Kris Hayashi Protects Transgender People

The executive director of the Transgender Law Center is in full battle mode fighting for the most vulnerable.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Ever since taking office, President Donald Trump has comprehensively sought to roll back protections and rights afforded to transgender people with moves like declining to defend health care protections, threatening to block military employment, and declining to defend students from discrimination in schools.

Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, is having none of it.

Hayashi expected as much following Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and he has been in full battle mode ever since, filing court actions, building coalitions, and training young activists to sustain the fight into the future.

“It is a hard moment for us,” said 43-year-old Hayashi, who has spent his career campaigning for civil rights of transgender people like himself, as well as other minorities and poor people.

“At the same time, I have seen the ways in which transgender people across the country and here in California have continued to resist, to fight for justice, to build communities, and keep each other safe,” said the grimly determined Hayashi, who sees discrimination as a threat to transgender people’s very survival because of associated violence and poverty rates.

A native of Seattle, Hayashi was born a girl but never felt female. “I can remember being 3 or 4 and being so clear I did not want to wear that dress to the wedding,” he recalled.

Hayashi’s family members were accepting of his “tomboyish” ways, but elementary and middle schools were difficult for him, with harassment from peers and a lack of understanding and support from teachers and administrators.

“It was really clear to me that the world was not set up for me to survive, and I didn’t know why. I knew there was something about me that people considered wrong, but I didn’t know how to be any different than what I was,” he said.

It was not until Hayashi became an undergraduate at Stanford University that he realized that Asian people could be gay, and it was not until his mid-20s that he met a transgender person.

“Once I was exposed to folks who were transgender, particularly transmasculine, I pretty quickly was like, ‘Oh, yes, this is who I am; these are the kinds of words I have been looking for to be able to name myself,’” said Hayashi, who began to medically transition at age 26.

Hayashi in college threw himself into student advocacy for people of color and gays. His leadership abilities rapidly became apparent. At age 23, Hayashi became executive director of Youth United for Community Action in California, a group for young people of color, where he was employed for seven years. A stint training activists at the Western States Center in Portland, Ore., then led to Hayashi taking over The Audre Lorde Project in New York City, where he spent a decade pushing for gay and transgender rights. It was there that Hayashi helped launch the annual New York City Trans Day of Action, now in its 11th year, and was part of a coalition that won a campaign to get the city’s welfare agency to adopt community developed policies on serving trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Hayashi returned to the Bay Area as deputy director at the Transgender Law Center, becoming executive director just over a year later in February 2015.

He lives in Oakland, which he loves for its long history of activism, with his partner, multimedia artist, filmmaker, musician, and counselor Q Quintero, who is a core member of Peacock Rebellion, a “queer + trans people of color crew of artist-activist-healers.”

Since He took over, the Transgender Law Center’s budget has grown from about $2 million to $4 million a year, and the staff is up to 28 people, including 21 in Oakland, with the rest in other locations, including New York City and Atlanta.

One of the center’s most notable achievements in recent years was winning an $800,000 settlement as co-counsel in a lawsuit that accused a Wisconsin school district of discriminating against transgender student Ash Whitaker by forbidding him from using boys’ restrooms. The Kenosha Unified School District settled after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling holding that transgender students are protected from discrimination under the U.S. Constitution and Title IX, the federal law barring bias based on sex.

“Kris is always out on the frontlines,” said Chase Strangio, a transgender staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represented transgender student Gavin Grimm in a similarly successful lawsuit against a school district in Virginia.

Strangio has known Hayashi for about a decade since they worked in the same building in New York City, and they have worked particularly closely the past six years on transgender issues.

“My first call how to respond and what to do is always to Kris,” Strangio said. “He is one of the most important leaders in the trans movement nationally, certainly, and globally.”

Strangio said he was particularly impressed with Hayashi’s ability to collaborate with groups across the spectrum, whether large or small, in bringing attention to the plight of the most vulnerable.

In late August, for example, Hayashi was one of 100 protesters who shut down an intersection in Albuquerque, N.M., in partnership with the Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement group in Los Angeles and the Black LGBT Migrant Project.

The event called attention to the case of Roxana Hernandez, a transgender woman from Honduras who was detained and died of apparent illness while in custody at a federal detention center in New Mexico. Also in focus was the case of Udoka Nweke, a gay Nigerian migrant who has been in a detention center in San Bernardino County since 2016.

“If there is anyone in the LGBT movement that I look up to, it’s Kris,” said Jorge Gutierrez, national coordinator for Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, who has known Hayashi for six years.

Hayashi gets around a lot and has significantly raised the Transgender Law Center’s profile, said Ray Mulliner, secretary of the Small Change Foundation, the grant-making agency backed by San Francisco resident James Hormel, the openly gay former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg who has long supported TLC.

“Kris brought to the Transgender Law Center and the community not only a bigger voice, but during his time there, the profile of TLC has risen in terms of awareness in the community,” Mulliner said.

One result is that Transgender Law Center has been attracting more corporate support.

Last year, for example, Hayashi’s organization teamed up with Salesforce, which hosted Transform Tech, a daylong summit that brought together transgender and gender nonconforming people in tech along with industry leaders. It was staged again this year, and Salesforce has become an important partner of Transgender Law Center, Hayashi said.

“Salesforce has been super fortunate to work with Kris, and the Transgender Law Center, to advance equality for all — Kris is an incredible partner on this mission,” said Salesforce Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet, whose son came out as LGBTQ as a first-year high school student and subsequently became an outspoken advocate for transgender rights. At the first Transform Tech event, Prophet’s son gave a moving address to attendees via Skype.

Soon after Trump took office, other organizations and individuals have also stepped up to offer support for the Transgender Law Center.

Last year, the online music-related website Bandcamp raised nearly $100,000 for TLC, and in June CREDO, the nonprofit mobile phone company that supports “progressive” causes, raised more than $30,000.

Over time, however, Hayashi said enthusiasm has waned, though the need for help remains as much as ever.

Progress has been great for transgender people over the last decade or so, but that has come at a price as reactionaries have struck back, he said.

The Trump administration, for example, has been moving to roll back health care protections against discrimination that were put in place under President Obama.

“The threat level from this administration has been relentless and ongoing and has not let up,” Hayashi said.

“We are still here, still fighting for rights, to keep trans people alive.”

Kris Hayashi appeared at Berkeley’s Unchartered: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas on Saturday, Oct. 6.

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