In this interview, Andy Johnson, co-editor of Subverting Resistance to Social Justice and Diversity Education: Constructive Approaches with Undergraduates, speaks to Denise Sudbeck, a key advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the state of Alaska (USA), about the role of relationships in advancing trans justice.
Teaching university students about social justice and diversity has become more challenging due to increasing polarization and oppression of marginalized groups. This led April Vinding and me to edit the book, Subverting Resistance to Social Justice and Diversity Education: Constructive Approaches with Undergraduates. The transgender community in particular is being targeted by an alarming number of discriminatory laws and policies. Christine Robinson in her book chapter (Chapt. 6) describes empirically supported strategies for teaching trans justice issues. The interview below with Denise Sudbeck, a key advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the state of Alaska (USA), illustrates aspects of one of the foundational principles Robinson discusses in her chapter: developing relationships.
Andy: Please tell us about the nature of your advocacy for trans rights.
Denise: Most of my advocacy over recent years has been in one of three areas, at least at their intersections. As a trans woman who is also a Vietnam-era US Navy submarine veteran, I advocate for trans-specific health care in the Veterans Administration health system. As a trans woman in recovery, I advocate for effective and appropriate intervention and support services for addicted LGBTQ+ people. I am also one of a relatively small percentage of trans people who are also ordained clergy and I write and speak extensively in related queer theologies.
Andy: What does Pride mean to you personally?
Denise: Pride is the antidote to the cultural shame foisted upon human beings of differing sexual orientations and gender identities. None of us are exempt from suffering the consequences of that sort of shame, including myself. My experience is gained firsthand.
Andy: How is this reflected in your work?
Denise: That kind of toxic shame which attacks human beings at the core of their identity is weaponized for one reason. The goal is to exclude myself and others from public life; meaning school, work, public facilities, and gatherings and family life, because our mere presence makes others uncomfortable. But the exclusion from public life also makes a flourishing life impossible. We are created as social beings. Pride and the subsequent rejection of and healing from toxic shame sum up the spiritual and psychological core of LGBTQ+ identity. Most work impacts that shame eventually.
Andy: What are the short- and long-term goals of your work?
Andy: What are the most productive ways you have found for persons in your field to engage policy makers?
Denise: One of the most effective ways to engage policy makers is the development of relationships. This way defines all my interactions with local, state and national policy makers, that is, people from Veterans Administration administrators to the Pentagon to state legislators and governor to the municipal assembly and mayor.
Relationships require two things: 1. Patience because they evolve over a period of time, and 2. As much as possible, in personal, face-to-face communication where we can read each other’s body language and voice tone. An open-minded policy maker is more apt to recognize my humanity in that context.
Relationships equally apply to other people in the larger community, not just policy makers. More and more people want to be fair. They just aren’t sure how to do that. My job is to show them how.
Andy: What progress would you like to see next in addressing trans acceptance and equity?
Denise: I think most of the trans and allied community can agree that the immediate political situation in many American states is a crisis which strikes primarily the most vulnerable people – children. The physical and social attacks on children and adolescents and their families are nearing a catastrophic level. Many medical practitioners and therapists are raising alarms over these attacks. The psychological damage is happening so fast that the damage is hard to quantify. The most alarming of that damage is reached at the level of suicide.
The attacks must first stop and then be replaced by viable opportunities to flourish. Children and young adults must be able to attend school and to be treated equitably. They must have some assurance that they will be supported by school authorities and not have their trust violated. Parents also must be assured that school authorities are not inserting their own biases into the educational process and so complicating the process of growing up.
Rev. Dr. Denise Sudbeck holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (2018) and is one of two ordained ministers in Alaska who are trans. She is published in two public administration textbooks on LGBTQ+ civil rights. She also advocates for LGBTQ+ veterans and active military.
Andy J. Johnson, Ph.D. writes and edits works on the prevention and treatment of gender-based violence. His most recent book, Subverting Resistance to Social Justice and Diversity Education: Constructive Approaches with Undergraduates, was co-edited with April Vinding and is available now.