Getting to know Shelley Gregory
1. Can you tell FORGE a little a bit about yourself, your background, and what you do as the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center’s Transgender Resource Coordinator?
I’ve been employed at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center since November 2016 as the Transgender Resource Coordinator. The Center obtained funding in 2016 to devote a full-time staff member to working with trans/non-binary folx in southeast Wisconsin. In this position, I get to do a range of work with and for the diverse group of humans that make up our trans/non-binary community. A lot of my day-to-day consists of collecting information about trans-competent or -affirming local resources and sharing that information so that we all have access to the best care and services possible to meet our individual needs. The other big part of what I do is to help create movement around improving societal conditions for trans/non-binary folx by educating professionals and the general public and by advocating for legal and other policy reforms.
I started working at the Center after moving back to Wisconsin from California a few years ago. I grew up here in the eighties and nineties, in relative isolation as a trans kid in northern Wisconsin (Minocqua, anyone?). Although my parents were told in 1975 that they’d had a little girl, like a lot of us, as soon as I was old enough to sense it, I knew I was a boy. I didn’t grow up knowing that I was trans (or gay or queer, as I would identify for periods of time), but I knew that I was really different and I felt really alone. There were no signs of LGBTQ+ existence in my small, rural town, and I didn’t have the kind of family that I felt safe sharing with or asking for help. For me, school was an escape and offered a path to new places, new people, new ideas. I moved to the Milwaukee area and attended Carroll College, and then to Boston, where I attended law school, and then San Francisco, where I worked for 15 years as a social justice lawyer, using the law to make change, particularly at the critical intersections around race and gender. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve come full circle, bringing all of those experiences back home to Milwaukee to inform my work in my own community.
2 What do you like most about being a Transgender Resource Coordinator?
There are a ton of amazing things about being in this position right now. Folx in trans/non-binary communities across the country are bracing for fallout from the 2016 presidential election or are already feeling societal shifts as a result of current electoral politics. I talk to folx who’ve made decisions to modify their presentation or transition or disclosure plans while we’re in a changing environment — some feel as though the time is not right for them and some feel as though the timing couldn’t be better to increase their visibility.
Regardless, I feel inordinate privilege each time I sit with someone, each time someone shares their story, their hurts, their challenges, their hopes, their desires, and each time someone reaches out — for whatever reason — looking for support. I’m just really happy that the Center exists and that this position exists and that folx have a place to come and a person waiting for them if they’d like some help meeting needs, whatever they may be. I know, from my own experience, and from working with others, that taking the step of reaching out and asking someone for support can be hard — again, for lots of reasons. I wear many different hats when I’m working with individuals, but part of what I get to do is listen and witness the various experiences folx in our local community have.
3. What types of resources/services does the center provide to the LGB and specifically the trans/non-binary community in Milwaukee?
The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center provides a wide range of services to individuals. Of course, the Center sponsors educational and enrichment activities for the LGBTQ+ community (always including our supportive allies!), like speakers, discussion events, films, etc., as well as community-building events, like regular happy hours and seasonal community potlucks. We have resources available to the public, like free computers and internet access, and a 3,000-title LGBTQ+ lending library. Lots of other LGBTQ+ organizations make their public home at the Center, including FORGE, as well as Gemini Gender, a trans support group.
Currently, the Center has a particular focus for its individual services on three segments of the LGBTQ+ population: youth and young adults, older adults, and trans/non-binary folx. Plenty of research in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as our experience at the Center, affirms that these populations particularly benefit from extra support and are often under-served in mainstream programs. At the Center, we have licensed counselors who can provide trans-competent counseling for youth and adults, and we have drop-in spaces to support LGBTQ+ youth and young adults ages 13-24 and adults ages 50+, both of which include lots of trans/non-binary participants.
For trans/non-binary folx, I’m both a service provider as well as connection to other resources. So, folx can contact me for referrals to trans-competent professionals like medical providers. I can also help locate trans-friendly activities and services like social events, support groups, a comfortable place to get a haircut, or a friendly place to buy shapewear or get a bra fitted.
I meet with a lot of trans/non-binary folx who like to share their story, let me know about any challenges they are having, and find out if there are any local resources that might be able to supplement what they’re currently doing for themselves. I can provide peer counseling (supportive listening); assistance with basic needs like accessing the Center’s food pantry or clothes bank or finding emergency shelter or transitional housing; and support for other challenges like finding employment, resume writing, and interviewing strategies. I can also support folx in their coming out or disclosure process, with family or friends or at school or work, or provide guidance or support if someone has experienced discrimination or needs to lodge a complaint about unfair treatment because of their identity. I work with youth and adults, and I often meet with parents and family of trans folx to help support the family’s transition.
Finally, because we know interpersonal violence in our community is a reality, many staff at the Center, including me, provide services to folx who’ve experienced violence or hate crimes. We support trans/non-binary folx with competent, affirming licensed counselors, and I’m available to help folx understand their options and resources, to support them through the time following the experience, and if they want, to serve as their advocate in working with systems like law enforcement or medical providers. At the Center, we are always available to support anyone in the community who has experienced violence, and our approach is based on needs and desires of the individual. We understand that folx may or may not want to visit medical providers or make reports to law enforcement. We honor and support those choices.
I’m sure there are services and supports that I haven’t included — folx should always feel free to ask what we can do for them!
4. What do you see as possible advantages or challenges (if any), for trans/non-binary community members in Wisconsin?
The challenges for trans/non-binary folx in Wisconsin are very real. We know that both the political and social climate across the state has changed dramatically during the tenure of Gov. Scott Walker. I think the issues that have become greater challenges for the larger population are also the issues that have become greater challenges for the trans/non-binary community in WI. Current elected officials in the state privilege anti-progressive ideals, stagnating progress for communities like ours. Trans/non-binary folx would benefit greatly from recognition of our basic human rights this state. While the legislature in Wisconsin enacted the first non-discrimination law in the country for sexual orientation in 1982, the state never added gender identity to the law. What kind of message is sent to employers, housing providers, and businesses to keep excluding us from legal protection from mistreatment? We know employment and housing and are two of the biggest challenges for trans/non-binary folx to obtain — we need a real, meaningful effort by the state legislature to change the non-discrimination law.
Despite the political and legal climate, I do think there are advantages for our community in Wisconsin. Many of us still believe in, embody, and work to affect the longstanding progressive ideals that the state historically is known for. I’ve traveled to most parts of the state to train all kinds of individuals and service providers: police officers, doctors, health care workers, teachers, school social workers, youth workers, counselors and therapists, foster care agencies, foster parents, religious clergy, human resources professionals, and more. I am generally pleasantly surprised (though not always, for sure) by the interest in learning more about gender and gender identity, the desire to serve trans/non-binary folx with humility and respect, and particular concern for the well-being of our youth. We’ve also seen increasing evidence of (slow) growth of affirmation: the two largest health care systems operating in Milwaukee took steps recently to enhance care for LGBTQ+ patients and trans/non-binary folx in particular; several municipalities in the state have created or increased legal protection(s) based on gender identity; and courts across the country and courts that affect us in Wisconsin continue to make decisions expanding existing law to protect trans/non-binary folx. To me, given the national and state scene, continued focus on local measures, collaborations with private industry/ies, and resort to courts (which, while becoming more conservative, are arguably less politically manipulable than legislatures), are necessary strategies in Wisconsin.
5. What inspires or motivates you to do the work you do?
I have a lot of optimism about our long-term well-being as a community. We know how much work there is to be done in the mainstream, in so many spaces and in so many spheres. But each day in my job, I get to work with truly unique, beautiful, powerful, and utterly resilient individuals. More so than other communities in which I belong or have worked, I find really endearing the support we provide one another within the trans/non-binary community. Borne of necessity, that support is often life-saving, and it has been a cornerstone of this community. I’m constantly touched by the generosity of community members, the desire to support one another, and the willingness to act — those who offer up or donate time or resources like binders, clothes, books or films, or meet my requests for sharing information and resources, or are willing to support the folx coming behind them.
I truly believe I’ve been given a priceless gift in my time in this position — I’m witness to the process of folx coming to be their authentic selves or living their authentic lives. I witness the transformation of lives — over and over — and it’s exhilarating and inspiring and special and it always motivates me to want to be part of doing more and better for all of us.