By Denarii Grace, Bisexual Resource Center board member
I’m joined by Dru Levasseur, co-founder and vice president of the Jim Collins Foundation. The Jim Collins Foundation is a trans-founded and -led organization that “provide[s] financial assistance to transgender people for gender-confirming surgeries.” For the month of September, the organization has partnered with Faithfully LGBT, a campaign that “[collects] stories from people living at the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality,” founded by prominent bisexual activist Eliel Cruz.
For their joint collaboration, the #TitheTrans campaign, Faithfully LGBT is encouraging Christians to donate their tithes to the Jim Collins Foundation for the month of September. I think that this is an amazing and important partnership, especially when we know that most transgender people are part of the bi+ (plus) community. I wanted to learn more about their organization, the partnership, and their hopes for the future.
So first, tell me a bit more about your background, the work you’ve done on your own, and how you and Tony Ferraiolo came to start the foundation.
I’m a trans attorney and activist and I met Tony back in 2007. I was speaking at Yale Law school in New Haven, where [Tony is] from. I was on a panel for, I think, Trans Awareness Week and our passion for helping the community just matched. We talked afterwards and he said he’d been wanting to start a foundation to fund surgeries for the trans community. I said I’d been thinking the same thing, but felt very overwhelmed at the idea – both of us did, doing it alone – so we joined forces. And it wasn’t to raise all the money that’s needed because that would be impossible, but to do something about it.
As trans people ourselves, in positions where we were able to get the healthcare we needed at that time, we knew the struggle was real. But we [also] knew how devastating it can be for people who are not able to get [those resources]. And I knew as an attorney that this is something that should be covered. The American Medical Association and all leading medical associations have said that this type of health care is medically necessary. So [in my day job at Lambda Legal], we’ve been battling these things in the courts. In the prison context, [we’ve been] winning under the 8th Amendment standard that it’s cruel and unusual to deny this kind of healthcare. We’ve been litigating with insurance companies that are trying to save money [when] people’s lives are on the line.
The idea [for the Jim Collins Foundation] wasn’t to be an alternative and fund from individual donations. It was to raise awareness of the problem: to get people to understand how life-saving these surgeries can be, that this is such a vulnerable population, and that the denial of healthcare is purely out of bias, prejudice, and a lack of understanding. So that’s how we started off. We [began by] having fundraisers in New Haven; we did an open mic night monthly for a while. We had a New York event with Kate Bornstein. The idea was to be community-based. We’re one of the few trans-founded and trans-led nonprofits out there. We’ve been around 10 years and we’re about to announce our next set of grantees. In the last 10 years, we’ve funded about 20 surgeries.
For those who apply and are accepted, what is the process like from there?
We have a [trans-led] board – all volunteer, no overhead really. Sometimes we print flyers, but the rest of the money goes directly to surgeons. We have an application online. We try to help people [get] to community centers if they don’t have computer access. There are other funds [like the Jim Collins Foundation] out there now – we’ve helped some folks [get online]. We were like, “Yeah if you wanna do the same work, that’s great!” But we’re the only ones that actually fund the full surgery. Other folks are giving partial grants. That’s great because some people just need that extra couple of thousand [dollars, but they’re able to] get some insurance coverage, etc.
[So what] we’re really targeting are the trans people who will never have another opportunity, not through insurance, they don’t have a job, etc. It’s by financial need. So we’re really trying to fill the gap of the people who are most marginalized in our community – this would be their only option. We have about 300-400 applicants every year. We’re open [from about] April 1st until [approximately] the end of August. Every year we create an anonymous group of transgender people who serve as our selection committee. They look at the applications and the final step is for them to say, “Here are the top people [to choose from].” Then we see what we’ve raised every year and approach the surgeons that the [applicants] selected. We can’t tell people which surgeon to select. [And] we can never know how much it’s gonna be. We have to determine that [at the time that we peruse our small selection pool of applicants].
We always approach the surgeons and say, “We are the Jim Collins Foundation – this is what we do. Would you be willing to provide your services pro-bono?” Some doctors say ‘no’ and that’s fine, but we definitely try to make the money last. Then we ask people who have been selected whether or not they’re willing to share a picture and their story. It’s been amazing how many people are saying, “I would love to give back and tell my story.” From there, they just need to confirm that they meet whatever [criteria] their surgeon requires, [like letters from different doctors, therapists, etc.] They set that up and then they have to get the surgery within a year of [receiving] the grant. They just call us and say, “I’m ready to go,” and we send the check to the doctor.
Now, we actually have two grants: the regular Jim Collins grant which pays for the entire surgery or the Krysallis Anne Hembrough Legacy Fund, which is a matching grant. People who are half-way there, through GoFundMe, etc. have a better chance if they apply for [the latter] one. So really all we do is just raise money and give it away. [laughs]
I imagine that running an organization like this can take its toll on a person, especially when you’re so close to the issue. Can you share any uplifting anecdotes about how JCF has positively impacted people, stories they’ve shared with you?
In 2011, we finally raised enough to give our first grant, even though we were official in 2008. But it took us three years to get there. There’s video of this guy named Drew Lodi; they called him The Can Man. He was collecting cans to try to raise money for [surgery]. After he got the [Jim Collins] grant and had his [operation], it was amazing. Tony called him and he said that, when he told Drew the news, he dropped the phone like “Oh my God, you saved my life!” You could hear him crying.
Every time we have to do those calls, people are like, “You saved my life.” It’s just the struggle that people are going through. He did one of those Spartan Sprint races to raise money [for us] afterward and made this really cool video about his life and how [it] was changed. So when transgender people are able to get the healthcare that they need, they contribute so much to society. It’s just amazing to see the resilience and generosity of our community. [Many] times they’ve written in their application, “I’m hanging on by a thread here, but if someone else needs this more than me, I understand. You guys have given me the hope that I needed, that you believe that I need this.” Our existence has given people a lot of hope […] and the validation that this kind of healthcare matters.
Amazing. That was so great, thank you. So how did you meet Eliel Cruz? How did that partnership come about?
He came to us. I don’t know how he found us, but he said that, in response to the [national anti-LGBT+ statement coming out of a coalition of Christian groups in Nashville, Tennessee], he wanted to do something for the trans community to show that LGBT people of faith, in particular, are supportive [of trans people and issues]. Before I got on the phone with him, I emailed my colleague Nancy Marcus, who’s a huge bi activist. I said, “Do you know this guy?” She [screamed], “OH MY GOD!” So I’m like “Okay, he’s the real deal.” She’s a huge fan.
So I got on the phone with him and told him similar stuff that I’m telling you about the foundation. He’s just another amazing ally. Everyone’s been so inspired by this happening, it’s really putting us out there to people that haven’t heard of us. It’s beyond the money that the campaign is raising. This has reached a lot of people. We’ve received a lot of feedback [saying things like], “Wow, I didn’t know you guys exist. This is really great.” Communities of faith are not the groups we’ve ever considered targeting around this work, [but] it’s been really nice.
Do you have any more insight into why the #TitheTrans campaign specifically targets Christians? I know that the Faithfully LGBT campaign features people of various faiths.
Exactly. It was a Christian group statement that was anti-trans. So in response, it was like, “Well tithe trans instead!” For those LGBT people of faith who don’t buy into this national statement, here’s something you can do: give your money to the Jim Collins Foundation.
The #TitheTrans campaign goal is pretty straightforward: raise money for JCF so that you can continue to do the work you do. But what is the foundation’s end game? Simply to be a stopgap, a necessary bandaid for a larger problem fueled by systemic trans antagonism? Or does JCF have plans to become more involved in policy or law or any kind of grassroots organizing in the distant future? What’s next for JCF?
We want to go out of business. Our goal is that we should not have to exist. And that’s been from day one. We said we’re gonna create this, give people hope, raise awareness, fund some surgeries in the meantime, but our goal is that we should not have to exist. This health care should be covered by insurance, this health care should be covered when someone’s in prison. This is medically necessary care.
In our day jobs, we are doing that kind of grassroots organizing. But there’s this other thing where [our motivation] comes from actually having that personal experience, knowing what it feels like to not get the health care you need, to not know where you can turn, and [lack] that validation. Coming from that place as trans people, that’s how this [project] came into existence. We see you, we understand, and we’re doing something about it. But in government and insurance, that all needs to change. In the meantime, it’s [us] coming together, raising awareness, so that one day, we hope, we’ll be obsolete.
I hope so too! How do you think the underlying societal and institutional issues that create the need for the Jim Collins Foundation can be combatted?
The law needs to be clarified that it is discrimination to have any kind of blanket ban [on] certain health care for a certain population. It [also] doesn’t match up with the medical consensus. This is not cosmetic when it’s for purposes of gender transition; this is medically necessary surgery and it’s been around for many decades. So like the Affordable Care Act [for example], with sex discrimination, we’ve been litigating on that.
State law also [needs to clarify] explicitly that this should be covered. There’s been some really great progress from state insurance departments, coming forward [to say that they’ll] explicitly cover this and that any insurance company doing business in our state that is denying this kind of care is violating the law. Those [types of] insurance bulletins have been very effective. But there are some states where those policies will never get changed, so it’s important to also have the federal law [updated].
The data points to the fact that if you’re denying this kind of care you’re actually spending more money, because people are medicating in other ways. It’s actually harm-reduction to cover it. We have all the data; we need the laws and policies changed or to let people know, [where it has changed], that it already exists.
I think people’s awareness around [these issues] and their support is very important. If someone [who is cisgender is] working at a company, they can ask their [human resources] representative, “Where do we stand? What does our policy say?” Don’t wait until the one trans person is employed and has to go through it themselves. Make sure the policy’s explicit right now.
The other reality is that most transgender people are poor. So it’s important for state Medicaid to make sure that they are in compliance with federal law; right now, no one on Medicaid should be denied [this coverage]. Really [the Jim Collins Foundation] should be out of existence [already], but the reality is that there’s an enormous gap and people are suffering.
To participate in the #TitheTrans campaign, simply click here to donate. And don’t forget to share it and use the hashtag! To learn more about the Jim Collins Foundation, you can go here. The current grant cycle recently ended but, for those who would like to apply, the next application cycle will begin mid-spring 2018.