The nation’s preeminent transgender rights group will be a shell of its former self come Monday, November 18. The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), which started 2019 with a team of 23 staffers, will close out the month with just seven.
According to multiple insider sources, leadership recently offered employees the option to take a 10-week buyout. Nearly everyone stepped away.
“It seemed like they were really trying to push people to take the severance package, so it was like okay, what kind of organization is going to be left?” says one departing staff member, who spoke to NewNowNext on the condition of anonymity.
Leadership offered buyout packages to all staff in a four-and-half-hour meeting in early November, sources say. The offer came after staffers wrote a letter demanding that executive director Mara Keisling and deputy executive director Lisa Mottet resign within 18 months.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
Keisling at a press conference in October 2018.
“We’ve seen bridges burned between NCTE and leaders within the Black and brown trans communities,” the letter reads.
In a statement, Keisling said that staff, including leadership, was given “new protocols” for moving forward:
We have asked our staff to embrace a new chapter at NCTE, but we didn’t want anyone to feel pressured into this decision. We offered a severance package meant to give those who decide this next chapter is not for them the stability to make that decision.
NCTE is widely regarded as the nation’s leading transgender policy organization, and a critical voice in the fight to keep trans protections against rollbacks from the Trump administration. When The New York Times broke a story that the Trump administration wanted to legally define trans people out of existence, the group immediately launched the viral #WontBeErased campaign. The staffers behind that campaign are now almost entirely gone.
“They’ve bled most of their talent,” says a former employee. “[NCTE has] really burned bridges with a lot of folks who I believe are going to go on to do really great things... They are all incredibly talented, incredibly hard working, devoted to the cause. Most of the employees who left are trans.”
Eight departing staff members confirmed they were leaving the organization in conversations with NewNowNext. All declined to speak on-record as they scramble to find new employment.
Losses include the organization’s spokesperson Gillian Branstetter, who declined to comment for this article; director of communications Jay Wu; workplace inclusion manager Alex Roberts; digital campaigns manager Laurel Powell; digital strategist Charles Girard; executive assistant Dylan Yellowlees; policy counsel and research associate Ma'ayan Anafi; and racial and economic justice policy advocate Mateo De La Torre.
Arli Christian—NCTE's former state policy director who spearheaded national efforts to help states implement nonbinary IDs and pushed for gender neutral passports—is also departing the organization. And according to former employees, development associate Lauren Dow left six weeks ago.
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Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy, will remain with the organization, Keisling said. Tobin was among those who previously asked Keisling to step down.
“I did not think that things were going to end up this way at all,” says one departing employee.
“It’s such a bummer,” adds another.
Across the board, staffers were baffled by the buyout. NCTE Board Chair Rachel See was similarly opaque on why staff had been offered a buyout, expressing gratitude for departing and remaining staff in a written statement to NewNowNext:
NCTE’s Board and management have developed a plan to strengthen transparency and trust among our staff, and to create a workplace where everyone feels respected and valued. I’m sad that some staffers won’t be staying with NCTE because of their individual circumstances.
Former staff say those "new protocols" presented in the meeting were so vague, they weren’t sure what they were being asked to commit to. Several staff members are making less than $60,000 despite years in the field and advanced degrees. They asked leadership for raises to remain on staff but were denied pay bumps.
Staff have been pressing for better working conditions for two years, including improved benefits like more paid time off and reimbursements. Those requests grew more urgent as the Trump administration’s onslaught against transgender people forced staffers to be more mindful about their own self care, staffers add.
“I think they really wanted people to leave,” says one departing employee.
“I have lots of thoughts and theories, but no real facts to give,” says another.
“The reason that they gave us in the meeting is that moving forward might be hard for some of you all,” said one former staff member.
Rumors have swirled within the organization of a merger with HRC—a report that HRC says is patently false. “That’s just not true,” Chris Sgro, senior director of communications and marketing, confirms to NewNowNext.
Among those staying at NCTE is development manager Daniel Shad, who says he believes Keisling and NCTE leadership has what it takes to meet the critical moment for trans people.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
“While there are challenges that need to be addressed here, the executive team has laid out a clear plan for moving forward,” Shad tells NewNowNext. “I’ve been involved with the LGBTQ movement for over a decade and I’m fully committed to NCTE and know it is the right place for me to continue this critical work right.”
It is not immediately clear what the departures mean for the nation’s leading transgender rights organization just a year out from the 2020 presidential election. NCTE is also in the middle of conducting its five-year U.S. Transgender Survey, which provides some of the only comprehensive data on transgender people in country.
NCTE has been rocked by failed attempts to unionize and allegations of racism among its leadership. On August 16, staff held a massive walkout to protest the organization’s firing of its survey outreach coordinator and allegations of racism.
Employees first started to formally unionize a year ago after reporting that the organization had failed to swiftly accommodate employees with disabilities.
Full statement from NCTE executive director Mara Keisling:
“Over the past couple of years, NCTE greatly expanded our organization while we faced increased threats from the Trump administration, state legislatures, and others. The increased stress that the staff has experienced, combined with not having the structures and systems needed for a larger organization, meant that we didn’t address internal issues fast enough. We have taken the feedback and concerns our staff raised, brought in outside experts and consulted with our Board to come up with a plan that ensures NCTE’s values are reflected within and outside our organization so we can keep focusing on the tremendous work done here each and every day to advance transgender equality. We’re committed to fostering a culture at NCTE built on equity and mutual trust and respect, which includes a fundamental commitment to ensuring racial justice throughout our organization. We are asking all staff, including leadership, to embrace the new protocols and systems we are investing in as an organization, to ensure that all of us are equipped with the tools and support needed to address the ongoing threats to the trans community. We are confident that NCTE will emerge as a stronger organization for having gone through this process. At the same time, we realized that some staff weren’t up for the next part of this journey. We have asked our staff to embrace a new chapter at NCTE, but we didn’t want anyone to feel pressured into this decision. We offered a severance package meant to give those who decide this next chapter is not for them the stability to make that decision. We’re so grateful for the tremendous work every single member of this team has accomplished, and look forward to building an even stronger future for trans people.”
Full statement from NCTE board president Rachel See:
"NCTE’s Board and management have developed a plan to strengthen transparency and trust among our staff, and to create a workplace where everyone feels respected and valued. I’m sad that some staffers won’t be staying with NCTE because of their individual circumstances. I am immensely grateful for their hard work and dedication working at NCTE, being part of our efforts to secure justice for all trans people, and I wish them well in their future endeavors.
I’m thankful for the people who are remaining part of NCTE, and I and the Board look forward to continuing to work with them. I’m confident that our plan will help us be even more successful in our critical work of securing justice for all trans people."
This article has been updated to reflect additional staff members confirming their departure from NCT as well the timeline of meeting during which buyouts were offered. We have also removed a statement that said some employees declined severances after leadership and former staffers clarified they were accepted after non-disclosure clauses were removed. w
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