Raffi Freedman-Gurspan on How to Advocate for a Seat at the Table

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan on How to Advocate for a Seat at the Table

mastergirlboss
March 15, 2021

On this episode, we hear from Raffi Freedman-Gurspan who broke barriers in the summer of 2015 when she became the first openly transgender person to serve as a White House staff member.

Puno is back for another episode of Girlboss Radio – thanks for showing up!

This week Puno is talking to Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a trans rights advocate and the first transgender White House staffer.

Raffi landed her historical position just months after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, resulting in social media being flooded with the hashtag #lovewins. 

Although the White House celebrated by lighting up in rainbow colors after this critical step forward in our nation’s long struggle for equality, we have a long way to go. The courageous and tenacious people who advocate for equality know that democracy plays a big role in creating a more equitable world.

Puno talks to Raffi about how her identities as a trans Latina and Jewish woman — who speaks Norwegian and was a former high school cheerleader — intersect, and how that has impacted her advocacy work. 

Named after her great-grandmother who was a suffragette, Raffi brings the stories and perspectives of her countless identities into her work championing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Hear about Raffi’s journey of breaking barriers and paving paths for others to follow.

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or read the interview below (which has been edited for length & clarity):

A family legacy of advocacy

My great-grandmother was a suffragette. 

She was 19 when she arrived in the United States in 1907.  She had left, what was then the Russian empire, what we now call Lithuania in that time period where there were anti-Semitic programs going on across the Russian empires and her family said, look, you need to head out. And so my great-grandmother left in 1907. 

When she got over here, she was working in sweatshops. She basically kind of got organized on both the sweatshop conditions but then we also know that the suffragist movement was trying to organize a lot of working-class women and so my great-grandmother got involved. 

She was part of pickets and was involved in other types of protests. 

My parents were social workers but my mom definitely brought that kind of gusto for advocacy and social justice. 

So, my parents are both involved in a lot of advocacy work that was being done to make sure that children and adults with mental health issues were receiving good care and that they weren’t dealing with discrimination. 

The budding advocate

The marriage movement was beginning in 2003. The Goodridge decision came down in the Massachusetts Supreme court that would lead to the first same-sex marriages in the country in 2004. I was 16, 17 years old. 

I was witnessing history and I was involved with the community of gay-straight alliances across Massachusetts that were organizing around that time.  Some of those people are still dear friends and I met through those experiences. 

Playing nice in high school

The queer community also raised me in some ways, especially starting in high school. I think I just cocooned a little bit with them but I also was friends with a ton of straight people as well. 

I think people knew I was queer but they also knew me as their friend from their neighborhood and their classmate. And I look at how cheerleading involved me with school spirit and the football and basketball teams. And so it’s like, I guess there was Raffi the queer kid, but also like, you know, she’s cool – or they would have said he back then. That’s sort of the attitude I got.

My mom says to me a lot, you know you just weren’t threatening people, you were nice.

Finding her truth in her youth

I think for a lot of us, something deep down inside isn’t necessarily clicking. It’s funny because when I was in high school I actually think I tried to butch up just to get through it all. I actually grew a little bit of facial hair and because I was doing cheerleading I got a little jacked. 

Then we read a book written by a trans woman – Jennifer Feeney Boylan –  many folks know her and she wrote this great book called She’s Not There. It was about her experience as a trans woman transitioning while she was a college professor and parent. 

She was older but when she was describing her childhood a lot of things started clicking for me where I was like that’s me.

I played with Barbie dolls. 

I had mostly girlfriends. 

I had some guy friends when I was little but I remember it was about seven or eight where a lot of my guy friends just started not hanging out with me. 

My best friend in childhood Tina had a friend who wasn’t so comfortable with me. Remember, I was still a boy, you know? So it was like why is this boy sleeping over here? And I remember Tina saying to me once, I always thought of you like a girl and I never understood why you had to go home or you had to sleep with my brother in a different room.

This was the 1990s and early 2000s, there weren’t openly transgender kids. And if they were there, I think they were super hidden and maybe their families dealt with within a very discreet manner.

The only trans person I knew was one individual who was the parent of a kid at my Hebrew school. He was a wonderful, great guy, but transgender was just an adult thing. If anything, it was very rare and it just wasn’t spoken about. 

An Aha Moment

I don’t know if it is the case anymore but back then the dorms at St.Olaf College were divided floor-wise by gender. So my freshman year, I was on a floor with a bunch of guys but I suddenly realized I’m living on the wrong floor. These guys are great and all of that but something started rattling my brain. 

In some ways, being in a very gendered binary environment in a little bit more of a traditional space, like Minnesota, at least in that time just felt like the pendulum started going more to the feminine. And by sophomore year I started to essentially really just express my true self.

There were these two good girlfriends of mine who would let me try on their makeup and then it just became more and more. It was just natural. There was some like queer dance held by the local LGBT group on campus and the girls just deck me out and did my hair and everything. I remember friends being like – oh my god! And then it just stuck.  

It isn’t just about clothing or all of that. It’s really an intrinsic sense of self. The way that we like to speak about gender to help folks understand is that gender is between your ears at the end of the day. It’s your brain and how you think about things.

Coming out in college

So when I got to college it was that moment when a lot more trans people were coming out and after reading this book and really sitting with things, and to get very personal, realizing it’s not just having crushes on boys and wanting to have sex with boys. It was also about gender and relationships. Like how did I actually want to be seen in this world? And yes, a lot of it had to do with how I wanted to have a relationship with a man. I remember watching my close girlfriends in high school getting ready to go out and talking about boys and just deep down being, oh I wish I could do that too. 

But I also knew that no, you’re supposed to be a boy, so try to be a gay boy but it was more than that, it was gender at the end of the day.

By college, I just knew I didn’t want to live a lie. I think I knew it was a significant risk but was willing to take it. 

I knew when I came out to my parents it was a little bit of a shock for them. They weren’t necessarily expecting it. The way they put it was they all knew I liked boys and always assumed I was gay. But gender never came up before because from a sociological standpoint, as a society, we just started opening the door to saying okay we’re willing to listen to transgender people and understand them and build space. 

Even in the LGBTQ community, we still had to sort of fight for the T. It just so happened that I came of age then. And so I was part of that transitional generation of trans people that came of age as things were happening in our community, our rights, and all that.

About keeping her name

I did not change my name. I kept my name. I recognize that’s a very personal decision. I was able to keep that continuity a little bit to be like I’m Raffi and I’m still the same person that you were friends with. I get that gender-wise I’m a little bit different now, but I think that’s what also helped folks through the process because while it’s a personal journey, it’s also a relational journey especially with family and friends.

A blossoming career in advocacy 

When I got back to Massachusetts, I’m trying to figure out what the heck am I going to do? 

And then I realized Massachusetts doesn’t have any local protections for trans people on the books. They had been really good with sexual orientation but there’s just never been a statewide non-discrimination law that’s been passed. There had been local ordinances in four communities at that point I think. 

So what do I do being the daughter of two social workers? 

I go online and I find out that there’s this little organization called the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition led by this wonderful person in my life and dear friend Gunner Scott. So I looked on their website and they had an internship and it was around advocacy and policy. 

Here I am living at home and I was like, you know what, I’m going to pick up the phone and call this Gunner Scott and tell him I’m interested and ask what I need to do to apply. And I kid you not, it’s the phone call to change my life. It’s why I’m in Washington, DC because he told me in hindsight that he was just so curious about who the heck I was. And then they needed someone who was in policy and I embarked on this incredible journey with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.

Working within the system

We live in a democracy. We’re very lucky to live in a democracy where we are allowed to petition our government and that there literally are chambers that at least in name, are doing the people’s work through a representative of the people and the process by which to push for change.

We have this system in place that has been working for 230 plus years. Most obviously we also have had problems and different groups have had to fight for that. Inclusion in the phraseology of we the people and that all people are created equal requires interacting with these institutions.

Someone’s gotta do it and I guess at that point  I felt, I guess I’ll do it! 

The great thing is thatI have also been very connected to people on the ground in the communities. All these out LGBTQ folks and women of color who are now in Congress, I think the vast majority really understand that if we’re going to effectuate change we need a seat literally at the tables where decisions are being made.

And I’m so grateful that we’re able to do that now. 

The Reaction to The White House Gig

I thought if anything okay the local gay community is going to find out because I would be the first openly trans political appointee inside of the White House.  This was a historical moment.

So I was like, okay  I’m just going to show up to work and I am literally sitting down there is a news flash because the National Center for Transgender Equality and the White House decided they’re going to make a little bit of noise but this is great. It’s a significant moment for a trans person working at the White House

And my face is on CNN, MSNBC. I’m getting texts and I shut my phone off. 

It was really important for me that people met Raffi, not the transgender person, not the spectacle. But in the White House, there is a TV in every other room and they watched the news.

And so by midday, everyone’s like that’s her!  I remember my boss at the end of the day asking, how I felt and I remember saying, I’m here to do my job but it’s great for the community. 

Everyone was just so supportive and thankful and visibly happy. 

Pride for her work

The obligation I feel every day is that people understand I am accessible. I am part of the community. As a dear friend of mine puts it, “Girl, you, you have access to help open doors for others”. I think that’s part of it is like with this comes incredible responsibility. 

And when I was tapped to do the LGBTQ portfolio for the office of public engagement, so essentially being the LGBTQ liaison for the White House, I mean I was representing our community in good times and bad times. 

I was there for the Stonewall national monument unveiling which was an obvious, incredible community celebration. But two weeks before, I was running point for how the White House was responding to the terrible events that happened in Orlando with the Pulse Nightclub shooting, you know. I feel like I carry a lot of the community with me.

Reflecting on her impact on trans representation in government 

I definitely understand it broke barriers because now we’re getting our first Senate-confirmed trans person to be assistant secretary of health – Dr. Rachel Levine, a good friend of mine.  We have our trans legislators like Sarah McBride or Danica Roem, and my dear friend, Andrea Jenkins in the city of Minneapolis.

And we want to be part of this thing that we call democracy. That’s messy. That’s complicated and that for the last four years has been predictably difficult at times. And yet what’s so exciting is that people like me show up. And what I’m looking forward to is the folks that are very fast behind me, you know, coming up.

After the White House

I left the White House on January 6, 2017,  a couple of weeks before Trump and the new administration came in and where I ultimately went back was to the National Center for Trans Equality because I realized like we got to defend all the things that we just accomplished. 

Policy is impacted by who is at that table. So I joined a campaign called All In The Line, which is about pushing back on this gerrymandering practice that is happening through advocacy through collective organizing. 

We are sort of the legacy of the organizing that happened arguably right after the recession and certainly the Obama years. 

What’s great about this organization is that we really believe in the intersectionality of all these different issues and so I work for this organization and I oversee programming in the Midwest and the East coast. I have state directors that I work with and they are wonderful.

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