National Center for Trans Equality Staff Walks Out Over Union Woes, Racism

As the Trump admin asked SCOTUS to legalize workplace discrimination, America's largest trans policy organization unraveled.

At lunchtime on Friday, August 16, National Center for Transgender Equality’s (NCTE) staffers logged off their computers and got up from their desks.

At 11:26 that morning, executive director Mara Keisling had invited the staff to meet at 2pm. Instead, the office started to filter out.

“I am joining the proposed bargaining unit in walking out today and also will not be attending today’s all-staff meeting,” an NCTE employee wrote to staff in an email obtained by NewNowNext.

As news broke later that day that the Justice Department had asked the Supreme Court to greenlight discrimination against transgender workers, the nation’s largest transgender policy organization sat mostly empty. Most of NCTE’s 19 staff walked out, save the two supervisors and one union-eligible employee. Three employees were not working in the office, according to current staff.

The walkout came in protest of the firing of the organization’s survey outreach coordinator Lissette Miller who had been tasked with bolstering participation in the United States Transgender Survey. Staff say Miller, who is black and Nicaraguan, represents the latest failure of the organization to retain staff of color.

Miller’s dismissal also presents a serious challenge for the organization. The U.S. Trans Survey, last conducted in 2015, is some of the only data available on transgender people in the U.S. with respect to employment, housing, medical care, discrimination, housing, incarceration, and aging. It is widely used by reporters and researchers. No current NCTE staffer agreed to talk on-record because they feared compromising the survey. They also fear workplace retaliation and jeopardizing the unionization process, which is still in its infancy.

Staff have been pushing management for improved working conditions since at least late 2017, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Staff were desperate for reimbursements and more paid time off to recoup from jobs that taxed them intellectually and emotionally.

NCTE employees began formally union organizing a year ago after the organization demonstrated a sluggishness in accommodating two staffers with disabilities. “The process was taking forever, and they each kept being asked for more and more medical documentation,” the source tells NewNowNext.

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Keisling (pictured above) says the first time senior management heard talk of a union was in November 2018. According to Keisling, NCTE management readily agreed to recognize the NCTE bargaining unit, or the group of employees who would negotiate on behalf of the union when it is recognized, on January 15. Keisling says the two sides are stalled while they debate over whether or not one of the supervisors is union-eligible.

“We are eager to get this done,” she says. “My board is unanimously pro-labor, and we want to get this done if they want it.”

NCTE has quadrupled in just five years and its staffers have been forced to keep up with a near breakneck rollback of transgender rights under the Trump administration over the last three years. Staff report that those growing pains have made it challenging for the organization, largely considered to be the first defense against presidency hostile to transgender people, to implement best practices for self-care.

But the major source of tension between Keisling, deputy executive director Lisa Mottet, and their reports has been that several staff members of color have resigned or been terminated, say sources.

In late 2017, staff appealed to the board with their concerns. Changes came, but they were largely cosmetic and did not address the bulk of staff woes regarding burnout and staff turnover. Among the most serious complaints building was the white staff were sticking around longer than employees of color.

DeShanna Neal can’t talk about the circumstances around her departure in June 2019 from NCTE due to a legal agreement she signed, but said there was a marked difference in the way the organization dealt with employees of color.

“The treatment a lot of times was one of constant questions, as if I didn’t know how to do my job,” Neal tells NewNowNext. “I was rarely praised. I was rarely heard or listened to. It was almost as if my presence wasn’t important or valued. It wasn’t just noticed by me.”

According to Neal, a white person in senior leadership once asked her if other people of color were too sensitive about racial slurs being used. Do I answer it as a person who needs to keep her job or as a member of my community, she remembers thinking.

Debi Jackson came onto NCTE in July 2017 to work as a family organizer alongside Neal. Jackson, who is white, says she was troubled by the way NCTE handled race issues.

Neal and Jackson point to an incident in January 2018 when they attended the Creating Change Conference in Washington, D.C., alongside other NCTE staff.

At the end of one night, Jackson and Neal and were joking about how Jackson was the “white Becky” in their relationship, a term that refers to a white woman who is clueless about race issues. It occurred to Jackson after the conference that other people at the event might have overheard them and misunderstood that they were close friends. So Jackson told senior staff that they should probably check-in about it.

“I brought up maybe we can have a conversation with all staff,” Jackson says. “Because it wasn’t just her. It was lots of staff making jokes about race at that conference, and you never know who is listening and if they only hear part of the conversation.”

Jackson and Neal say staff wrote up Neal without talking to either of them. The two were told not to speak to each other. Neal was under the impression that Jackson had reported her to management.

“On the last day of Black History Month, I’m being told I’m a racist toward white people,” recalls Neal. “I was so upset that I almost quit.”

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Jackson says she repeatedly asked management to try to repair the relationship and was told not to contact Neal. Finally, Neal reached out to Jackson and the two talked through it.

“They kind of ruined our friendship,” says Jackson, who ultimately left the organization for full-time work. “They made it practically impossible for us to work together.”

In the interim, the incident was so devastating to Neal that she ended up at a therapist’s office, where her blood pressure spiked, and she suffered a bloody nose from stress. Her physical and mental health deteriorated, she says. Neal continued to report to work, even though Jackson and Neal, tasked with the same role, couldn’t communicate.

Such incidents, where staff of color report feeling hostility, have led to protests from staff across all levels and racial backgrounds and fueled unionization efforts.

Keisling says she is unclear where the breakdown between staff and management who she says supports unionization rests. Still, she concedes the organization has work to do.

Staffers, however, say that their work comes at a cost. They want more flex time, the ability to do their jobs remotely, and better support for a job that is psychologically taxing.

In a letter addressed to NCTE’s management and board and signed only as “Staff of NCTE” on Friday, the group accuses the organization of “abusive and seemingly discriminatory hiring and firing practices” and says they are “beyond frustrated and appalled by the decisions of our leadership.”

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

“Almost nobody has all of the facts,” says Keisling. “The few times that somebody has had to be terminated here—and I can’t even tell you which ones were terminations—[I would] stake my reputation that it was done necessary and legally and with an equity lens.”

Keisling says she agrees that NCTE has a diversity problem like many organizations. While she wouldn’t go as far as to say she backed the walkout, she did say she believes in collective action.

“I completely agree with the staff that not all policies are still right,” she says. “We have an office full of advocates. Why would we expect them not to advocate?”

NCTE staff returned to work on Monday where board members met with staff. One source described the outcome of that meeting as neutral. Board members are more aware of the issues now. What they do with that information remains to be seen.

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.
@shoeleatherkate