I arrived at the Leeway Foundation office in Center City Philadelphia in the summer of 2016 at 24, a South Asian trans-identified scholar-in-training looking for a site to conduct my dissertation research.
At that point, all I had were research questions about how organizations, specifically foundations and philanthropic entities, support and fund trans and gender-nonconforming people. In every other workspace environment I had ever been in, I served as the de facto brown trans spokesperson amongst coworkers who were predominantly white and cisgender—that is, those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
At the Leeway Foundation, a funder that supports women and trans artists, I no longer had to remind people of my pronouns (they/them at the time) or speak up for the needs of trans and gender-nonconforming communities. People always used the proper pronouns there, respected how I decided to show up every day and regarded this respect as a baseline of behavior for all employees.
From a personal perspective, it was a uniquely wonderful experience.
Professionally, my project was to create what were called “trans inclusion documents,” a resource guide for the foundation’s panelists to use before making decisions about Leeway grants. My role was to integrate ideas from many authors and perspectives into something that panelists, who themselves came from different backgrounds and experiences, could grasp, and eventually create a kind of operating manual for organizations about how to work with and support trans and non-gender conforming people.
In a cisgender-defined world, there are few supports for trans and gender-nonconforming people, let alone thoughtful recommendations that can help organizations make meaningful strides toward not just acceptance but affirmation.
This set of guidelines, called TRANSforming Inclusion, encourages institutions to move beyond institutionally-mandated gestures of “inclusion” or “diversity” – i.e., pronouns in an email signature and gender-neutral restrooms in the office – and think about what it means to truly recognize and make space for trans and gender-nonconforming people in organizational staffing, programming, and outreach. It requires remodeling over-saturated conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion and asking not just “how can we be more diverse?” but reconsidering organizational missions, visions, and goals and, along the way, interrogating the underlying gendered (and relatedly, racialized, classed, and ableist) thinking that informs our organizational efforts.
It makes sense that this work was taking place in Philadelphia, a city which has embraced trans and gender-nonconforming communities for years. Notably, the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference will host its 17th annual event in 2019. But Philly, like all places, still has a great deal of work to do: Trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, particularly black transgender women, continue to face high rates of violence and are more likely to face poverty or homelessness and lack healthcare.
There are approximately 1,500 arts and culture non-profit organizations in Philadelphia. Arts and culture is a powerful force in the city, with an economic impact of $4.1 billion each year. This is an opportunity for decision-makers, arts and culture organizations and the people who support them to reconsider their own biases and assumptions.
This resource guide will not single-handedly fix such disparities. My time at Leeway taught me that embracing and affirming people necessarily means engaging in messy and complicated processes. As Denise Brown, Leeway’s executive director reminds us, “someone had to get out of a chair for me to be where I am.”
TRANSforming Inclusion is just one attempt to describe and guide us through the journey of affirmation and inclusion of those most marginalized. My hope is that TRANSforming Inclusion will provide a roadmap for many other organizations in the city and region. I look forward to continuing the dialogue about what it might take to affirm trans and gender-nonconforming communities, in all of their diversity and beauty—in Philadelphia and beyond.
V Varun Chaudhry, a scholar-in-residence at the Leeway Foundation, is an Anthropology PhD Candidate at Northwestern University and a predoctoral fellow in the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon.
The Leeway Foundation is hosting a TRANSforming Inclusion panel discussion on November 8, at 3 p.m. in the Skyline Room at the Parkway Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Read the full op-ed on the Philadelphia Inquirer's website.