Kelly Riker

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #99, Fall 2002.

Lessons From my Year as President

Or How to Survive with your Sense of Humor Intact

It was little more than a year ago that I was approached by friends who encouraged me to run for President of the TransGender Education Association (TGEA), one of the social/support groups in Washington, D.C. At the time, there was a palpable sense of apathy rising in a group that once numbered over 90 members. Over the years, the pool of regulars?who always found a way to stay involved?began to dry up or burn out. As elections approached, there were more open positions than there were nominations or incumbents.
Within the organization, there was some bickering about our purpose and political disputes that threatened the sense of community. TGEA, like many organizations seemed to be torn between the needs of the closeted crossdresser and the transitioned transsexual. In battling amongst ourselves we alienated some of our members and, in a failed attempt to attain 501(c)(3) status, depleted a sizeable chunk of our cash reserves. By the time I returned from a two year absence, our membership was down to 60, and meetings were sparsely attended and seemed to be splitting into cliques. Our budget was anemic. No one seemed to want to take responsibility and we seemed to be drifting into oblivion.

As I contemplated running for President, I coerced some of the usual suspects to fill the open Board of Directors positions for ?just one more term.? To build consensus, I decided to put my goals on paper and circulate them in order to clearly state the vision I had for TGEA. Since the organization seemed to be withering, I felt it was time to take bold action?such as removing an interview requirement for meeting attendance?but I also wanted to reaffirm some of our values. This document, which became my ?party platform,? met with unexpected resistance from several of the people I was counting on for support as board members. Resistance is inevitable with change; still, I was disappointed.

Fortunately, the board of directors elected with me represented the diversity within our membership, and we were able to consider the needs of all. We set about charting the course for TGEA in the coming year. I tried to define the niche for TGEA as being the place where people can first step out of the closet and explore their gender expressions in a safe environment.

The D.C. area is fortunate to have several organizations that can specifically support special interests, such as MAGIC (TS), Washington-Baltimore Alliance (CD), DCATS (FTM), T.H.E. (Inner city/at risk TG), and The Washington Academy (Drag). It seemed to me that TGEA could be the organization to open the door of the closet. As people define themselves, they can move into other organizations while (hopefully) remaining active with TGEA.

To appeal to the newly out, TGEA had to be welcoming to all and respectful of our differences. It didn?t take long before a dispute began over our focus (TS vs. CD), resulting in the first resignation from the board of directors, followed by a second resignation over my style of leadership. It seemed as if the board of directors was breaking up from underneath me. The difficulties of the board were minor compared to the unspeakable events of September 11th?that seemed to further drive our members deeper into the closet. Meeting attendance failed to recover in the fall as expected.

An additional consequence of the attack on the Pentagon was the stress placed on our newsletter editor, who became fully involved with work related to the war on terrorism. That stress resulted in the third resignation from the Board. Through this, I kept in mind that as President, I had to stay optimistic. I continued with our monthly meetings and added several out and about events in town, intended to give our members a means of expanding their world beyond the doors of our meeting location. By holding to our values, I hoped to weather the storm.

The year 2001 closed with the Holiday Formal, TGEA?s premier event, which is open to all transgendered people, partners and family. I hoped that the success of that event would reinvigorate our membership and get our members back into regular attendance.

By the time January was over, I was beginning to feel burned out. Thankfully, the board took over some of the meeting programs and a volunteer stepped in to take on the newsletter. Slowly, through March, April and May, we began to rebuild our membership and restore our financial health. To my great relief, we ended up the year in the black and renewed TGEA?s lease on life. We managed to build a new board, and surprisingly, several of the positions were actually contested in the recent election.

I can?t say TGEA is out of the woods yet. We still have a great deal of work to do to keep new members. Certainly, though, the tone has changed to one where all are accepted and valued. We continue to have a steady stream of inquiries, and it seems there is still a large pool of people in the closet just pining to get out. Reaching these people with a positive message is our most important mission.

As with other groups, getting our ?experienced? members to return and share their insights with new members continues to be a challenge.

This year?s lessons learned include:

? You can?t always have it your way. It?s not about you, it?s about the members. I had to compromise on my platform to keep peace.

? To make changes, you have to get involved. As President, I became the lightning rod for opinion and ideas. Most members assumed I could turn their ideas into action. As an individual, I could do only so much.

? When members get involved, the burden of running an organization is shared and it becomes fun. A single person can make a difference! If every member does just one small thing, great things can occur.

? Attitude is everything. Stay optimistic?there are enough obstacles out there. Your attitude shouldn?t be one. I tried to only make positive statements as President.

? People come to meetings to be normal, not to be lectured to. We found tour members were happiest chatting with one another or participating in an interactive program. We kept programs to less than 45 minutes and encouraged an interactive format to the maximum extent.

? Sometimes girls just wanna have fun (and guys?ed). We had a cycle in which every second or third meeting was a party (Holiday Formal, Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo). This kept things fresh for our members and gave the partners an opportunity to participate.

? Everyone belongs! We tried to make sure everyone felt comfortable and accepted at TGEA meetings. Having a board composed of many elements in the transgender community facilitated this. We respected each other, and that respect was contagious.

? Don?t be afraid to try something new. Some board members added unique elements to the program (team building exercises and directed discussions). These worked out better than expected and kept the energy level of the membership up. Some programs fell flat, and that is to be expected as well.

? Recognize the people in the group who make a difference. As President, I presented awards at meetings recognizing members who made a difference. The value of the gift is not as important as the act of recognizing those members who contributed their time and energy.

As for my experience, it was rewarding and trying at the same time, and I recommend it to anyone who wishes to grow. You will build confidence in yourself as you interact with Churches, School, and other LGBT organizations, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you have returned something to the community that brought you out of the closet. You work with some great people both locally and in national organizations and can make a difference. Most importantly, you are rewarded by the joy of those new sisters and brothers as they emerge from their closets and realize they are not alone.

The TransGender Education Association exists to provide an accepting environment for transgendered people and their partners in which to explore and develop their full personalities. We will endeavor to reach those closeted transgendered people in the Metropolitan D.C. and surrounding areas with a positive message and offer them an alternative to living in a closet.

To contact TGEA, P.O. Box 16036, Arlington, VA 22215, or call (301) 949-3822. Web:

Kelly Riker was born in New York and now resides in Washington DC. She began dressing up secretly in her sister?s clothes at age six, but after getting caught (2X), she became skilled at discretion. She tried to live up to family expectations through participation in varsity football, hockey and other traditionally masculine pursuits, including getting her Pilot?s License at age 17. She completed a career flying fighters for the Navy; when her flying stopped, the need to explore her femininity surged. She joined TGEA in September 1993 and became Secretary for 1995-96. After leaving Washington, DC for several years, she returned and resumed her membership in TGEA and became Secretary. In spring 2001, she was elected President.