By Kayley Margarite Whalen
In honor of Latina Equal Pay Day on October 21, which recognizes employment discrimination against Latinas, it’s important to highlight the experiences of trans Latinas working in nonprofit workplaces. Oftentimes we see multi-marginalized Latinas and other Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) hired by white-led nonprofits or put on nonprofit boards as a part of the organization’s efforts to diversify their funding and their impact. However, nonprofits tend to set up Latinas, especially trans and/or disabled Latinas such as myself, up for failure by demanding they put their identities aside and not speak up for their communities.
We need white nonprofit leaders to stop trying to silence BIPOC activists, decrying them as “too loud,” “disruptive,” and “disrespectful.” This silencing is often referred to as “respectability politics,” which is the lie that change will come if you play by the rules, don’t rock the boat, and wait your turn. As an autistic transgender Puerto Rican and Guatemalan-American woman with extensive non-profit experience, and someone who’s been silenced for being a “loud Latina,” I know respectability politics will never bring true liberation for my communities.
I believe we are in the midst of a historic moment for autistic BIPOC. Over the last year, there have been growing protests against white autistic movement leaders, including the board of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), for failing to listen to and center the needs of autistic BIPOC. In April, the organization came under heavy criticism for a history of not crediting autistic Indigenous people and other autistic people of color for their contributions to the community. In response, the organization used heavy-handed silencing tactics, including legal intimidation, widespread deletion of comments on social media, and deeply insensitive public statements that only further enraged critics. Following this incident, board Chair Cal Montgomery resigned in protest and joined former board Vice Chair Morenike Giwa Onaiwu in a May 30 open letter criticizing racist and ableist practices at the organization. The open letter demanded that ASAN be more accountable to autistic BIPOC and autistic people with disabilities.
These concerns come at a time as the community is seeing a collision of crises. COVID is exacerbating existing racial disparities, and over the last year and a half, we’ve seen a resurgence of organizing around racial justice and disability justice. Black Lives Matter, efforts to stop detention and deportation of immigrants, and efforts to stop electric shock torture of primarily Black and Brown autistic and disabled people at the Judge Rotenberg Center have laid bare the racial disparities faced by autistic and disabled BIPOC.
I joined the ASAN’s board in March 2020 as their treasurer with two goals: to help ensure the organization’s financial success and to help guide the organization in better serving other autistic BIPOC including autistic Latinos. On September 19, I was voted off the board for those same two reasons. I had consistently demanded for six months that the organization needed to listen to the autistic and disabled BIPOC protesting them or risk losing trust, support, and funding. I cited extensive research which backed up the claims of marginalized autistics who were protesting them. ASAN currently has no autistic BIPOC staff in director-level roles and the board has recently seen an exodus of BIPOC members. It took until 2018 when ASAN, founded in 2006, had more than one BIPOC board member, and all but one BIPOC board member who served prior to my tenure has left the board, almost all in protest of their treatment. As such, I warned the organization that they needed to put more BIPOC on the board and in executive leadership and to better support them.
Instead of listening to my warnings, I was silenced for being too loud, too vocal, “not respectful” enough. I was essentially removed because white respectability politics is more important than listening to a loud Latina like myself.
The Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network recently published two blogs with videos by autistic Latinas about the unique systemic discrimination faced by their communities. These blogs, by Kayla Rodriguez and myself, describe the lack of culturally appropriate resources, chronic under-diagnosis, low healthcare coverage rates, and the negative stigma of racist and sexist stereotypes such as that of the “loud Latina.”
Also, Latine trans women and nonbinary people face some of the worst workplace discrimination. Thirty-eight percent of Latina trans women and 20 percent of nonbinary Latines reported being fired, denied promotion, and/or not hired in the past year because of identities. And as Latina Equal Pay Day recognizes, Latinas make 57 cents for every dollar a white man makes, with October 21 marking the day that the average Latina catches up to what her white male coworkers earned the previous year.
In the nonprofit sector, leaders think that they’re above racism, sexism, and gender-based discrimination. However, Race to Lead, which surveyed more than 5,000 nonprofit staff of all races across the industry in 2019, and found nonprofits had a “white advantage,” where nonprofit culture “steadily reproduced concrete and exponential benefits for white people.” The report cited Latinas at nonprofits with similar experiences to my own, such as this anonymous testimonial:
“It is challenging constantly being the only Latina in all-white and mostly male circles. It is a constant challenge of knowing when to be strategic to stand up for my community and when I need to hold back or else be left out of decision-making circles and labeled as the ‘angry Latina.’ “
It’s become painstakingly clear that donors, foundations, and fundraisers need to shift their time and resources toward supporting autistic and disabled BIPOC leadership including Latinas. This means supporting both established BIPOC leaders, equipping BIPOC leaders from smaller organizations, and helping existing BIPOC staff move into executive roles. This also means holding white-led autistic and disability organizations accountable for failing BIPOC in their advocacy and leadership, and encouraging change by putting their funding on the line.
Disability organizations need to listen to the most marginalized voices, including autistic BIPOC, even if what they say is challenging. Yes, organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network have played a historic role in leading efforts to ensure autistic people had a say in policy that affected our lives. But we can’t keep supporting organizations simply because of their history, especially when their culture has been dominated by white leadership. History is replete with advocacy organizations that suffered from myopic single-issue work, largely led by white advocates who failed at understanding intersectionality. When activists demanded inclusion, some decided to change, and grew their supporter base, while others remained obstinate, and often lost funding.
We’ve seen this approach work. In 2015, nearly 100 trans and gender-nonconforming BIPOC activists stormed the stage at the Denver Sheraton during an influential LGBTQ conference. In front of an audience of 2,000-plus attendees, activists spoke the names of trans BIPOC recently killed by police and hate violence and demanded funding for organizations led by trans BIPOC. This event, and subsequent activism it inspired, led to foundations forming the Global Trans Initiative, which distributed $20 million in grants over five years. What had started as a grassroots protest by “loud” and “disruptive” BIPOC activists demanding change led to a ground shift in the trans movement.
As an autistic trans Latina, I believe the time has come for the autistic movement and the larger disability movement to have its ground-shift moment. I am only one in a chorus of voices demanding that our movements center the most marginalized within our communities. It is time to defund disability organizations complicit in white supremacy and divert funding into organizations led by and for autistic and disabled BIPOC.
Kayley Margarite Whalen is an activist, digital strategy consultant, blogger, and YouTuber who’s autistic, queer, trans, and a Puerto Rican/Guatemalan-American. Currently, she is traveling the world and sharing the stories of the activists she meets and the cultures she’s learning about from an intersectional social justice lens. Twitter: @TransWorldView