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Gathering Voices

Equality Virginia’s executive director on bringing the trans community together.



Resources often are scarce for transgender people who attempt to navigate government and health care bureaucracies. The state's largest LGBT advocacy group, Equality Virginia, aims to make better connections through its first Transgender Information and Empowerment Summit.

The event Oct. 4 will feature presentations such as how parents can advocate for their transgender children in schools and a primer on gender-queer identity. A resource center will offer medical consultations, insurance advice and a clinic on changing names and gender identifications on state documents.

Style spoke with the executive director of Equality Virginia, James Parrish, about the conference and what it signals for the organization.

Style: Why did Equality Virginia decide to put this on — and why now?

Parrish: We've been very fortunate in the freedom to marry campaign to change public perspective on that issue. A lot of that has been because of changing hearts and minds — people hearing our stories. The problem in the transgender community is that [Equality Virginia] wasn't connected to the community at large. We had a few people in Roanoke, a few in Hampton Roads, but when you drilled down there wasn't much beyond that.

We can't have elected officials say, "I don't have any transgender people in my district," or "I don't know any transgender people." We need them telling their stories so they can start changing hearts and minds as well.

We are at the point where we are realizing we need to support enough transgender people to be more visible. A lot of transgender people say, "I don't want more attention on me," so that's a struggle.

What are stakes? What's in front of the General Assembly?

Workplace discrimination is the biggest one. We have much more friendly statewide leadership — that all changed last fall. It presents a lot of opportunities outside of the General Assembly. We want to work with the attorney general and the governor on insurance. It doesn't require going to the General Assembly but it does require hearing from the transgender community that there is a problem.

But on our end, the conference is about getting as many transgender-identified people together as we can so we can get more than two people who can speak for the community. At the same time, if we're bringing those people together we wanted to have workshops and resources available that maybe people can't access in their hometowns. We have workshops in gender presentation and coming out, transgender people of color, youth. There's a workshop for parents to talk about schools.

Do you see any sort of increase in trans visibility?

I can clearly see a noticeably different conversation about trans youth in high schools that wasn't happening even five years ago. As more parents are getting resources, more youth are coming out as transgender. To me, it mirrors what was happening in the early '90s when you saw more kids coming out in high school and middle school.

There's more work being done on trans issues when it comes to the executive side because there's more opportunity. … We have conversations with the governor's office and the attorney general's office whereas a year ago that did not exist. We'd be remiss if we didn't take advantage of those opportunities.

Do you see pursuing trans rights as a way forward from marriage equality?

While I hope Equality Virginia has been a part of changing hearts and minds in Virginia, it's clear the freedom to marry is going to come from the courts. It's not coming from the General Assembly. So we've always worked a little outside of marriage. The one thing we've reached now is we're now getting the freedom to marry in states where you can be fired for being gay. That remains a priority No. 1 of ours. It's still legal to not serve or not house gay or lesbian or transgender people in this state.

What looks like more of a focus on the transgender piece is we have enough advocates in the gay and lesbian space, and we don't have that in the transgender community. If we don't get them involved in a larger way than they are now, it's going to be hard to get things done. They are their own best storytellers. We want to provide resources so that enough of them feel confident to be more visible. S

The Virginia Transgender Information and Empowerment Summit is Oct. 4 from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Virginia Commonwealth University Student Commons. Registration information is online at

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