narrative is that LGBTQ folks centers cities as the “safest” and “most LGBTQ friendly” spaces for our community members to live and celebrate Pride. Meanwhile, many LGBTQ folks are actually from and/or are currently living in rural areas, small towns, or predominantly rural states and regions, where these popular city-centric LGBTQ Pride celebrations can look and feel very different.

While Seattle hosts one of the largest Pride events in the U.S., Washington state is also home to numerous small town and rural area Pride celebrations hosted throughout June every year. Of course, many country folks travel hundreds of miles to attend larger city Pride events—but just as many stay home and celebrate in their own local rural communities. We must not allow city-centric ideas of LGBTQ “safe havens” to divert our funds, resources, and energies away from rural areas. This pattern is particularly true for trans populations. Growing up trans and queer in a mostly rural state, I was lucky to have local Pride celebrations; however, even with that kind of visibility on the ground, I still had to move away to secure transition-related services that were otherwise unavailable locally. In the 15 years since I left my rural hometown, during which I’ve lived in numerous rural areas and even a few cities across the country, it has remained increasingly evident to me that when it comes to transgender rights, location matters.

For a trans person, the location not only determines your rights and protections from discrimination, but also what processes are necessary to “prove” one’s gender (or gender change), and the availability of the services. Proposed bathroom bills, decentralized birth certificate regulations, and inconsistent discrimination protections across the country are all important examples of how location can drastically affect what rights a trans person has at home. Even in states with strong anti-discrimination protections, local bias in processes and services negatively impacts rural trans folks. Again, Washington serves as a great example: despite a strong state-wide trans-inclusive anti-discrimination law and a relatively low-barrier administrative process for changing one’s name and gender, rural trans folks have reported having a harder time convincing their local rural county judges to grant the court orders necessary to update their birth certificates or seal their name change orders. Despite Washington’s anti-discrimination laws, trans rural folks facing discrimination often cannot find local trans-informed legal help to pursue an appeal if they live outside of urban hubs like Seattle.

That’s where TARP comes in.

Influenced by these concerning realities, in addition to my own experiences as a trans person who has lived in many rural places, I developed Trans Advocacy in Rural Places (TARP)—a program at Lavender Rights Project which is supported by my Equal Justice Works Fellowship. TARP works to solve the burdens placed upon rural transgender people to meet their own legal needs. Through improving legal support services for civil rights, educating the public, and increasing trans community capacity to self-represent, we encourage resiliency among rural transgender, two-spirit, and gender diverse communities. Over the past eight months, the program has built a space for rural trans visibility and begun to lessen the gap that rural trans folks face when navigating legal processes. So far, the program has already trained staff members from nearly every courthouse in Washington state as well as hundreds of legal aid and volunteer lawyers from most counties across the state. The program has hosted community legal education events in six rural counties and provided direct advocacy assistance and court coaching to trans folks from 12 rural areas, with numerous events already scheduled for the upcoming year, and many more in the works!

The more I get out on the road for the program, the more often I see that trans people really are everywhere! Trans visibility must include recognition and access for those transgender people who don’t live in urban areas (and don’t want to!). Everywhere can and should be safe for transgender people, and trans people deserve to thrive everywhere, not just in big cities. Happy Pride—and Happy Country Pride to all the rural folks celebrating in their rural areas this month! We see you, and we’re here to support you just as much as our city-dwelling LGBTQ family and friends.

To learn more about Dusty and the Trans Advocacy in Rural Places program, visit his Fellow profile.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow