Metro Weekly

Activist for Life: Q&A with Raffi Freedman-Gurspan

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who will be honored this weekend by the Trevor Project, made history as the first out transgender White House staffer.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan – Photo: Todd Franson

From an early age, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan was destined to become politically involved.

Raised in the tradition of Reform Judaism, the child of two social workers has always seen it as her life’s mission to stand up and fight for equality. At 14, she was a full-fledged gay rights activist, protesting harmful budget cuts outside of the Massachusetts State House.

“Equal treatment and justice for those that are vulnerable in society was always just at the forefront of my childhood, and made me decide early on that I wanted to be involved in social justice work,” she says. “I didn’t know at the time, of course, what that would exactly be.”

As an adult, Freedman-Gurspan worked for the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition while it was trying to convince lawmakers to pass a nondiscrimination law protecting transgender residents. From there, she worked for Democratic State Rep. Carl Sciortino as his legislative director, becoming the first openly transgender person to hold that position in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Freedman-Gurspan later moved to Washington to work for the National Center for Transgender Equality, and once again made history when she was hired by the Obama administration, becoming the first out transgender White House staffer.

“My parents often joke, ‘Where did you get this political thing from?'” she says. “My mom was a bureaucrat, but I just fell in love with legislating and policy advocacy work.”

On the day of this interview, Freedman-Gurspan, now the director of external relations for NCTE, had just returned from an impromptu rally across from the White House. NCTE and other LGBTQ groups were protesting a pending executive order that was expected to allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. (President Trump later signed a different order.) Reflecting on the protest, Freedman-Gurspan particularly hones in on the words of one speaker, who said, “If you think that they’re not coming for you, you’ve got to be out of your mind.”

“I think that’s the thing for the gay community, in particular, to remember — 10 years ago, they were coming after us, and they still are,” she says. “I look at it in the context of being a Jew — I’m reminded lately of just how much anti-Semitism is out there. It’s the same thing for the gay community and the queer community at large, to say, ‘Look, just because we have these rights doesn’t mean that people don’t want to come after us.'”

Freedman-Gurspan’s work on a multitude of issues affecting the LGBTQ community has earned her a wealth of praise, and recently, the Trevor Project announced it will honor her with its Outstanding Public Service Award at its “Night Out for Trevor” benefit on Friday, May 19.

“Raffi’s whole career has been about lifting up transgender folks,” says Amy Loudermilk, the Trevor Project’s director of Government Affairs. “Particularly transgender people of color…who often struggle with suicidal ideation. Raffi was really well-versed in suicide, she really understood the issues. She did a lot for our cause, which tends to go a little unnoticed in the community. She worked hard with HHS and SAMHSA to make sure they heard from the community about their mental health needs, challenges, and access to care. And she did that around the country, which was really amazing. It had never been done before, and has really helped us.”

For her part, Freedman-Gurspan is motivated by her concern for those who will be affected by policy decisions.

“It’s going to sound cheesy, [but] I care about people,” she says. “There’s so much suffering in the world, and if I can help alleviate that, I feel like, as we say in Hebrew, I’ve done a mitzvah.”

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan – Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: Tell me about your background and childhood.

RAFFI FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I’m adopted from Honduras. I grew up outside of Boston in the town of Brookline, and went to public schools. I was raised by two social workers, my parents, Marian and Stan. They really instilled this value of social justice.

I got involved very early on with activism, in particular around the LGBT community, because I came out pretty early. I came out when I was 12, initially as gay, and got involved with our high school Gay-Straight Alliance. At the time, there was state funding for certain projects for GSAs. Then, when acting governor Jane Swift cut that funding, one of my first protests was at the age of 14 going in front of the statehouse in Massachusetts and demanding that that funding be restored.

MW: What happened after you graduated from high school?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I went to St. Olaf College in Minnesota. I was a political science major. I also have a hobby of Norwegian culture. I speak the language, so that’s partially why I went to St. Olaf. It was also at St. Olaf where the values of service and stewardship of oneself in the service of others were instilled in me.

MW: When did you transition?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: In college. I got involved once I knew that trans rights were behind in terms of LGB and Q. After I graduated from college, I moved back to Massachusetts. At that point, Massachusetts did not have any state protections for trans folks. That gets at the root of how I landed into the trans movement in Massachusetts.

MW: Tell me about your two coming outs, both as gay and transgender. What was the reaction?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I think people knew. I wasn’t exceedingly feminine when I was a little boy, but I played with Barbies. I danced. I wasn’t into rough-and-tumble sports. Also, I was a premature baby, so [I had problems with] fine motor skills and vision. I was not going to be a football player by any means, so they weren’t shocked. I think at that young age, they were concerned about bullying. This was 1999 and only a few years after Matt Shepard had been killed. Thinking about it now, it really was a different world.

My parents, my good friends, and my community have always been very clear: that they love me unconditionally. But when I came out again, so to speak, trans was new. It was literally 10 years ago, in 2007, when I came out. It wasn’t as accepted and it was difficult at points, I think, for my family to really digest the understanding that their son was becoming their daughter. [But] by no means was I kicked out. Quite the reverse. I think it was about protecting me and making sure this is what I wanted. They wanted me to [realize], “Look, it’s part of your identity, but you’re so much more than that.”

MW: What was it like living in Minnesota, which at the time was one of the few states with a transgender rights law?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I was cognizant of the fact that upon graduation and my decision to go back to Massachusetts, I would be leaving a state that had protections to one that had none. In terms of how it actually played out, my college, even though it’s a private college, respected the law and they knew my rights. It’s hard to say I experienced the benefits of protection because I was in a small town, on a small college campus. It wasn’t like I was running around Minneapolis.

I did actually apply for a job that I didn’t get with the state of Minnesota, and I came to my interview having transitioned. At that point, not all my documents were changed and they were really good about it. Part of it, I think, is because they knew they couldn’t discriminate against me. I was confident in the fact of here’s how the law applies and I know my rights.

MW: Then you moved back to Massachusetts. At what point did you get seriously involved in activism?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: Almost immediately. It’s funny, I came back without a plan, like many college graduates. This was right after the recession. It was a dicey time. Having transitioned and having literally left a state that had protections, being the daughter of two progressive-leaning social workers, they were always — “Get involved!” I picked up the phone and called Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and spoke with Gunner Scott, who’s now my dear, dear friend, and sent him my resume. He says that my call struck him because here I was, this 22-year-old kid, saying, “I really want to help and I’m interested in policy.”

My work with Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition became a passion. It became everything that I was looking for, in the sense that it was a small organization. Gunner was involved in high-level conversations with the sponsor of the bill that would ultimately enfranchise us, and [was involved in] legislative strategy meetings, and I just fell in love with it.

MW: How long were you there for?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I was with them for about a year and a half. It was unpaid the entire time, although I got some summer stipend from the Equality Federation. I left them in June 2011, when I got hired by Carl Sciortino as his legislative staffer.

I did everything for him, because I was his single staffer. The reps, if they’re not in a leadership position, they at least can get one staffer. I handled constituent services. I handled legislative strategy. I wrote speeches for him. I dealt with the media for him. I scheduled him. I knew everything. I was just joking with someone the other day that I would literally wake up in the morning and say, “Okay. What does Carl have to do today?” before I even thought about myself.

MW: Let’s talk about the evolution of the trans rights bill in Massachusetts. Lawmakers had a particularly hard time supporting protections in public accommodations.

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I wasn’t there at the start, but the original bill was filed in 2007. I think that sometimes Massachusetts is misunderstood as a liberal bastion and everyone is left, and it actually isn’t. In fact, there are some very, very conservative parts of the state, and it just so happened at the time that we were lobbying for the bill we had pretty conservative-leaning [Democratic] leaders. The chair of the Judiciary Committee, where the bill was being housed, was very uncomfortable with the bathroom scenario. He understood everything else, but it was bathrooms and locker rooms. In fact, the 2011 bill didn’t have public accommodations, because leadership just was not ready to go there.

A lot of what I’ve learned from that experience is that [the instinct of] leadership, in particular in the House of Representatives, was to protect their members. In Massachusetts, it’s a two-year cycle for everyone. Everyone’s up at the same time and so leadership was just so paranoid that they would be costing their members their seats. This was right after the 2010 Tea Party surge. All of that’s going on.

I think also because, again, looking back at it, people didn’t know transgender people. They didn’t get it. It seemed, having to use the Yiddish here, farmisht. It was all jumbled to them. I remember we would have these conversations with colleagues who were having some difficulties. “We don’t want to discriminate, but it’s the bathroom piece. It’s the locker room piece. I’m hearing from women’s or conservative groups,” and so we would get women’s groups and healthcare providers and trans youths themselves to come in and talk to these legislators and really explain [that] “We’re talking about me, a living, breathing person and that all these fears that the opposition is painting are blatantly wrong. Indeed, we need these protections because we are the victims of so much intolerance.”

I was very disappointed that we couldn’t do the full bill in 2011, but we made a decision at the time that we were going to go ahead with all the protections that we got, except for public accommodations. I’m pleased that last year, they finally passed that bill and Governor Baker signed it, even though he also had to evolve in his understanding of trans issues.

Unfortunately, they have a ballot initiative. The opposite side is really hell-bent on repeal. I’m hopeful that because of the larger exposure of trans issues on the national scene — across the world, frankly — that the electorate in Massachusetts has changed.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan – Photo: Todd Franson

MW: After the 2011 bill passed without public accommodations, were you ever accused of selling out the transgender community?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: Yes. Thankfully, the decision came to the trans people involved in this whole process. It was myself and Gunner Scott and a couple of other folks in a large conference room with our coalition partners, and everyone just turns to us and says, “What do you want to do?”

I remember tearing up. We had waited so long and it wasn’t clear how much longer we would have to wait and the feeling was, “Let’s get 95 percent of what we want.” In particular, the employment protections, because of the unemployment in the community, and the housing protections, because of the homelessness in the community, and education [protections] with the kids. We justified it to ourselves that we were still helping the majority of the community. It was a Faustian bargain, for sure. Some people certainly criticized us, but the majority of the community understood and said, “Yes, we’ll take it.”

MW: What needs to be done to convince voters to support the public accommodations law in the 2018 ballot initiative?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: They absolutely need to go into the small communities. They’re going to focus on Boston, of course. I don’t even know what the statistic is, but I think about one-third of the population is in the greater Boston area. But they have to go out to western Massachusetts. They have to go to the Cape and the islands. Barnstable County, Worcester County, Cape Ann. All of Bristol County — from Fall River, going all the way in a little loop to Agawam — is Republican districts. Or you have Blue Dog Democrats, more conservative-leaning, usually from working-class neighborhoods.

What we’re trying to do here at National Center for Transgender Equality is getting local trans people to talk about their experience, to tell their stories. We don’t use this as much in Massachusetts as we probably should, but coalition work with faith communities, with faith groups. Obviously, Massachusetts is a very Catholic state, but there are LGBTQ-leaning Catholic organizations. Of course, in Massachusetts there is also is huge Unitarian Universalist community. I think going to all these different communities is going to require a lot of work, but I’m hopeful that we’re dealing with a different public. We’re dealing with a public that actually has now seen information about trans people, for better or for worse. Caitlyn Jenner certainly opened the conversation for many people who might not otherwise have been aware. What 16-year-old isn’t watching the Kardashians?

MW: Has Caitlyn Jenner harmed or helped the transgender community?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I think that she has helped open the conversation. I’m not about beating up on her, to be very clear, but in her own decisions and actions, there are things that I probably wouldn’t have done, but she’s also in a different world than me as a celebrity, as someone who’s wealthy and obviously someone who is Republican.

To me, this is not a partisan or class issue. Trans people are everywhere. Caitlyn has had to learn a lot about that. I think we certainly try and educate her, be supportive where we can, but she doesn’t work for us. She’s not the president of the trans community. I understand that a lot of people have reservations about her, but my attitude is that she’s part of our community, just like everyone else.

MW: You made history as the first openly trans person to work in the White House. What was your role in President Obama’s administration?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I had two titles. I started out as an outreach and recruitment director for presidential personnel and then in January 2016, I was asked to take on the role of LGBT liaison in the Office of Public Engagement. It was awesome. My colleagues were so amazing. At that point, this was at the tailend of the administration. A lot of institutional values and structures were in place by then, around not only diversity, but also about opportunity. In particular, my first job was to recruit folks to work for the administration, and it was made very clear that we wanted people from a diversity of backgrounds and talents. To be an ambassador, so to speak, for the administration, and collect folks to come work for us was really thrilling and exciting.

When I was LGBT liaison, I was involved with almost every issue that came across the president’s desk because, ultimately, a lot of it was about building public support. If it was something around energy or healthcare, of course, it was about “how are we going to interface this with the LGBT community.” I worked with very talented, brilliant people who knew what they were doing and really wanted to make sure that we were inclusive of everyone, and not just LGBTQ people. We did fantastic work around people with disabilities. We had a Muslim liaison, first time in the history of the White House. I worked a lot with our military liaison in the veterans’ community. It was just a lot of fun.

MW: Was it the inclusive attitude fostered by the Obama administration that made it fun?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: Yes. It was also the real diversity that was in there and that it wasn’t tokenized. If you think about it, in particular around women of color, we had amazingly talented women of color in key influential positions: Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Muñoz, Susan Rice. So to have role models and, as we would say, “getting stuff done.” It was a great working environment. I never once woke up and said, “I don’t want to go to work today.” I actually wanted to be there. I wanted to be around those people. Also, I think it was because of the timing. We were coming to the end of the administration. Everything mattered. We needed to get as much as we could done. And so to be part of that, and to do it on behalf of the LGBT community, was such an honor.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: What is the biggest thing President Trump has done to hurt the trans community?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: The rescinding of the student guidance. Also, this impending executive order is an abomination, but in particular, the rescinding of the guidance sends such a horrible message not only just legally, but ethically to our nation’s school systems, which came to the federal government and said, “Please help us.”

There’s been an explosion of trans children that have come out very young. Most of the school systems, most of the administrators, they want to do the right thing. In Tulsa, they might not necessarily know how to do that and so they came to the federal government [seeking help]. Justice and Education did their guidance. It was fair-minded. It was pragmatic.
To be very clear, it was not a mandate, although, of course, they said, “If you do discriminate, though, your federal funding could be at risk.”

Most of [the guidance] has been misconstrued. I saw something out there, some rumor that this required all bathrooms to be gender-neutral. Of course, it didn’t do that. What it really did for kids is it gave them and their parents an assurance that they have rights, that they were protected, and that there are common-sense ways to deal with a child’s transition. At the end of the day, this is about every child having the opportunity — I would argue the human right — to get an education in safety and in an environment where they can grow and learn.

MW: Have you had any communication with anybody from that administration on the guidance?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: No. Unfortunately, it is such a changed reality, not only for NCTE, but for all the advocacy organizations out there. There was a channel of communication, with folks like me in the White House, LGBT liaisons. There were people in the Civil Rights Divisions at Education and Justice and, of course, they’ve just appointed very conservative people to run those bureaus, so no. We have no lines of communication and that’s exactly why we were literally outside the White House and trying to scream at them.

MW: There are many anti-trans and anti-gay figures in the new administration. Is there a message behind those appointments?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I think it’s pandering to a population that, first of all, financially assisted this president to get into power. I also think a lot of this is the vice president. I think the vice president yields an enormous amount of power behind the scenes, as, of course, do folks like Priebus and Bannon. I think they have, for decades now, built relationships with these right-wing groups. This is classic favoritism to me. They’re rewarding some folks that they are friends with.

In this world of alternative facts, I feel like if we called them out on it, they’d be like, “No, we’re not hiring people like that.” It’s like, “Yes, you are.” I don’t know why, other than that’s who they’re friends with and that’s who they want to help, and those are their values.

MW: Does the president know what he is doing, or is he not thinking of the consequences of hiring these people?

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: I really don’t know. I’m just like you. I read the Post and others, in terms of what people think is happening in the Oval Office. Having worked there — I wasn’t briefing the president, like Kellyanne Conway does — but understanding the structure of the White House, my sense is that he’s getting information from multiple people. Of course, Trump’s the president, he makes the decision, but I think he’s getting a lot of bad advice from his counselors.

MW: Let’s talk about your involvement with the Trevor Project.
FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: It goes back to my parents. Children’s mental health has been an area of interest to me. My mom works for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in Children’s Division. I’m very proud of Massachusetts being a state that has really worked to destigmatize mental illness and have parity with insurance coverage for treatment. It’s an LGBTQ issue and, as you know, the high levels of suicide and mental health issues and alcoholism in the community are real.

What Trevor does, I think, is incredible, because they bring what some people might see as completely separate issues together and really humanize it and say this is a queer issue and actually, we need to be dealing with this in our own way.

One of the things that is clear is that not all of our mental health service providers are necessarily LGBTQ-competent. Trevor, of course, has their lifeline and there are other support services. They also do some training of other providers to understand queer competency. That is so important. I was familiar with them before the White House, and certainly when I was in the White House. We actually had some briefings on substance abuse and mental health issues. [Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy] Michael Botticelli was a great person to talk about the opioid issues with, and so Trevor was a partner for us.

MW: What does it mean to receive an Outstanding Public Service Award from the Trevor Project.

FREEDMAN-GURSPAN: My understanding is it’s a recognition of my work, and in particular, when I was at the White House, advocating on their behalf, and on queer children’s mental health issues.

I’m very touched, very humbled by that. I am also happy to lend my public support for an organization that, I think, now more than ever is exceedingly critical to keep around and have.

The Trevor Project’s “A Night Out for Trevor” gala is Friday, May 19, from 7:30-10:30 p.m. at Hotel Monaco, 700 F St. NW. The after-party is at Duplex Diner, 2004 18th St. NW. For more information on the Trevor Project, visit thetrevorproject.org.

For more information on the National Center for Transgender Equality, visit transequality.org.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com