The Transgender Civil Rights Project: An Interview with Lisa Mottet of NGLTF

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #98, Summer 2002.

Shannon Minter, the Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, took time out of his busy day to interview Lisa Mottet, the Legislative Lawyer for the brand new Transgender Civil Rights Project, which she created with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Shannon and Lisa first met in early 1999 in Washington, D.C. Although Shannon didn?t know it at the time, Lisa immediately identified Shannon as someone from whom she could learn a lot. Three years later, Lisa consults regularly with Shannon about language of proposed bills and ordinances and developments in litigation. She works with him on a variety of collaborative projects relating to transgender civil rights issues.

Shannon: What are the Project?s aims?

Lisa: That?s easy! The goal of the Transgender Civil Rights Project is to increase the number of local, state, and federal anti- discrimination laws that protect transgender people from discrimination.

Shannon: What type of everyday work do you anticipate?

Lisa: Lots of discussions with state and local activists about political and legal strategies. Then, getting to work on writing good legislative language or talking points, whatever is needed by the activists on the front lines. Of course, we?ll continue our work at the federal legislative level.

Shannon: What made you interested in working for transgender rights? Why do you want to work in this area of the law?

Lisa: A couple of years into GLB activism, I became aware of trans issues, and since then I?ve tried to make sure that the organizations I?m involved with are inclusive. I was lucky to have gay and lesbian activist role models who were adamantly trans- inclusive, so it was really a no-brainer for me. In a way, it goes back to the old feminist saying, ?biology is not destiny.? I really believe we should all be able to conform or not conform to gender expectations, and being a bit of a gender non-conformist myself, I feel trans issues are my issues, too.

Later, through my work, I started to get to know many trans people in this movement...and, well, I just got to the point where T is not optional, it?s my priority. There?s so much work to be done, and so much progress that can be made. I couldn?t imaging working on anything else.

As I was finishing my law school career, I designed this project and applied for an Equal Justice Fellowship from the National Association for Public Interest Law, and now I have funding for two years. The NAPIL grant doesn?t cover all my expenses; however, NGLTF covers everything beyond my salary.

Shannon: What challenges to you anticipate?

Lisa: The ones trans people face generally?lack of understanding by mainstream society, and also by the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. However, this is starting to change and organizations are starting to fall into line by changing their mission statements. But there?s more to be done so the T becomes equally important to the GL&B in all the GLBT organizations.

I?m also glad television is starting to use some positive trans images. The media has such a huge influence on whether or not trans people are seen as the courageous humans they are, or as the ?freaks? the media has portrayed them to be in the past. Last season, I was so excited to see ?Gideon?s Crossing? and ?Popular? deal with trans issues in a humane way. The new series, ?The Education of Max Bickford,? although it has one very problematic scene, has shown great promise, and in general, I love it. Of course, these shows aren?t ideal, but I think it?s important for mainstream society to see the lead characters struggle with trans issues and begin the process of understanding. Hopefully, the viewers take the same journey.

Shannon: What direction do you see the movement taking?legislatively and legally?

Lisa: I think we?re right on course?there?s a lot of action in local communities and a few states, an increasing presence in Congress, and incredible progress in the state and federal courts. The litigation work you and Jennifer Levi are doing to chip away at the idiotic idea that transgender people aren?t covered by sex discrimination laws is frankly amazing. I?m excited about the progress that is being made. I think that we?re heading in the right direction. We just need to keep plowing ahead.

But you know what? There are some areas that really need more attention. I?m thinking of the problem with police harassment and brutality, especially when police assume trans women are sex workers. There?s inhumane treatment of trans people in prisons. Just not being able to get medical treatment is also a huge problem. Trans people being persecuted in other countries should be able to get asylum in the US, which isn?t happening enough.

Shannon: Will your project address those problems?

Lisa: Unfortunately, I?m limited in my funding to work only on anti-discrimination laws at the state, local and federal levels, with some ability to work on hate crimes legislation as well. But I wouldn?t be surprised if advocacy and organizing on those issues is in NGLTF?s future.

Shannon: What is your background, and what experience do you have with politics?

Lisa: I grew up in a logging town in the southwestern part of Washington State. In fact, I worked at the local paper mill?I was one of the few women--for three summers while I was going to college. During my last year at the University of Washington in Seattle, I joined the board of Equality Washington/Hands Off Washington, at the time Washington?s only statewide GLBT political organization at the time. They were running a statewide initiative to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We lost. It was really bad. But one good thing is that trans-inclusiveness wasn?t damaging to the initiative.

I was a member of the legislative committee on the board of Equality Washington. That was a great experience, because I learned a great deal about the state legislative process and how to build support for state legislation.

On the federal level, while being a legal intern for NGLTF and later working with Professor Chai Feldblum, I worked on many federal bills?from the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (just as NGLTF withdrew its support because it wasn?t trans-inclusive), the Religious Liberties Protection Act, and more. I have a pretty good idea of how things work on the federal level and have met some of the important players.

Shannon: What other GLBT organizations have you worked for?

Lisa: I interned at Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in San Francisco, just before my senior year of college. During the summer of 2000, I was a law clerk for the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in New York City.

Shannon: What was your favorite activist experience?

Lisa: While in college, I was involved in lots of organizations, but my primary effort involved getting the administration to recognize student domestic partnerships. A small group of us got a campaign going, built a huge coalition, and mounted a multi-faceted attack on the administration, from protests to joining committees. We ended up winning both health insurance and access to family housing for domestic partners. It was a three year fight, and it was lovely!

The last year was spent defending the changes from ultra-conservative state legislators who attempted to reverse everything we had worked so hard to achieve. I think winning the domestic partnership battle got me hooked on activism.

Shannon: Do you have any advice for activists about to start a campaign for a transgender or trans-inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance?

Lisa: I think it?s important to build the support base early in the process, perhaps even before introducing legislation. One needs to have meetings with important organizations and leaders in the larger community to shore up support before things get controversial, which they will. One needs to meet with the churches, the progressive groups, the feminists, the anti-racist groups, the unions, the chamber of commerce to educate them on transgender issues. Ideally, one should offer assistance to their efforts so a relationship is established. After you establish a relationship and they are educated, you can ask them to endorse an effort for an anti-discrimination ordinance. If you have all of these people and organizations with you, when the opponents start screaming the sky will fall if the ordinance is passed, your supporters won?t fall for it. If they had never met transgender people and hadn?t been educated about trans issues, and hadn?t already committed to supporting the effort, the story would be different. This way, they stand with you?and the ordinance is passed. Now, if it were only that easy!

Shannon: How can activists contact you?

Lisa: My job is to support you in your efforts. I would also love to hear from activists who have successfully passed laws/ordinances and learn how they managed to get the job done.

They can give me a call at (202) 332-6483, ext 3213, or e-mail me at .