Trans activist is fearless when taking on equality issues at City Hall, building bridges among leaders to unite the LGB and T communities
Nell Gaither isn’t one to brag about the long list of things she’s accomplished over the past year — and it’s a lengthy list.
Gaither, a trans activist and founder of the nonprofit Trans Pride Initiative, started her year by going toe-to-toe with city of Dallas leadership that would prove to be the beginning of an extended conversation and fight to help transgender city employees receive the health benefits they need.
After several meetings with the city manager’s office, Human Resources and insurance representatives, Gaither was convinced the city wouldn’t add comprehensive trans healthcare, including gender reassignment surgery. But what she found was that the city’s coverage wasn’t even covering one employee’s hormones. And as a former city employee herself, Gaither knew the hormone coverage shifted with prescription providers. This news was surprising when the city was telling Gaither that everything was covered for trans employees except the surgery.
While Gaither focused on the healthcare fight at City Hall, she also was stirring things up among local city homeless shelters to be more trans inclusive and focusing on how to better reach the trans and larger LGBT community’s health needs with an annual health fair.
After quitting her job last year to focus on her nonprofit, Gaither has emerged as a star in the local and statewide transgender communities for her passion, commitment and dedication to advancing trans rights. Her much-needed presence has helped educate LGB leaders in North Texas and across the state, filling the void of a local advocacy group with a specific trans focus.
It is for her fearless advocacy and ability to forge new partnerships and pathways in 2012 that Gaither is Dallas Voice’s LGBT Person of the Year.
Answering the call
Gaither started thinking about social services available to the trans community when she was involved with Metroplex Crossdressers Club back in 2006. As a member of the steering committee, she pushed for the group to take an advocacy role and encouraged trans men to join.
“I always wanted to do more than just social events,” she said.
But the idea didn’t gain a lot of traction with members.
By 2010, Gaither was working for the Dallas Public Library. That year the annual National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change was held in Dallas. Not yet out at work, Gaither volunteered for the trans hospitality suite after work at the conference.
While there, she encountered a trans person who was a suicide risk and the volunteers helped talk the person through it. The incident lingered with her, and her need to do something more for the community only grew.
“I think just being involved in that kind of made me feel more of a drive or more of an initiative that I really wanted to do something to start addressing the problem,” Gaither recalled.
A few months later, she began coming out at the library. And while she was working on website development she was in charge of an online form for a youth poetry contest. She noticed that the form had check boxes for gender and told her supervisor that the gender designation wasn’t necessary for participation in the contest. Instead, she said it may deter youth who were trans or intersex from entering.
When her supervisor showed little interest in her suggestion, the form went unchanged. But she later was helping the director of the contest with a project and mentioned the form to her, explaining why she felt the gender identification wasn’t needed. The director never said anything, but Gaither later found that the form had been changed. She was later told that it was because of her comments that it was changed to be more inclusive. The gender designation has been removed from all contest forms and even the employee manual for library staff.
Gaither even encouraged the library to request that the computer software they use allow them to remove the gender identification on the form when people sign up for a library card, while many librarians now leave it blank. She said since Dallas has had a lot of input in the software’s changes, if the company allows them to turn off the gender boxes, other cities can follow suit.
After those successes, Gaither began to toy with the idea of her own nonprofit, later launching Trans Pride Initiative in 2011.
While she remained active in a number of groups like the transgender health clinic at Nelson-Tebedo Clinic and Out & Equal, she left her job with the city to grow the nonprofit last year.
Fanning the flames
One of the first big events by Trans Pride was a chest and breast wellness day at UT Southwestern Medical Center last fall that focused on the trans and gender non-conforming community, many of whom are afraid to get annual checkups at the doctor for fear of embarrassment or ridicule. Gaither planned the same event this year, but grew it to encompass more tests and screenings to meet the needs of the entire LGBT community.
With a healthcare focus in mind, Gaither turned her attention to the healthcare inadequacies at City Hall regarding trans health coverage. City officials continued to suggest that better communication needed to take place between HR and trans employees about what was covered under the city’s insurance plan. But little headway was made on expanding the coverage to include surgery.
“I would say they’re not very supportive at all,” Gaither said about the city’s response. “It’s my impression that they’re uncomfortable with the issue, but I don’t get a good impression that they’re looking at it very seriously.”
Since her discussions with the city, Gaither has become heavily involved in the city’s LGBT Task Force, which recently made insurance coverage and transition protocol for employees one of its main goals for next year. Gaither also said depending on how the Affordable Care Act is implemented could also affect the city’s decision to expand coverage.
The back and forth with the city and urging the Task Force to take up the issue has been a long journey, but Gather said the process has helped people better understand trans health issues.
“It’s a little bit frustrating but you always have to have a long-term perspective and sometimes you take small steps,” she said. “Sometimes you talk to a person who does think about it over time and they eventually get back to you or something happens and has more of an effect than you realize. So, to me, just being out and bringing attention to it kind of helps in the long-term.”
Pursuing the dream
Gaither’s reach expands beyond City Hall. When Dallas Area Rapid Transit passed domestic partner benefits in October after more than a year of delays and discussion, Gaither addressed the board, telling its members that their work wasn’t done and she’d be back to get trans healthcare expanded.
She said since that meeting she’s been collecting information on companies that offer transgender healthcare and hopes the city’s decision to provide full coverage will encourage agencies like DART that have fought equality at every step.
“[Trans issues] are going to be at DART, so we will need to address them there,” Gaither said. “My idea with working with the city is to get the city on board first and hopefully that will set a precedent with working with other groups.”
While it may seem like Gaither has her work cut out for her, she’s only adding projects to her to-do list. Her work with area homeless shelters this past year has spurred her to start her own shelter and community center that would address a variety of issues the trans community faces, as well as provide short- and long-term housing.
She said she’d like the shelter and center to be in one place so people who have worked through their hardships can share their experiences and mentor others.
“I want to be able to foster a situation where there can be peer mentorships across that divide,” she said.
She’s projecting to have that dream become a reality in a few years unless she can find a funding source sooner.
When asked about how her work has already benefited the greater trans community, she humbly called it “limited” to people who read the Voice by following trans news. She added that her work is successful because trans people are coming out and taking a stand for their needs and rights, shining a light on the work that’s only just begun.
“It’s just one of a lot of different things happening locally and nationwide to bring trans issues kind of to the fore, where as in the past prior to 2008, 2009, at least the last 10 years or so, trans persons were very much hidden,” Gaither said. “But in the last eight to 10 years, we’ve started stepping out. So, it’s not that
Trans Pride is doing it, we’re just one of a lot of different things that are bringing those issues out into the open and making them a part of the public conversation.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 13, 2013.