Lt. gov's trans council finds niche in advocacy work

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday November 1, 2023
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Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis' transgender advisory council continues to meet regularly. Photo: Courtesy Lt. Gov.'s office
Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis' transgender advisory council continues to meet regularly. Photo: Courtesy Lt. Gov.'s office

The transgender advisory council formed by Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis two years ago has met nine times since then, and now has a member connected to San Francisco.

The Bay Area Reporter pointed out the lack of Bay Area representation in its initial report in September 2021. The City-by-the-Bay has a sizable trans population, the world's first and only Transgender District, and the Office of Transgender Initiatives under the aegis of the mayor's office.

Khilynn E. Fowler, an African American transgender woman, lives in San Leandro but works as manager of community relations for the San Francisco Community Health Center, which in March opened its Trans Thrive program at 1460 Pine Street.

"I've been on the council now going on a year," Fowler told the B.A.R. October 31. Fowler was first brought to the attention of the council through her brainchild, the SHE Boutique that is a program of the health center. Come for the fashion, Fowler said, stay for the health care access.

"It is a one-of-a-kind boutique that connects health care and fashion," Fowler said. "We all know good health care never goes out of style."

The boutique was created as a result of trans women engaging less with medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We were losing our trans women out of health care rapidly because of the mistrust during the pandemic," Fowler said. "Being a trans woman — it's hard to transition properly when you have medical mistrust. So, I had to be quick on my feet. We're people who can take lemons and make it into chocolate cake if that's what we must do. Honestly, I didn't think it'd be as successful as it was."

Kounalakis' council has nine members and meets quarterly via Zoom, according to meeting agendas the B.A.R. obtained via a Public Records Act request from the lieutenant governor's office. The most recent meeting was from noon to 1:30 p.m. July 21 and included "reviewing/approving legislation." The B.A.R. also requested meeting minutes but spokespeople for the lieutenant governor's office didn't provide them.

They also said that Kounalakis, a former ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration who is running for governor in 2026 and who has served on San Francisco's port commission and as a trustee of the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, "is not available" to be interviewed for this report.

"This council is really not about the lieutenant governor but rather the focus has always been on the council members themselves and the issues faced by the community," the spokesperson stated. "By using the bully pulpit of this office, it has helped to elevate the issues, and build new bridges between the council members and stakeholders, policy makers, various industry sectors, and decision makers.

"As an office, we are very proud of the work the council has done so far and continues to do," the spokesperson added. "We hope that by bringing this incredible group of trans leaders together to share the challenges themselves, it will help bring more understanding of the community."

Ebony Harper is co-chair of the transgender advisory council. Photo: From LinkedIn  

Statement on forced outing a 'strong moment'
The office did, however, make co-chair Ebony Harper available for an interview. Circling back to the approval and reviewing of legislation, Harper, the executive director of the Sacramento-based trans health care advocacy group California TRANScends, said that she and other members have been advocating for the many bills affecting the trans community that were proposed or voted on in the recently concluded legislative session.

Harper said that advocacy work entails "going to speak at a hearing or for the bill, as a representative of the council."

"Most of us have been working in advocacy for decades," Harper said. "I came out in 1992 at 13 and I went through the typical life a Black trans woman has to go through, and to come back to 2023 where that [trans rights] might be pushed back is really scary."

So, the council prepared a joint statement on the votes in some California school districts requiring the forced outing of students who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming without their consent, as well as for accessing sex-segregated programs and activities that align with their gender.

"California has a history of enacting policies and laws that are supportive of transgender individuals, particularly when it comes to protecting the rights of transgender children and youth," the statement, issued September 8, reads in part. "We urge reconsideration of this policy in the best interest of all students. We advocate for a collective effort to foster an environment where students are protected, schools are safe and affirming, and teachers and staff are able to be trusting adults in their students' lives."

Harper said that the co-written statement was "a strong moment for the council."

Nonetheless, several school districts have approved such policies, but are facing pushback from state officials such as Attorney General Rob Bonta, who sued the Chino Valley Unified School District over its forced outing policy.

Subsequently, as the B.A.R. reported October 19, a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction against enforcing the Chino Valley school district's policy.

But not everything has been so sanguine. Council member Bamby Salcedo, a trans Latina immigrant who is the president and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition in Los Angeles, said that at the next meeting the council members want to ask about some of the legislation that had been approved by the Legislature but ultimately vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 957, which would have required state courts to strongly consider that affirming a child's gender identity is in the best interest of the child when one parent does not consent to a minor's legal name change to conform with the minor's gender identity. He also vetoed AB 1432, which would've required out-of-state insurers to cover gender-affirming care in California.

"I have not seen anything the lieutenant governor has put out specifically," Salcedo said. "That is a discussion, though, that we're going to have. This is something we will discuss in our next meeting."

Council still evolving
Salcedo agreed with Fowler and Harper that Kounalakis has been fulfilling her roles and responsibilities.

"I am in love with the lieutenant governor," Harper told the B.A.R. "I know you as a reporter, you should have your criticisms, you should be able to call out — hey, you formed this council, what are you doing with that — I feel she'd been very supportive. She steps in every now and then but the council is self-governing."

Fowler said that Kounalakis "goes beyond the call of duty to make sure the council is flourishing as it should be."

For example, Harper said Kounalakis was able to get Salcedo in touch with the California Housing Authority when Salcedo had "some housing concerns."

"They [Kounalakis' office] have been very responsive," Harper said. "She's a lieutenant governor — the lieutenant governor is not the governor — she more has a bully pulpit than anything but it was my suggestion she set up a council. We're still evolving and seeing what we will do."

Salcedo agreed that "because it is the first of its kind we're continuing to expand and evolve to ensure we propose recommendations to address the disparities the trans, gender nonconforming and intersex people have."

"It's great that we have this body at the state level," Salcedo said. "Obviously part of what we do is take positions on bills that advance trans rights and obviously we also reject bills that will diminish or try to take the little rights we have as a community away. This year we supported a set of legislative bills specific to our community. With everything that is happening right now, not just across the country but here in California and Los Angeles, by how school districts and boards are enacting policies criminalizing our communities, along with reproductive rights and all of that, we're able to provide statements on what's impacting our community."

Harper's council co-chair Evan Minton, a trans man, is running to represent California State Assembly District 6, which includes downtown Sacramento and the city's Lavender Heights LGBTQ neighborhood. Minton referred questions to Harper, "the temporary lead on communications with the press while I'm running my campaign."

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