Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
Helen Boyd Kramer jokes that it’s a “lifetime achievement award.”
There might be truth in that if her work was done. It is not.
Kramer, a lecturer in gender studies at Lawrence University since 2008, was named a 2020 Champion of Pride by The Advocate, a leading national voice on LGBTQ+ issues that each June honors 104 activists – two from each state and the District of Columbia.
Kramer joined Dane County’s Baltazar De Anda Santana as this year’s Wisconsin recipients.
A leading activist on transgender issues since publishing her first book, My Husband Betty, in 2003, Kramer was cited for her recent work advocating for the LGBTQ+ community in Appleton, including a successful effort earlier this year to get the Common Council to approve a ban on practicing conversion therapy on minors. That followed efforts in October to help make National Coming Out Day more visible in Appleton, resulting in a rainbow flag flying over City Hall for the first time.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Kramer said of being honored by The Advocate, but she sees it as a sign of progress in her efforts to advocate for diversity, the rights of transgender people in particular.
“When you’ve been in a movement that’s young but you were part of the original people doing it, you tend to get used to the fact that this is what you do, this is what you’ve been doing,” Kramer said. “So, this (award) kind of came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting it. … The trans community was a baby when I started doing this work and when I wrote the book. Now the education about trans is at a whole different level. Every once in a while, as an activist and educator, it’s nice to go, hey, some of this education stuff works.”
An agent of change
Kramer arrived at Lawrence in 2008, a year after publishing her second book, She’s Not the Man I Married, chronicling her experiences with transgender spouse Rachel Crowl. The move took her from New York City to Appleton, necessitating a change in her activism. Here, she got to know the elected officials she would be pushing for change.
“Being an activist in Appleton was going to be a different thing,” Kramer said. “It was going to be more about personal relationships.”
In the 12 years since, she’s been a frequent voice on LGBTQ+ education, be it in the community before city councils and school boards or on campus in gender studies classrooms, Freshman Studies workshops, or in campus-wide Cultural Competency discussions.
Appleton, Kramer said, has grown in its understanding of and support for the LGBTQ+ community, perhaps fueled by the giant leap forward that came with the U.S. Supreme Court striking down same-sex marriage bans in 2015. The Common Council has gotten noticeably more progressive. The topics Kramer and other LGBTQ+ activists speak to, including the conversion therapy ban, no longer shock.
“Instead of being reactive, we actually have council members now who are bringing legislation forward,” she said. “That’s what happened with conversion therapy.”
She singled out the work of Appleton alderperson Vered Meltzer ’04, a Lawrence alum who in 2014 became the first openly trans person to hold elected office in Wisconsin, according to Fair Wisconsin, a Madison-based advocacy group.
Meltzer returns the praise, calling Kramer tenacious in her efforts to support marginalized people in the Appleton community.
“Helen’s advocacy is effective because she never stops working, whether she’s on campus or off campus,” Meltzer said. “And one of the best things about working with her is that she doesn’t give up or get discouraged, no matter how much work there is to do or how long it takes to see results. Her tireless dedication, and her personal care and support for marginalized individuals in our community, has helped bring activists throughout the community together over the years with a sense of unity and shared goals.”
Kramer sees the progress happening in Appleton as reflective of what’s happening across the country. While there is much work yet to be done, momentum has been building in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, from the same-sex marriage ruling five years ago to last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that protects transgender, gay and lesbian employees from workplace discrimination.
“There has been an education of people in terms of civil rights,” Kramer said. “Poll after poll after poll say people believe that you shouldn’t be able to get fired for being gay or lesbian.”
The celebration of the Supreme Court’s June 15 ruling on workplace discrimination may have been a bit muted because of COVID-19 social restrictions, but there is little doubt it marked a major moment, one that arrived amid heightened awareness of equity issues. The ruling was delivered by a conservative-leaning court midway through Pride Month, 50 years after the Pride movement first emerged en masse.
“The movement has worked,” Kramer said. “The reason gay people started coming out and the reason gay people still feel the necessity to be out is precisely because the more straight people know them or more straight people know that they are related to someone who is LGBTQ+ the more likely it is that they would support same-sex marriage, employment discrimination rules, and such. This has been a long time coming.”
Education on campus
The enlightenment at Lawrence over the past decade hasn’t been quite as stark because the university has long been a safe haven for LGBTQ+ students, Kramer said. Again, it’s been a work-in-progress, but the work of inclusion has been in play here for a long time.
The dramatic change at Lawrence since she arrived a dozen years ago has come in the trans community. In 2008, it was mostly a curiosity, even on a liberal arts campus.
“It’s kind of hard to explain how much has changed in that time,” Kramer said. “The first class I introduced at Lawrence was Transgender Lives, and at that time I had one student who shyly admitted to doing drag once. I had a bunch of students who took it because trans was an interesting topic. A lot of them were future therapists, a bunch of psychology majors. Now, when I teach Trans Lives, half of the students in the class identify as LGBTQ+ as either trans or non-binary. … There’s been a giant cultural shift.”
All that progress doesn’t mean the fight is over. Far from it. Kramer points to the Trump Administration’s recent ruling that removed federal health care protections for people who identify as transgender. Protections written into the Affordable Care Act addressed sex discrimination, and in 2016, the Obama Administration interpreted that provision to include gender identity. But in early June, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a statement saying it is returning to an earlier interpretation of sex discrimination, thus excluding the trans community.
“This isn’t just for trans procedures,” Kramer said. “It’s for pneumonia or COVID. These stories are already common in the trans world, where doctors wouldn’t take what they had seriously, cancer in particular. It would just go untreated because doctors wouldn’t work with trans patients. Seeing HHS do this right now when everyone is scared of dying is particularly heartless.”
The COVID dilemma
The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a cruel light on the LGBTQ+ world. Besides health care access issues, it has highlighted wealth disparities, which are particularly stark among Black LGBTQ+ people. The same systematic racism issues that have ignited nationwide protests are in play within the LGBTQ+ community, Kramer said.
“When we get to a point when we’re actually doing recovery, eventually, we’re going to have to figure out the wealth problem and the access to employment and training and education,” she said. “These are all systems that are so soaked in the same discrimination we’re talking about. It’s employment, it’s health care, it’s food on the table.”
The pandemic sent students home for spring term, put summer research and internships on pause, and infused uncertainty into almost all near-future plans. That, in turn, has heightened anxieties for LGBTQ+ students who don’t have adequate support at home. Kramer and other advocates on campus have tried to stay in frequent contact, but seeing students having to isolate in a home environment that’s toxic adds new layers of concern.
“The tremendous burden of family rejection is still really common,” Kramer said.
While a growing number of families are accepting and supportive, it’s those students who aren’t feeling that love who are particularly vulnerable right now.
“Some students used to refer to Lawrence as Hogwarts because they could be gay here,” Kramer said. “And they couldn’t always be at home. Now those students are at home during the pandemic. It’s one of the reasons why there was more than one student I helped make sure they could stay on campus this spring because their home situation just isn’t good.
“How do you accept the fact that your family basically doesn’t like you so much? Sometimes they hate you. That’s a wounding you can’t really process. I think Lawrence has been amazing about that, being aware that we do provide acceptance in a way that some students are not always getting elsewhere.”
Lawrence recently introduced the LGBTQ+ Alliance House as a residential space. A Gender and Sexuality Diversity Center opened in Colman Hall late last year. Trans Rights United (TRU) became the University’s first trans student organization. Those additions are all built onto an already well-established support system.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes culturally that get reflected on the campus,” Kramer said. “I think the campus has done an amazing job for the most part in creating these spaces, and creating diversity training for everyone else. There are still pockets of education that’s needed, but I love the fact that we let students lead. They’re telling us what they need. They feel empowered, and we’re getting much better at that.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org