Community / News from the community

Garden State Equality’s Andy Bowen Walks the Talk

PHOTO CREDIT: NJ TV NEWS

PHOTO CREDIT: NJ TV NEWS

Garden State Equality is New Jersey’s largest civil rights organization,  responsible for enacting over 200 laws benefitting the LGBT community. I’m well aware of the fantastic work that GSE does on a municipal, county and state level to protect and advocate for our community, but after we won marriage equality in October 2013, many questioned GSE’s focus. It had seemed for a time that marriage equality was GSE’s only fight, but the organization was (and is) fighting all sorts of legal battles and initiating programs surrounding bullying and discrimination throughout the state. This week happens to be Week of Respect in New Jersey, and Garden State Equality is helping public schools raise awareness and educate its student body and staff about issues surrounding bullying.

Recently appointed Executive Director of Garden State Equality, Andy Bowen, brings community organizing experience, passion, and the ability to pursue unconventional paths to achieve equality. I had the chance to join her for lunch and talk about Andy’s path to GSE and her plans to keep New Jersey at the forefront of equal rights legislation and community support.

Andy Bowen grew up in the one district in Maryland a “red bloodedly conservative” suburb in Maryland. Her town sat near a naval academy and attracted an “upper-crusty military element” as well as a white, working class population. You may think that it was challenging for a trans girl to grow up in that kind of environment. Andy insists that she found inspiration amongst friends and support from family.

“A really important thing to know about me is that I have this sense of ideological complexity,” explained Bowen. “My parents were Republican voters. I came out as Bisexual and then gay and then Trans, and now I’m engaged to a woman. They were very supportive. My core group of friends is made up of mostly the people I grew up with who are actually more radical than I am.” Those radical friends made an impression on Bowen and helped “light her moral imagination.”

Bowen’s first job out of college was with the Iron Workers in DC.  She worked closely with her manager who emphasized the importance of listening to, learning from and taking guidance from workers directly.

During her tenure with the Iron Workers, more work became available when there was previously none, and the company they were working with got health insurance for their employees.

By the time Bowen left the Iron Workers to go to graduate school, she had learned three valuable lessons about community organizing that would serve her well at Garden State Equality.

  1. Social change can happen even when you’re improvising.
  2. All options should be considered.
  3. Throwing out conventionality often works when fighting for what is right.

While in graduate school, Bowen started dabbling in the local trans activist scene, secretly taking hormones and “doing the double-life thing,” she shared. “I would disappear when I had to get my face lasered and took sick days when my face was a mess. By that point, I could pass pretty well, but I was still presenting as male at work.”

She found her way to the DC Trans Coalition. “They had been looking for someone to get a bill passed in DC council that would help transgender people change their birth certificates more easily. Lisa Mottet who currently works for the National Center for Transgender Equality but at the time, worked for the Gay and Lesbian Task Force.” She was scouting people who could help and heard about Andy’s work with the Iron Workers. Bowen joined as Social Policy Organizer. By August of 2013, they got the bill passed and signed by the mayor.

Mottet took Bowen under her wing and showed her more about the wider LGBT movement. When I asked her why she hadn’t been involved previously, she admitted, “One of the many problems in this country is that we don’t do a good job of socializing our kids into understanding the complexity of sexuality and gender. I identified first as a gay male and then trans and now trans in a lesbian relationship, but I don’t identify as lesbian. When I was first learning about gay male culture, it was not my scene, so I didn’t know where my place was. I didn’t realize there was this whole world of gender nonconforming people. So it took it me a while to figure out who I was, and what I wanted to do. Eventually, I found myself working with Lisa.”

Also, while in DC, Bowen organized around trans homelessness and successfully sued a homeless shelter that was evicting trans women. She worked to make sure that the DC regulated health policies included coverage related to transitioning. Once Bowen graduated, she moved out of DC and got the job at Garden State Equality.

We discussed her plans for the organization to tackle the many issues that continue to face our community.

“The broad goal is insuring the lived equality of LGBT people in New Jersey meaning that getting good policy is not enough. We need to be forming connections all over the state with people on the ground with LGBTs and Allies. We will be figuring out of our non-discrimination laws and anti-bullying laws, what’s working, not working, what gaps we need to fill, and how people at the local level can be mobilized to come up with new models to solve problems.

To give you a couple of examples, GSE got news that there was a gay, Jewish couple in Lakewood, New Jersey in Leisure Village, an active adult community. They alleged that a neighbor was harassing them with anti-Semitic, homophobic slurs. He also allegedly carved a swastika into their lawn. They contacted the police, but no action was taken. Then, they reached out to GSE who contacted political allies to protect the couple. The next morning the suspect was arrested.

We supported a trans teenager in Middletown who was concerned about being respected at school. GSE trained counselors and anti-bullying staff at the school.

In the short term, we will be focusing on our most vulnerable population; seniors, youth, and transgender population by:

  1. establishing grass roots connections.
  2. acting on those connections to show that we’re real and making change and getting tangible results for people, and
  3. raising a ton of money!

We’re gearing up for reform of trans health insurance access. My own insurance in Jersey has a trans exclusion like many policies that denies coverage for my medically necessary care.

The Department of Health and Human Services’s policy is that discrimination against transgender people in health care does fall under sex discrimination, but there is still a state by state effort to make sure that the different insurance companies uphold that policy. It’s certainly our organization’s view that transgender exclusions and the refusal to cover transition related care are discriminatory.”

It may surprise you learn that there are only three employees on the payroll at Garden State Equality. They count on volunteers to help with all of the good work they’re doing. Locals can contact Bowen at bowen@gardenstateequality.org to become a volunteer.

It struck me that other states would benefit from learning about all the work that GSE has done. And GSE could learn from organizers outside of New Jersey, as well. Bowen said that she would absolutely connect with other organizers in the country to compare notes and share ideas and strategies.

“GSE uniquely positioned because we have a lot of policies in line that are very good. And, we are leading the way in the post-marriage game. We’re dealing with all the discrimination complaints that we receive because marriage equality does not eradicate discrimination and therefore does not solve our problems.”

We discussed the fact that marriage equality is only one rung of the equality ladder and how we can’t afford to sit back and assume that everything will work itself out now that gay people can get married.

“Let’s think about what we’ve seen happening to women’s rights, racial equality, roll backs on voting rights protection, to contraception and women’s health. All of these are our issues and exemplary of what happens when people turn their backs – when the mainstream drops out.”

Garden State is still as vital as it ever was, and even though there’s a motivated and experienced leader at its helm, it falls on each of us in our own communities and local organizations to support those of us who are denied our civil rights. We look forward to hearing more about Andy Bowen and Garden State Equality just as we encourage news of justice and action from other states and abroad.

Many thanks to Andy Bowen for an inspirational lunch, and good luck with your wedding plans leading up to the big day on March 28th of 2015!

 

 

 

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