“It is understandable to look at the state of transgender rights today and feel dismayed — I get that,” says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “But there are really incredible leaders who are fighting back. And not only that, but they’re motivating and getting other people involved. So I want us to remember the power we do have and draw inspiration and motivation from that.”
Heng-Lehtinen acknowledges the deluge of anti-transgender legislation and policies being pushed at the state and federal levels.
This year, more than 500 bills targeting or seeking to restrict transgender rights have been introduced in nearly every single state — a situation that prompted the nation’s top LGBTQ civil rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, to declare, for the first time in its history, a “state of emergency” for transgender and nonbinary Americans.
“It is astounding to be that under attack,” says Heng-Lehtinen. “But what our opponents did not count on is that transgender people, and our families, and other people who love us, are turning out to state legislative hearings and packing the rooms, giving testimony and trying to show these state legislators that transgender people are not the boogeyman under the bed.
“We are your friends, families, and neighbors, and there are people who back us up and care about us. And if you go after us, we’re going to get mobilized and show up and turn out. So I do think this wave of anti-trans legislation is waking up a sleeping giant of people who are on the right side of history here. And it’s motivating people to get involved. People who never thought of themselves as activists are now becoming activists because of this.”
This year’s “Trans Equality Now” Awards Gala, on Friday, October 27, serves as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of NCTE’s founding in 2003.
The event, which kicks off at an undisclosed location in Washington, D.C. at 6 p.m. (the exact location is being kept private among attendees to protect them from potential threats), will feature writer and performance artist ALOK as the keynote speaker.
A cocktail hour and awards ceremony will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m., with an afterparty from 8:30 to 11 p.m., featuring music from DJ Tezrah.
“This year’s event will be bigger than usual because it is such a milestone,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “We’ll reflect not only on how NCTE has grown and transformed over [twenty years], but the entire trans movement.
“When we were founded in 2003, it was an entirely different landscape, an entirely different universe that transgender people were operating in. So it’s a celebration of that progress. It’s also the first time we’re doing it since the pandemic. In 2020, we had to go virtual, and then we didn’t host the awards over the past two years. So this will feel like a kind of reunion as well. It’s been a long time coming.”
At the gala, NCTE will honor Mara Keisling, the organization’s founder and former executive director, for her work over the years.
“This marks our very first Trans Equality Now Awards since Mara moved on,” Heng-Lehtinen says of his predecessor. “The trans movement wouldn’t be where we are today if not for her having the dedication and tenacity to start the organization under really dire circumstances.”
NCTE will also honor Carter Brown, the head of the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, which has occasionally partnered with NCTE on various initiatives, including HIV disparities among trans folks or employment discrimination, in addition to its own mission of working towards addressing inequities facing Black transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.
Another honoree is Nebraska State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, an LGBTQ ally who mounted a months-long filibuster of every bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature in protest of a bill pushed by conservatives to prohibit transgender minors from accessing gender-affirming medical treatments for gender dysphoria.
Part of her filibuster went viral on social media, earning her national attention for her efforts to block the legislation, which ultimately was pushed through late in the legislative session.
“Sen. Cavanaugh did an epic filibuster, one of the longest in history, to block harmful, anti-trans legislation from going through,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “And she really did that from a place of allyship, just recognizing that this was going to hurt vulnerable kids.”
Despite the ratcheting up of anti-transgender activism across the nation, Heng-Lehtinen hopes that Friday’s gala will not only provide attendees a safe space and a respite from the barrage of attacks in their daily lives, but re-inspire them to continue their advocacy on behalf of the trans and nonbinary communities.
“I hope that at the Trans Equality Now Awards, people see the power of our community,” he says. “I want LGBTQ people to tap into a sense of hope. We, as the LGBTQ community, have been through these kinds of difficulties before. We have survived times when our increased visibility has, tragically, put a target on our backs. But we know how to get through this.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality’s “Trans Equality Now” awards gala will be held from 6 to 11 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 27, at an undisclosed location in Washington, D.C.
Tickets for the afterparty cost $50 per person, and tickets for the full gala cost $250 per person, and can be purchased online.
For more information on NCTE and its work, visit transequality.org.
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