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Transgender Law Center Director Masen Davis Talks Equality

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As Executive Director of Transgender Law Center, Masen Davis brings over two decades of leadership and activism in the movement toward LGBT equality. Since beginning this role in 2007,  Davis has expanded Transgender Law Center’s annual operating budget from $385,000 to $1.4M thereby increasing the richness and expanding the impact of the organizations multidisciplinary programs.

He started his career as a Civil Court Advocate at Chicago’s gay and lesbian center, served as Director of Development for Corporate and Foundation Relations at United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

He received his B.A. from Northwestern University, M.S.W. from UCLA. http://www.transgenderlawcenter.org


0:05 Toni Newman

We are now waiting for Masen Davis the Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center since 2007 to join us for a live interview for the upcoming issue of Proud To Be Out -- the digital magazine. That website is proudtobeout.org. It is stories about people in the LGBT community who are striving and doing things and speaking things and just proud to be who they are. So, today we will be talking to Masen Davis who has been the Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center since 2007 and they -- on organization fighting for the rights of transgenders and trying to make authentic life happen everyday. So, we are now waiting for Masen to join us and this interview will be talking about equality and the status in California with the legal like of those individuals. So, he should be with us shortly, so let's hang on and wait for Masen to join us.

3:10 Toni Newman


3:12 Masen Davis

Hi, Toni! It's Masen Davis.

3:14 Toni Newman

Well, hi Masen I'm glad. We've been waiting for you. Wonderful. So, now I would say it again. We have Masen Davis this morning who is the Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center since 2007 and their logo which is what I sense for it as well making authentic life possible. So, Masen, welcome this morning of your busy schedule to talk with us.

3:42 Masen Davis

Thanks so much, Toni. It's really a delight to be here.

3:45 Toni Newman

So, what we want to do today Masen we know the Transgender Law Center. Who is Masen Davis, where are you from? Give us a little bit of your background?

3:56 Masen Davis

Well, I'm originally from the Midwest. I grew up in a family with the Methodist minister for a father and grew up all the way from Missouri as we moved around the different churches and then went off to school in Chicago before coming out to California in the mid 90s and then between Los Angeles and San Francisco ever since. I came out into the LGBT community about 25 years ago at this point though. It's hard for me to imagine sometimes and then I came out is transgender in my mid 20s and has been active in the community ever since that's been about 16 years now and it has been a real honor and enjoy to be able to be an activist full-time for the last six years. Well, I've been at Transgender Law Center and I just can't imagine a better way to spend my time on this earth and I'm really push through and everybody who is able to be out of themselves as a transgender person and those like yourself who are really bringing voice to the issues that so many of a face.

5:06 Toni Newman

Okay. Now, Masen you've been the Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center since 2007.

5:12 Masen Davis

That's right, that's right.

5:14 Toni Newman

A lot of people don't know who you -- who is the Transgender Law Center and what is your core purpose?

5:21 Masen Davis

Well, the Transgender Law Center is a civil rights organization advocating for transgender and gender non-conforming people throughout the United State. We started after the project for the National Center for Lesbian Rights back in 2002 and we're focused on addressing the discrimination of the transgender people face in almost every institution in California at the time. And since then, we've been able to pass -- and help passed the whole slate of really strong laws in California and decided a couple of years ago to extend our work nationwide. So, we now here from about 2,500 transgender people across the country each year who are contacting us to get support for the challenges that they are facing from anywhere from issues impacting the ability to be themselves and to have the correct gender marker on the identity documents. We have a lot of calls about the employment discrimination, a lot of calls about health care access and a lot of people contacting us about issues in schools and in their families. And we are -- our model is to make authentic life as possible. We really believe that all of us is transgender people deserve to be fully ourselves and whatever way that man assessed and our goal is to help make it a little easier for all of us to just be who we are. We've mostly focused on creating law, so through policy work and legislation and forcing law through our legal services and then we also work on making laws really real and lives of transgender people by creating groundbreaking and -- kind a pilot projects like the transgender economic empowerment, initiative, a jobs program in San Francisco and a project health increasing access to community health services for low income folks. So, we've been quiet in San Francisco for a number of years. I think that we've been a lot more visible in the last few as we've been doing more public work at the national level and we're very proud at this point. I believe to be the largest transgender out this organization in the United States (crosstalk) things forward.

7:40 Toni Newman

Now, what laws are you sponsoring in 2013 that you think are the most beneficial that you're an advocacy group for transgenders in California as well as the nation? You have quite a few that I know for the fact that you've sponsored. What would be your top three laws that you think will benefit transgenders Californians or nationwide the most you think?

8:09 Masen Davis

That's a great question. I mean in California we have three bills that we've been doing some work on that I think are really important. One, is AB 1121 which would make it a lot easier for transgender people to change the gender marker on their birth certificate. To be honest we've done a number of tweaks to this over the years, but in California you still have to get it court order gender change in order to change your birth certificate and then publish that in the newspaper. And as you know, that can be really expensive and challenging for a lot of transgender people to accomplish. So, the new bill that we've put up now would break in alternate process, so people don't have to go to the court system and to the end of the process where people have to pay often times a lot of money to publish their name change in the newspaper. This one is the really important to me just because I see how hard it is for low income trans folks to go through the court process and I really hope this makes it a lot more affordable and easier for everyone to have an ID that matches who they really are. And another one... (Crosstalk)

9:17 Toni Newman

(Crosstalk) In California had done that law so that it's working very well. What would be your second law, Masen?

9:24 Masen Davis

Yeah, it's already improved, but this will make it even more affordable and the second law is one that is the first -- first time that this kind of laws has been introduced I believe in United State and it is AB 1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act and this is what I'm pretty excited about this at this point. You know, we hear from transgender students around the country who say that they are having a hard time making it through high school because they do not have a bathroom that they can use safely or they can't pretend in prepare for gym class and as result they're getting health problems and often times not getting the credit they need to graduate on time. So, the School Success and Opportunity Act is designed to ensure that in California transgender students have access to these facilities and the activities that correspond with their gender identity. So, that would mean that you know -- basically transgender girls in school are treated like other girls, transgender boys are treated like other boys and had have access for gym class and restrooms that we're flat the way they're going to school, in the school day. You know, this has been the first time we've seen this kind of bill go forward in United States. We've been really impressed by how much success it has in large part because of the parents in the trans youth who are speaking up to themselves and sharing their stories, that's made a really big difference and you know both of these bills are passed the assembly in California and now we're on to the senate and we're really hopeful that they're will be passed and signed of the law by the end of the year.

11:00 Toni Newman

Okay. Thank you and your third...

11:04 Masen Davis

Yes, so the third one is one that we are not sponsoring at this point or supporting and I really want to encourage people in California to really speak out for and that is AB 332 which would order police and prosecutors to stop using condoms as evidence of sex work. I don't know about you but I know especially in some areas like Los Angeles as I talked to transwomen especially transgender woman to call her so many are harassed by police and if they're actually carrying condoms they accused of being involved in sex work nearly because they want to protect themselves and this is -- you know one just part of the over policing of transgender people that we've got to stop to begin with, but two is just really unhealthy to create any incentive for transgender people to not -- you know to safe sex, right by having condoms. So, I think this is a really important one to stop this practice using condoms as evidence of sex work, so that we can actually take care of ourselves and our partners.

12:12 Toni Newman

Okay very good. Now, making you joined in sponsorship with Equality California with the new Executive Director, John O'Connor. How did that come about that these two organizations are now coming together to co-sponsor the bills that are beneficial to transgender people, students transmen and transwomen. How did that come about?

12:39 Masen Davis

We've actually had a pretty good relationship with Equality California over the years. You know, it's interesting as I look at what's going on in other states often times there are challenges getting the state equality groups you know which are predominantly or at least historically had been predominantly gay and lesbian. It's been hard to get a lot of them to really take on some bigger transgender projects and I will say I still really fortunate to be in California that the state equality group here, Equality California has been generally very receptive to introducing transgender specific legislation. I think part of that because they've actually had transgender people on their board and they're leadership specifically had relationships with transgender people that really help them to understand how important this issue is. So, we partnered with Equality California now for a number of years on different pieces of transgender legislation which is one reason we have really good protections at least on paper when it comes to transgender people at work, at school and housing and even in our insurance coverage. So, it's beneath what put you on it a new leadership of Equality California and to see that they are continuing this history of support for the transgender community. You know, I think they see that while we've had a lot of progress around gay and lesbian rights, equality for transgender people still lies behind and we just have to work together to change that. What I really hope is that this kind of model can be increasingly replicated in other parts of the country because there are so many states that have almost no protection throughout U.S.

14:21 Toni Newman


14:22 Masen Davis

And I do think that's the LGB is sometimes small T groups worked more intensely with the transgender specific groups that we would move that a lot -- forward a lot more quickly.

14:37 Toni Newman

Okay very good. So, you have a pretty good relationship and have had one with the Equality California for many years? (Crosstalk) as well as in the past.

14:48 Masen Davis

Yeah. And now (crosstalk) always easy right, I mean -- I think any of the groups especially non-trans groups captive a lot of different issues but I think having you know transgender activist really pushing to make sure the trans issues are -- continuing the part of the gender has been really helpful.

15:08 Toni Newman

Okay very good. Now Masen, as an African-American transwoman I was -- not now, but so many are living what living below the poverty level? When I first came out due to the rejection I was unique because I had a master's degree and several other things but could not find a job 15 years ago when I made my move as an African-American transwoman. I know at least 100 here in L.A. who we do volunteer work with who are living below the poverty level as -- why do you think so many minority transgender live below the poverty level? Why do you think that is?

15:53 Masen Davis

I think there are a lot of reasons, Toni. I'll be interested to kind of get your own perception of that and it is interesting you know -- you talk about coming out about 15 years ago when I came out around that time period and at the time I think so many almost all of us were transgender assumed that we would lose our jobs and might not do very well once we came out of transgender and I do think the best improved for a lot of transgender people that you know I talk to youth now who were surprised if they experiences (Crosstalk).

16:23 Toni Newman

I agree with that.

16:25 Masen Davis

But I think -- but you're right, I mean we know from some of the research that's been banned both in California nationwide that -- while transgender people in general are twice as life that could be unemployed, twice as life that live under the poverty line. When it comes to transgender people of color there are four times as likely could be living under the poverty line. So, that the intersection of transphobia and racism is just really deadly and we've got to figure out how do we make sure that all of us are able to take care of ourselves and our family. You know, I think that some of this you look at in general African-American Latinos in general in California phase because of racism I believe there are a lot of barriers still to implement and ways too high at poverty levels when you add that to somebody being transgender it just can be really challenging. I think so at the same time that there is a lot of resiliency I see, especially in African-American and Latino trans communities having come up -- in a way myself being (crosstalk) and how much support. I think the various, you know a lot of folks kind of are beating the odds and are really working to change things and I've been really impressed by some of the work that's happened, for example I think about like some of the activist like Bamby Salcedo in L.A. who went back to school and talk probably about the experience of you know getting a Bachelor's Degree and what that has been might, I think creates a new role model for other transwomen to see that there a lot of options and that there are opportunities to get an education and to get into the workplace and to stand up and fight for -- all that we need as a people.

18:13 Toni Newman

So, I agree with you but from what I'm hearing from you, you're saying that you believe as well as I do my personal opinion education is the key I think to a lot of them turning their lives around completing their GED and getting a trade or vocation. If not -- not a four-year university everyone can go to four-year college and get a Bachelor...

18:37 Masen Davis

That's right.

18:38 Toni Newman

I understand and respect that totally, but I think we were both saying that education with this new bill that we're passing the bathroom, finish your high school diploma, don't quit, get your GED and find something in a trade, vocational school, technical school or university. So, do you believe education could turn the poverty around from them? Is that something that you agree with or you -- what is your feeling on that?

19:08 Masen Davis

It's a great question. I think there are three things that I think that are especially important and one is family acceptance because we know for any of our trans views if they have families that accept them as they are whether they're not agree or understand, if they can actually accept their kids and our youth are able to stay in their homes when they're young that makes such a big difference and then education. We did a survey, the states of transgender of the California a few years ago, Toni and we found out that it seem make a big difference about how somebody was doing economically with whether or not they'd experience -- had two years of college, so they didn't necessarily even had a Bachelor's Degree but if someone had basically an AA degree or two years of community college their financial status was so much better in the long run. So, that's...

19:57 Toni Newman


19:58 Masen Davis

So, I agree, look if somebody can get a GED or graduate, get in to college, even a couple of years and man get some support to get into the workforce which is I guess it's my third thing I do think workforce programs you know that helped trans people navigate some of the barriers with these whether that just you know the fact that sometimes we have to come out to our employers. We have to learn what to do when -- somebody might harass us at work or we deal in somebody who is bigoted or bias. You know, I think the help getting into the workforce and navigating those challenges can be really helpful. It's like in L.A. you've got the -- at the L.A. center the peep, __20:36__ around the transgender economic empowerment project I think it can be really helpful when somebody gets their foot in the door. We got to have family support, we got to get some education and we need at least get into the door you know for first job and pay there for awhile so we get something on the resume. And I think if we could do those things (Crosstalk) things are better.

20:58 Toni Newman

I agree. I'm an advocate for education either at the vocation or the AAF level realizing that everyone can get a Bachelor, can go to law school and get a master's but if AAF could change the economic status of the transgenders I do believe. One last question, Masen, how can we as a group improve the life of other transgenders in your mind on a day-to-day basis? What can other transgenders do who are in the workforce, who are working, who are educated do they have those maybe who are not personally on a day-to-day basis? What do you think we can do as individuals on a day-to-day basis to improve the life of other transgenders you know in a day-to-day besides passing laws, what other things do you think we can do to help the others to may have not maybe yet, still finding their way?

21:55 Masen Davis

Well, I think one, you're dealing on this -- on the show, Toni which is for those of us who can safely be out and can educate others about the reality of transgender lives if we can do that it will go a long ways towards helping those who were still struggling because we just need to change the culture and reduce the stigma that associated with being transgender. I just think that such a big one right now and to the extent we can be out and do what we do well and educate non-trans people about the fact that we're up there I think that will go a long way. And I guess the second thing I would say is that from the day-to-day basis do not put each other down. It's easy sometimes to think about to have that kind of -- what I think of as internalized transphobia where we see somebody who maybe we don't think pass as well or is in our image of a perfect man or woman or transgender person to kind of put them down either in their face behind their back, and I think we can cut each other down as a community instead of building each other up and to the extent that we can actually really kind of bless, the differences that we have between us and realize that -- if we can all really be ourselves whatever that looks like we are gonna move so much further ahead as the people together. I think there is a lot that we can do in just supporting and loving ourselves and our youth, so that --we are able to heal from some of the trauma that many of us that experienced -- because we did grow up different in a society but doesn't quite understand how wonderful we are yet.

23:38 Toni Newman

I agree with that totally. Now, Masen if we have people you want to donate, who want to give money and help support the Transgender Law Center or want to volunteer, where they can do that at? Tell us how we've been your donors you way or volunteer your way to help push your organization and your calls further?

24:00 Masen Davis

Well, bless you for asking because we get more calls from people that we can help right now, so every dollar really makes a big difference. The easiest way is to go on to our website at www.transgenderlawcenter.org or email info@transgenderlawcenter.org and let us know how you would like to get involve. We are continuing to do work in L.A. and San Francisco and nationwide. We always need an extra pair of hands and we can always put a dollar to good years. So, I really appreciate everybody who is active whether giving in the Transgender Law Center or another group that's really working to clean and move our community forward.

24:43 Toni Newman

Well, I would like to recommend, suggest, enforce that everyone who is listening to this for the proud to be out due to the magazine that's coming out in a couple of weeks, please go to transgenderlawcenter.org and donate. You know, this is a non-profit organization fighting for LGBT equality, especially the T and they need funds to keep moving forward. So, please go to transgenderlawcenter.org to help them out and move their calls further. Before we go Masen, is there anything you have not said that you would like to say about yourself or the Transgender Law Center and we want to thank you for taking the time at your busy schedule to speak with me for proudtobeout.org because we know you're busy but what is your last comment you like to say before we let you go?

25:35 Masen Davis

The last thing I will say is one thing that many people don't realize is that a legal case was settled last year that resulted in transgender people being covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and what that means now is a transgender people anywhere in the United States even if they are in the state that's not very supportive can now file their complaint with their local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office if they're discriminated against at work. We have to get the word out that we actually do have base of protections and the employers are around the hook for treating as well. So... (Crosstalk)

26:11 Toni Newman

So any transgender having any work-related issues can go to the EEOC office and follow discrimination complaint against their employer if they're facing discrimination, harassment in the workplace.

26:26 Masen Davis

That's right and if you need to help with that feel free to contact us to transgenderlawcenter.org.

26:31 Toni Newman

I was unaware that Masen, I just learned something new today that I did not know that they were -- are now allowed to go to their Equal Employment Opportunity office and do that. I didn't know that at all, you just tell me something that I did not know.

26:46 Masen Davis

Well, thanks so much for making this opportunity available and do this education, Toni.

26:51 Toni Newman

Masen, thank you. Have a great weekend and God bless you in the Transgender Law Center.

26:57 Masen Davis

Thank you, Toni. Take care.

26:59 Toni Newman


27:00 Masen Davis