Transforming Lives

The graduate school’s TransActive Gender Project provides a holistic range of services and expertise for transgender and gender-diverse children and youth, as well as their families.

Credit: Savvapanf Photo/Shutterstock

The TransActive Gender Center, a Portland-based nonprofit, spent more than a decade addressing the needs of trans and gender-diverse youth and their families. But when the organization came under the umbrella of the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling in 2019—and was renamed the TransActive Gender Project—it was a game changer.

“We’ve accomplished more in the last three years than in the previous 10 years prior to being at Lewis & Clark,” says Jenn Burleton, the nonprofit’s founder. She now serves as program director of the TransActive Gender Project at the graduate school.

TransActive’s impact extends throughout the region. In 2021 alone, it helped 75 Portland-metro families of trans and gender-expansive youth through support groups. It also offered five workshops through the graduate school’s Center for Community Engagement, training over 230 community members on the needs of gender-diverse and transgender youth, and conducted nearly 40 professional development training sessions with school districts, businesses, and agencies throughout Oregon and Washington.

These trainings emphasize that gender-diverse identities are natural variations in human development and that children can express this identity at as early as 18 months of age. They also teach that affirming natural human gender diversity benefits all children, not just those who are transgender, and that disinformation regarding trans youth can cause long-lasting trauma.

The project’s work directly complements the graduate school’s commitment to social justice and creates yet another avenue for L&C to engage with the community. According to Matsya Siosal, director of the Center for Community Engagement, the project “directly impacts not just individuals but the systems and institutions that they navigate in all areas of their lives.”

Filling a Gap for Trans Youth

TransActive wouldn’t be the organization it is today without Burleton, a nationally acclaimed champion for transgender and gender-expansive children, youth, and families. As a transgender woman herself, Burleton’s journey to this work started in her own childhood.

She came of age in the mid-1960s, when resources for trans people were sparse, at best.

“The world had nothing to offer at that time,” says Burleton. “There was nobody to talk to about it. And even if my parents had been supportive, there was no one for them to talk to.”

What followed for Burleton were years of trauma, anxiety, and depression as she pursued a career as a musician. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that she made her way into the trans advocacy sphere, when she discovered a Yahoo discussion group called Parents of Transgender Kids. There, families shared their experiences, tried to find support networks, and looked for help explaining to schools what was happening with their kids.

“This was about 40 years after I had begun coming out as a trans child, and what I realized is that nothing had really changed as far as support systems for trans kids, for their parents, or for their families. I couldn’t locate any professional development or any type of education that focused on serving this population,” says Burleton. “These realities inspired me to change careers.”

In 2007, she launched an organization that would later become TransActive. According to Burleton, TransActive was the first organization of its kind. Even today, while there are many more organizations advocating for trans people, there are few that focus on trans and gender-expansive children.

But, Burleton says, there has been a dramatic expansion of public health services for trans youth: When TransActive started, there was only one gender clinic in the U.S. that provided services, such as gender therapy and medical interventions, to kids. Now, there are more than 50 major clinics.

TransActive was heavily involved in establishing Portland’s two pediatric gender clinics: the T-Clinic at Legacy Randall Children’s Hospital and the Transgender Health Program at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). These gender clinics pair with TransActive to refer families to one another for care, support, and other services. They also have a long history of collaborating on education, policy, and advocacy efforts to support gender-expansive youth.

According to Amy Penkin, the clinical program manager of OHSU’s Transgender Health Program, this collaboration has created tangible changes such as promoting access to necessary medications and establishing policies in schools that promote inclusion and create accountability for discrimination.

“It’s through TransActive’s services, education, and advocacy that more young people are accessing the medical care they need; learning in more welcoming school environments, as they deserve; and experiencing support from their families and caregivers who, prior to TransActive’s interventions, were unfamiliar with navigating or understanding their children’s gender,” says Penkin. “TransActive has a reach far beyond Oregon and is looked to as a model of what education, advocacy, and support can look like to empower transgender youth and their families.”

While TransActive does more hands-on, in-depth work in Oregon, the program provides workplace training all over the country and sometimes even internationally, everywhere from Mexico to New Zealand. And, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, the organization has gone into overdrive to expand virtual learning and support system options, Burleton says. Support group meetings are now accessible to trans kids and their families nationwide.

“You could probably attend if you’re on the International Space Station,” says Burleton.

TransActive has a reach far beyond Oregon and is looked to as a model of what education, advocacy, and support can look like to empower transgender youth and their families.”

—Amy Penkin, OHSU Transgender Health Program

Changing Political Landscape

Since founding TransActive in 2007, Burleton has seen conversations about transgender youth become increasingly politicized. When the organization first began educating people about gender diversity in youth, it was starting at ground zero, says Burleton.

“There was a pretty open playing field, and so we were just coming in blowing people’s minds,” she says, explaining that most people didn’t know the difference between sexual identities and gender identities.

The Need for Support

Transgender people are those who know themselves to be one gender, but who were labeled a different gender at birth.

  • Almost 2% of high school students identify as transgender.
  • 27% feel unsafe at or going to and from school.
  • 35% are bullied at school.
  • 35% attempt suicide.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,January 25, 2019

Now, the job also entails combatting disinformation about trans youth, largely disseminated by religious groups and the conservative right.

“Not only are we bringing new information, but we need to overcome preconceived notions people may have in their heads based upon information that is being fed to them,” says Burleton, explaining that training sessions address the social, cultural, health, and legal challenges that gender-expansive people face.

In 2021, the nation set a record for the number of anti-trans bills proposed in state legislatures. Republican lawmakers have proposed legislation nationwide to ban access to health care for trans kids and ban trans youth participation in sports, among other actions.

Burleton says that this disinformation campaign is an “all-out attack,” intended to marginalize trans and gender-diverse people—making TransActive’s work to empower and provide safe spaces for these groups particularly important in this cultural moment. She referred to this work as a “lifesaving effort,” as tens of thousands of gender-diverse kids live in households and communities where they are being traumatized because of their identities.

“The work has gotten harder because we now have far more opposition than we had when we began,” says Burleton. “But we’ve also gotten a lot better at what we do.”

The work has gotten harder because we now have far more opposition than we had when we began, but we’ve also gotten a lot better at what we do.”

—Jenn Burleton, L&C’s TransActive Gender Project

New Certificate Program

A lot is on the horizon for TransActive. Starting in August 2022, the graduate school will launch a certificate program, called “Gender Diversity in Children and Youth: History, Science, Society, and the Implementation of Inclusive and Affirming Policy and Practice.” Geared toward teaching PK-12 educators about gender diversity, this program will be the first of its kind in the nation, says Burleton.

The nine-month, eight-credit course will give a cohort of people working with youth intensive training on how to create inclusive spaces, focusing on the history of gender diversity, policy development and implementation in schools, and the culture of disinformation, among other topics.

“We think that this is going to be a differentiator for Lewis & Clark,” says Burleton.

TransActive has also embarked on a research study examining the factors that influence or move people from being trans-opposing to trans-affirming. Participant interviews are currently under way.

This study is one part of a larger gender diversity tool kit for schools, which could be utilized nationwide. The goal is to help organizations move from developing policies to actually implementing them. This could be as simple as knowing what to do when someone complains to the school’s front desk about someone who may look like a boy being in the girls’ bathroom, says Burleton.

“We get to the point of putting down inclusive policies on paper,” she says. “But both the implicit and the explicit bias that exists around gender diversity often prevents those policies from being effectively implemented.”

Over the long term, Burleton hopes to expand TransActive’s reach at Lewis & Clark. At the graduate school, she wants to help expand the curriculum of the Professional Mental Health Counseling; Marriage, Couple, and Family Therapy; and School Psychology programs to better serve the needs of families with gender-diverse kids. At the law school, she envisions law students doing social justice work with gender-diverse youth. And, of course, TransActive will remain an important resource for gender-diverse students across all three schools.

Ultimately, Burleton would like to see Lewis & Clark make the list of Campus Pride’s top 50 schools for LGBTQ students. “I want Lewis & Clark to be a destination school for LGBTQ, gender-diverse, queer, and nonbinary students.” Hanna Merzbach BA ’20 is a freelance journalist based in Santa Cruz, California. She is a former editor of the Pioneer Log.

An LGBTQ Nation Hometown Hero

Jenn Burleton, founder and director of the TransActive Gender Project Jenn Burleton, founder and director of the TransActive Gender Project Credit: Robert ReynoldsIn 2021, Jenn Burleton received the LGBTQ Nation Hometown Hero award for her 15 years of supporting some of the nation’s most vulnerable youth.

Her nomination stood out to the editorial team at LGBTQ Nation, an online magazine, because she was nominated not once, but twice. And one of those nominations came from Emma Basques, a 13-year-old trans girl who has been supported by the TransActive Gender Project.

Basques, a resident of Tualatin, Oregon, has attended support groups through TransActive, allowing her to meet youth with similar experiences. “It’s interesting because they all seem to kind of be like me,” says Basques. “It’s just nice to talk to them.”

Basques looks to Burleton as a role model, inspiring her to be an advocate for trans rights. Burleton has given her the opportunity to speak at conferences and develop her leadership skills, and the two are even working on a book together about trans people.

“Jenn has inspired me and done a lot of nice things for me, and so I wanted to do this nice thing for her,” says Basques, explaining why she nominated Burleton for the award. “[She] makes me go ‘Wow, she has confidence.’”

Burleton is grateful to have won the Hometown Hero award because it means more visibility for TransActive’s work, empowering trans youth and their families.

“For me, the honor is for our team,” she says. “It’s for the work that the TransActive team does at Lewis & Clark