It’s funny in the days of zoom when everyone has their pronouns in their name but not everyone knows what that means. It’s also really relieving in the days of zoom meetings to be explicit about my pronouns. I love my pronouns so much, some days I wish they were tattooed across my forehead, but since I haven’t found the courage to actually follow through with a face-tat quite yet, I’ll settle for a zoom screen sharing my pronouns to coalitions of food access providers. [For basic info on what transgender means, pronouns, misgendering, and why gender matters in the workplace, check out this article].
I’ve come to see no matter how many coalitions or workgroups I’m in, I’m almost always the only trans person in the room (this is not true internally to our organization, only externally). I’ve been curious about this and so I started looking into information about trans-led businesses in the City of Boulder. I have found that there is very little information about how many there are, or if there is any tracking of this in general. I was able to track down some information thanks to the support of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce and City of Boulder. The following is a list of some of that actual survey information and data combined my poor math:
- Boulder has 106,392 residents and about 7,000 employers (which is 5+ employees, and thus all of these numbers will be a little skewed when talking about trans-led businesses which could have less employees).
- 5,300 businesses were recently surveyed by the City, and about 2,600 responded. 7 of these responses were LGBTQ+-owned, which is about 0.2%.
- They added this “LGBTQ+-owned” to the form after they sent me a survey that asked if we were woman-owned, and I asked about being trans-owned, and they added “LBGTQ+-owned.” LGBTQ+ is much broader than Transgender and/or Nonbinary, but I was still like, “cool, the City changed the form based on a tiny email exchange!” Visibility and asking questions matters.
- About 5.6% of our population is LGBTQ+.
- About 7% of people are business owners.
- If 5.6% of the Boulder population are LGBTQ+ people, then we should have about 5,958 queer folks. So, out of these almost six thousand people, if 7% owned their own businesses, to compare to the general population, that would mean there “should be” about 417 LGBTQ+-owned businesses.
- 2,600 respondents of the 7,000 employers is about 37%, so even if we tripled the number of respondents that were LGBT+, hypothetically there may be about 21 LBGTQ+-owned businesses. Not even close to 417.
- There is no formal information or data collection mechanism I’ve found about transgender-owned businesses in Boulder, CO.
- 0.6% of the world is transgender, which would hypothetically be about 638 people in Boulder.
- That means about 45 should be trans-owned employers. We know of two nonprofits that are transgender-owned that qualify in this “employers” category (again 5+ employees), Boulder Food Rescue and Queer Asterisk. There are probably more than we know.
- None of these stats incorporate solo-entrepreneurs or businesses with less than 5 employees, like therapists, yoga teachers, artists, herbalists, spiritual leaders, etc. (and you know most of us are therapists). Thus, there are definitely way more transgender-owned businesses (and LGBTQ+-owned businesses) that fall into this category, but these numbers are also not included in that initial 7,000 number of “employers.” Thus, the numbers still line up, and trans-owned businesses are also hugely underrepresented.
Instead of information on leading businesses, most statistics about trans people are actually about how many of us have been murdered, killed ourselves, almost killed ourselves, struggled with depression or addiction, or don’t have jobs. Most trans people who are murdered are black trans women. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a trans person who doesn’t struggle with some aspect of their mental health, but how could we not? We live in a world that is constantly gaslighting us, and it takes a lot of emotional labor to stay visible.
Being trans-led isn’t just about representation. Specifically, as a nonbinary person (I am both transgender and nonbinary; these are not exclusively tied together or are not always exclusively separate, but I identify as both), I feel like my existence relies on the process of questioning truth, questioning systems, questioning boxes that we’re given to us. I was told there are boys and girls, that there is masculine and feminie. I’m none of these things and never will be. To arrive there, I had to defy all I was ever told and learn how to trust what is real to me. It was the trans community that did this for me.
BFR does just this as well. We push against the rules that were given to us. We acknowledge the harm that the nonprofit industrial complex perpetuates and work to build relationships in a new way. We live in the liminal.
When I got into nonprofit work I naively thought that we would all collaborate because we are trying to dismantle the same systems of oppression, right? What I found is that nonprofits perpetuate just as much harm to one another and to the communities we are trying to help by instituting systems that don’t work for people, creating rules that convey distrust, operating out of scarcity and being in competition with one another. I get it. I’ve lived with a scarcity mentality for most of my life. It’s not just resources and money, but time, love, and care. Sometimes the things we need most really just are scarce, and that can be a terrifying world to live in. And that mentality for work is not working.
If we look at food insecurity over time, we can see that our charitable food system isn’t solving this problem. If we show up the same way that clearly isn’t working, over and over, year after year, nothing is going to change. But charity models aren’t actually seeking to address the issues they say they care to address. They seek to perpetuate their own existence. Being trans doesn’t change this, but being trans means I was forced into a way of living that created a rupture in what society said was true. Trans people force others to question their truth. That can be rattling, but it is the necessary thing that we need in order to pause, reflect, and come up with some other way of existing with one another.
My physical transition has also taught me more of this concept. I’m transitioning to nowhere. I have nowhere to arrive if I have no place to arrive to, and my health and well being is dependent on accepting just that. But for me, I had to transition anyway to find liberation today (disclaimer for folks that don’t know much about this: not all trans people physically transition). Our work looks like this too sometimes. I’ve heard adrienne maree brown talk about creating utopias within distopias. Although we may not be living in a utopia and maybe never will be, we still keep moving and creating the worlds we want to live in by showing up as our fullest most authentic selves with the people we love and trust. My transgender nonbinary queer identity gives me the courage to move through the world in a way that challenges the systems that were given and the “truth” of what is. Deciding to change my body to better reflect the way I want to exist in the world taught me that I could have liberation under my skin even when the world is not liberating. Trans people live in the future. We imagine new ways of being and embody them today.
Many movement spaces say that the personal is political. Our identities, in all of their complexities, shape the way we see the world. They are the glasses that we understand things from. My whiteness, queerness, ability, is all a part of my lens as well. My transness is what enables me to see our work with a different perspective. We don’t have to do things the way they have always been done and in fact we shouldn’t. Instead, we can imagine a new way of existing, somewhere in the future and create that space in the microcosms we have control over today.
We do things differently at BFR. We show up with care, and love, and respect and courage. We build trust internally and externally. We have a huge impact around food justice, but we also love and care about each other in a way that is hard to even show the world. We even say “I love you.” We don’t do things just because we are supposed to, because that’s what other nonprofits do. For example, most food access agencies ask people to fill out poverty-proving requirements to get food. This is a burdensome, exhausting, intrusive, and shame-inducing experience. Instead of asking people to prove their poverty, we could just believe them. I guarantee you, anyone using the charitable food system (which is already barriered, inconvenient and harmful) needs the food. What if we laid down our assumptions and biases and just trusted the people we work with? It seems simple, but it’s just now starting to be a conversation in food access spaces. Nonprofits have either just been doing this forever, or they have demands from funders who have never seen the work on the ground or understand how hard it is to get your basic needs met in a system that isn’t actually designed to support you. What would happen if we just all stopped doing that? We can provide countless examples of ways that we work differently on the ground to honor the dignity, worth, and inherent leadership of individuals.
We don’t operate in a traditional hierarchy. We are creating a model that we are calling “democratized leadership.” What this means is that we create shared decision making processes, respond to feedback as a gift, have autonomy over our positions and work collectively to dismantle hierarchy, share power, and create participatory systems. We have a restorative culture. We talk openly about white supremacy culture and how it shows up in us as individuals and within our organization. We have conflict, for sure, and we talk about it. We try to understand one another. We ask for transparency. I fuck up, a lot, and then my team holds me accountable. I fuck up, and then I apoligize. I try to be transparent, and then I forget. I ask for help. I cry sometimes. I laugh a lot. When tragedies happen, we try to support the people most affected by them. We know they affect all of us differently but we allow space to acknowledge how they affect us. We hold grief circles and make sure space is created if someone needs it, instead of going to work pretending like we don’t live in actively harmful systems that affect our mental health and overall wellbeing everyday.
This is queering nonprofit work. About ⅔ of our staff identify as LGBTQ+ and about ⅓ of our staff identify as transgender or nonbinary or something other than cis. But it’s not necessarily the numbers, but the way we do our work, that’s what’s queer, powerful, weird and liberated. That’s why this is about more than trans-visibility or representation. It’s about creating a new world. It’s about science fiction. It’s about the here and now.
BFR Staff, 2019. Photo by Brad Goodell, Unboxed Photography