How do you put the best a national organization has to offer, in the service of local and regional leadership, to do the most for LGBTQ people in that place? What national collaborations impact what matters most to local advocates: the day-to-day lives of our communities? What can national organizations help provide that actually makes us safer, stronger, less alone, and more equipped in local and regional work?
We spent many late nights over the years, with many leaders in the movement, trying to figure this out. We were both directors of organizations then: Paulina and Caitlin of SONG, and Kris as Co-Director of The Audre Lorde Project with Collette Carter. We knew what we did not want: collaborations that undermined work on the ground, came in at the last minute to take credit for other people’s work, or groups which endlessly ‘trained’ our leaders but somehow never were nearby when we needed them. But we also challenged ourselves and each other to not only be critics, but to vision ways that we can be leaders taking risks and innovating new approaches.
So, in 2014, we started talking about the idea of TLC@SONG: a collaboration between the Transgender Law Center and Southerners On New Ground. The idea was to embed Transgender Law Center’s legal, policy, and trans-specific expertise inside of SONG’s well-respected southern base-building and organizing shop. It was a bold idea from the start because it begins with an open acknowledgement of both organizations’ strengths and gaps: SONG has a strong LGBTQ base in the South, but not a trans-specific focus nor a legal or policy arm. Transgender Law Center has a strong track record of policy and legal wins and is recognized as a national leader in trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) work, but does not have deep roots in the South.
After many months of exploration, we are finally ready to make the vision of TLC@SONG a reality.
Some will love it, some will hate it. So, why risk it? Because what is at stake matters too much. One-third of LGBTQ people in the entire country live in the South, and yet as recently as 2013, the South received less than 3% of LGBTQ funding nationally. Thousands of those LGBTQ people are trans or gender non-conforming. Thousands are also identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual and yet are dealing with daily gender-based violence, bias, and exclusion because they are not conforming to ‘gender norms’ (these members of our communities do not always identify as trans – especially in small towns and rural communities). Meanwhile, the ongoing epidemic of murders of black trans women and trans women of color, in particular, looms large in our consciousness and conscience. The slower forms of death plaguing so many other LGBTQ women and people (especially those who are poor and of color) also keep us awake at night. We have to ask ourselves if our vision and strategies center only ourselves and our closest circles, and if they also match and are worthy of the scale of the atrocities facing trans and GNC people.
There is already strong trans and GNC-led organizing happening in the South. That is for sure. Not all of it is in cities, but a good deal of it is. Our hope is that the TLC@SONG collaboration will be a step towards supporting trans leadership all over the South to win campaigns and protections that are so urgently needed. We also hope that it will continue to support and lift up leadership that is already doing great work in the South. Finally, we see this partnership as an opportunity to fight back against the cynicism that so many of us feel about national collaborations that have not worked and try a different way: To take the lessons of past failures and take a risk based on shared vision, strategy, practice-based experience, and the spirit of possibility. The South does not need trans and LGB leadership, it already has that. What it does need, we believe, is southern leadership that can responsibly draw resources into the region to secure tools and capacity we badly need, and national leadership that can partner responsibly with all of us to do just that.