‘We deserve to be here’: Advocates urge lawmakers to protect transgender rights

By: - January 5, 2023 4:37 am
lgbt

Susan J. Demas

When Rachel Crandall-Crocker came out as transgender in 1997, she did so to live. 

“I came out because I had to,” said Crandall-Crocker, the executive director and co-founder of Transgender Michigan, a group that works to empower transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals and communities throughout the state. “My therapist told me if I didn’t come out, I was going to end up killing myself. That was not an option I wanted. I came out because I did not want to be dead.”

Decades later, Crandall-Crocker has been leading the charge for transgender rights in Michigan and, as the founder of the International Transgender Day of Visibility, around the globe. 

Transgender Michigan Executive Director and Co-Founder Rachel Crandall-Crocker | Courtesy photo

This past year, she and others at her organization — which was co-founded by her now-wife, Susan Crocker, and has grown to have offices across Michigan — have been spending their days combating a record number of anti-transgender bills introduced and passed by right-wing lawmakers nationwide, including attempts by Michigan Republicans to lock parents up for providing gender-affirming care for their children and ban transgender women from high school sports. Hearings were never held on the Michigan bills, and lawmakers did not vote on them.

This onslaught of anti-transgender legislation coincided with what the Human Rights Campaign called “an epidemic of violence” against transgender and gender-nonconforming people in 2022. Additionally, right-wing politicians have throughout the year launched attacks on transgender and gay rights across the state and country, including Michigan lawmakers equating LGBTQ+ people with pedophiles and high-profile Republican candidates, such as gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, verbally attacking transgender youth and their families during their campaigns.

“Right now we’re fighting all this garbage that people are trying to pass; that’s a full-time job,” Crandall-Crocker said. “Michigan’s blessed to have Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer, [Secretary of State Jocelyn] Benson and [Michigan Attorney General Dana] Nessel. We are blessed to finally have the legislature back. There’s a lot of positive happening in Michigan right now. It wasn’t like that when Transgender Michigan started. I remember Gov. [John] Engler — oy vey.”

Whitmer, Benson and Nessel — the first person and only LGBTQ+ person to be elected to a top statewide position in Michigan — have all been staunch advocates of transgender and gay rights. With the three Democratic women leading Michigan and Democrats at the helm of the state Senate and House, Crandall-Crocker and other advocates are hopeful that Michigan will become a haven for transgender and gender non-conforming people — and a model for the rest of the country, and world, when it comes to transgender rights

“I’m hoping that people don’t have to think twice before applying for a job as their true self,” said Crandall-Crocker, who was fired from her job as a psychotherapist at a hospital when she transitioned in 1997. “I am hoping that we will have equality.” 

Achieving that equality largely centers around lawmakers codifying protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in state law, Crandall-Crocker said. The state Supreme Court ruled in July that Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and Democratic lawmakers have pushed to codify that into law. In 2021, state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) introduced Senate Bill 208 and Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) sponsored House Bill 4297 to include LGBTQ+ protections in the ELCRA. While both bills had Republican sponsors, they stalled in committee under the Republican-led legislature.

“Elliott-Larsen needs to happen,” Crandall-Crocker said. “We’ve been working on that a long time. Now that the Democrats have the legislature, I think we’re going to do it. That would be a huge achievement.”

Sen. Jeremy Moss and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Affirmations in Ferndale, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

Moss previously told the Advance that amending the ELCRA to codify protections for sexual orientation and gender identity is at the top of state Democrats’ agenda.

New state Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing), Michigan’s first openly nonbinary lawmaker and one of the first openly bisexual legislators, said Democrats have a historic opportunity to push for the rights of LGBTQ+ people — as well as the rights of other communities who have been historically, and currently, marginalized, such as gender-nonconforming people and Black and Brown individuals.

“The Democratic Party has decades of damage to undo and progress to make, and that is both hard work and a beautiful thing,” Dievendorf, the former head of Equality Michigan, wrote in an email to the Advance. “… We cannot waste the power of the majority when we have this opportunity to address inequities and suffering that have built up over time. Issues related to our trans, gender-nonconforming, Black and Brown communities and so many other communities impacted by discrimination cannot be tabled until later. They show up as discrimination in healthcare access, foster care and adoption, employment, housing, property, our justice systems, our schools, and whether we can expect safety in public and within institutions.”

The discrimination Dievendorf cited translates in part to transgender youth being especially at risk of experiencing homelessness and being estranged from a parent or guardian, according to a 2022 analysis from University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative.

In 2019, 5.6% of Michigan high school youth reported being homeless in the last month, the analysis found. That percentage represents approximately 22,444 teens. About 26% of transgender youth reported being homeless or at risk for homelessness, compared to 11% of their peers who are not LGBTQ.

Of particular note, 9% of transgender high school youth reported experiencing homelessness unaccompanied by a parent or guardian — a rate more than four times that of youth who did not identify as LGBTQ (2%),” the analysis stated.

I came out because I had to. My therapist told me if I didn’t come out, I was going to end up killing myself. That was not an option I wanted. I came out because I did not want to be dead.

– Transgender Michigan Executive Director and Co-Founder Rachel Crandall-Crocker

For trans advocates, a flood of relief following Whitmer’s reelection

As transgender Michiganders faced homelessness, unemployment and being at risk for suicide at far higher rates than the rest of the population because of discrimination, they have simultaneously been attacked by Republican lawmakers — including those running for governor in Michigan. 

Transphobic attacks dominated much of the GOP gubernatorial race in the state, with, for example, Dixon saying there’s “definitely a war on women going on right now” and labeling the term “menstruating person” as “gross.”

“If somebody calls me a menstruating person — gross,” Dixon said at a debate held just before the GOP gubernatorial primary in August. “It’s like the last thing I ever want to be called; why did that term come up? I mean, disgusting. Let’s never have that. 

“This war on moms is really disturbing to me,” Dixon continued. “Birthing parent? Motherhood is hard, and we want credit for it. We’ve fought for women’s rights. We’ve fought to be moms, and we’re not ready to give that up.”

A term like “birthing parent” is used because women are not the only ones who can become pregnant, despite Republicans’ objections otherwise. Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, said, “If we’re talking about pregnant people,’ that language says to people — to transgender men and to nonbinary people — ‘We see you.’

“It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination,” Melling said.

Now, Republicans — who in November’s midterm election lost elections for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, as well as their longtime hold on the state Senate and House — must answer for their bigoted language that directly correlates with violence against transgender people, advocates said.

“Every time anti-trans rhetoric is thrown around, whether in clearly hostile ways or as nonchalant humor that treats trans and gender-nonconforming folx as the punchline, we are dehumanized and it is easier for harm to be done to us with minimal consequence,” Dievendorf wrote. “Anti-trans rhetoric is a desensitizing tactic, as is all hate speech, and it works.

“Hate speech creates tangible harm that leads to violence against our most vulnerable communities and violence is perpetuated when aspiring allies brush the rhetoric off as simply ridiculous or respond with silence,” Dievendorf continued.

The newly elected Democrat noted that change around gender and sexual identity is inevitable — and deeply welcome, especially for LGBTQ+ individuals who have faced a lifetime of bigotry and hatred solely for existing.

Getty Images

“Change is scary for a lot of folx, and we know that younger generations make up a much larger percentage of our LGBTQIA+ folx than previous generations,” Dievendorf wrote. “This is a wonderful shift! Our kids want to be authentic and loved as they are. More of them identify as nonbinary.”

As a bisexual and nonbinary lawmaker, Dievendorf said it will be exciting “for my colleagues and the state to learn that LGBTQIA+ folx are merely being ourselves without others telling us what that means.

“I’m nonbinary because I just am,” Dievendorf wrote. “To me, it isn’t complicated, and it certainly isn’t something to hate me for.”

But, advocates said, that hate exists — and it’s something everyone, especially those who are straight, cisgender allies with multiple layers of privilege must fight against. Dievendorf, for example, said people routinely send emails “telling me to harm myself, among other things.”

“I will not give up because I have seen too much as an LGBTQIA+ advocate, and we as queer folx and all marginalized people deserve to be here,” Dievendorf said. “I am sticking around this life and the legislature because LGBTQIA+ youth should know that our lives are valuable just because we are. We are the future, a future that is groundbreaking and beautiful and full of love. That’s not so scary.”

Had Dixon won, Crandall-Crocker said she imagines the state transforming into a political landscape akin to Florida — where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has relentlessly attacked transgender children and their families. In November, Florida effectively banned medications and surgery for adolescent patients seeking gender transitions. The state’s medical board voted to do so following the urging of DeSantis.

“We have to vote out governors like DeSantis,” Crandall-Crocker said. “A real threat is DeSantis wants to be president. And he’s leading [former Republican President Donald] Trump. He wants to make every state a ‘don’t say gay’ state. He’s one of our biggest threats.”

That refers to DeSantis signing a bill this past March that bans Florida teachers from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity. Dixon said during her campaign that she would sign legislation based on Florida’s law if she won.

“If we elected Tudor Dixon, Michigan would already be on its way to being another Florida,” Crandall-Crocker said.

Jamie Ashby, who was recently named Miss Trans Michigan and will compete in the Mr. and Miss Trans USA competition in Milwaukee in September, said she was “super excited that we have Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for a second term.

“She’s an amazing leader for our LGBT community, and for the state of Michigan as a whole,” Ashby said. “What I love about our governor is she shows up to our LGBT events, and she really advocates for us. I’m hoping our Legislature will follow behind her and have an open heart.”

‘There was a lot of loneliness’ 

As Michigan’s gender landscape shifts, advocates said it can be emotionally overwhelming to see the change that has come to the state — though they noted there is a long way to go before transgender individuals are safe to do what so many others do without question: live.

Jamie Ashby | Courtesy photo

The fact that, for example, Michigan has gone from a place where Crandall-Crocker was fired from her job as a psychotherapist at a hospital to a space where Ashby, 38, can be an openly trans woman at her job in human resources is emblematic of the kind of progress that radically transforms people’s lives, advocates said. Still, Ashby noted it’s important to point out that transgender individuals still face far higher unemployment rates than their cisgender peers. 

“I think employers have come a long way when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” she said. “Trans awareness is more discussed. It’s becoming a little more mainstream and acceptable. Employers are getting training [about transgender issues]. There’s still so much work to be done. There’s progression, but employers can still discriminate and not bring you on board because you appear to be trans.”

In each of their lives, Crandall-Crocker and Ashby have welcomed the progress they’ve seen — though they noted that progress has come as they have fought to breathe in a world that has often been determined to leave them gasping for air.

“When I came out, I lost all my friends; I lost an awful lot of my relatives,” said Crandall-Crocker, who was living in Lansing when she transitioned and now resides with her wife in Marshall. “I could not find a job after I was fired. Today, there are job openings that want a trans therapist. Twenty-five years ago, it was so different.”

To survive in the immediate aftermath of being fired, she “found the cheapest one-bedroom apartment in Lansing and slept on the couch.” 

“I ate an awful lot of ramen noodles,” Crandall-Crocker said. “They were 12 for $1 at Meijer’s.”

Within weeks of being fired from her job at the hospital, Crandall-Crocker and Susan Crocker — now her wife and, at that time, a friend who she knew through what was known as a cross-dressing group in Detroit — launched Transgender Michigan.

“I got the idea [for Transgender Michigan] and called up Sue, who was also coming out and was only a friend then, and I blabbed on and on for around an hour,” Crandall-Crocker said. “At the end of an hour I said, ‘Are you in?’ She said yes.”

In 1997, “there wasn’t anything in our state” for transgender people, Crandall-Crocker said. 

“We formed our organization to change that, to make Michigan a more friendly — and a lot less lonely — state to live,” she said.

“It was really every person for themselves,” Crandall-Crocker continued. “There was a lot of loneliness and an awful lot of suicides. Back then, it was really rare for a youth to come out, and the average age to come out was in the mid-30s. Now, there are youths coming out all over the place. It wasn’t that way at all when we started.”

Being a transgender youth still means encountering bigotry, Crandall-Crocker and Ashby emphasized. Both individuals provide advocacy and services for transgender youth in their respective positions, and, as Miss Trans Michigan, Ashby recently partnered with AYA (As You Are) Grand Rapids, a group that provides housing and other services, like showers and meals, for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness. 

“I volunteer there; it’s super special to me,” said Ashby, who lives in Lansing. “When I was younger, I faced homelessness right here in Lansing. It was a different time when there wasn’t a safe space for trans individuals to go. I could sleep at City Mission [a Lansing homeless shelter], but, as a young trans individual, it was quite scary to do that.”

When I came out, I lost all my friends; I lost an awful lot of my relatives. I could not find a job after I was fired. Today, there are job openings that want a trans therapist. Twenty-five years ago, it was so different.

– Transgender Michigan Executive Director and Co-Founder Rachel Crandall-Crocker

With her new title of Miss Trans Michigan — part of the Mr. and Miss Trans USA program that is less about being a pageant and more centered around transgender advocacy — Ashby is focusing on educating a wide variety of groups about transgender rights. From corporate settings to schools, she has spoken on a wide range of transgender issues. 

Ashby is especially passionate about police reform in the wake of soaring rates of anti-trans violence in recent years. The Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality reported that 26% of respondents to its National Transgender Discrimination Survey were physically assaulted on at least one occasion because of anti-trans bias. Transgender people of color and transgender women are disproportionately affected, with nearly three out of four fatal anti-LGBT hate crimes committed against them, the organization reported.

While there is this epidemic of violence, transgender people often do not feel as though they can turn to police for help. Half of the transgender people who responded to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey said they are uncomfortable seeking police assistance, and 22% of respondents who had interacted with police reported police harassment. Six percent reported bias-motivated assaults by officers. Black transgender people reported far higher rates of harassment and assault — 38% and 15% respectively. 

“I think about all the trans women and men and nonbinary people who have been senselessly murdered, and the greater percentage of them is people of color,” Ashby said. “There’s not always justice for them, and I think having a safe space in our communities is paramount, and it starts with law enforcement.”

Ashby said she hopes there’s increased police training around working with transgender people and that police will be intentional about attending LGBTQ+ events, like Pride parades.

“Make us feel like we’re safe with you,” Ashby said.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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