Two of the country’s largest transgender rights organizations are merging, telling NBC News that joining forces will allow them to better combat years of conservative efforts to roll back trans rights.
The National Center for Transgender Equality, or NCTE, a group that focuses primarily on federal policy reform, and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, or TLDEF, which works to advance trans rights through litigation, will merge by this summer to become Advocates for Trans Equality, or A4TE.
“We’ll be able to operate with double the influence, double the power,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of NCTE, who will assume the same position at Advocates for Trans Equality. “At a time when states are considering a record number of anti-transgender bills, trans voices are needed now more than ever, and we have to be operating at a different scale.”
The merger comes amid what many advocates have described as a crisis for LGBTQ people, but especially transgender people. Conservative lawmakers introduced more than 500 bills targeting LGBTQ people last year, shattering the previous year’s record of 315. The majority of that legislation targeted trans minors, either by seeking to restrict their ability to play on school sports teams or limit their access to transition-related medical care.
Twenty-three states have passed laws barring trans students from playing school sports on teams consistent with their gender identities, as opposed to their sexes assigned at birth, and the same number have restricted or banned trans minors from accessing gender-affirming medical care, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy.
Andrea Hong Marra, TLDEF’s executive director, who will become the CEO of Advocates for Trans Equality, said TLDEF has grown significantly since she joined in 2018 — from a staff of four to 27 and a budget of about $830,000 to $4.5 million — and has secured a number of significant legal wins for trans people. But, she said, one thought still keeps her up at night: “It’s not enough.”
Then came the wake-up call, Marra said. In February 2022, Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services began investigating parents who were suspected of having provided their minor children with transition-related care — the first time state officials had ordered such investigations. She said she took Amtrak down from New York City to meet with Heng-Lehtinen at his home in Washington, D.C.
Heng-Lehtinen said they decided “we need something cataclysmic, and that’s how we came up with this idea of merging” the organizations, both founded in 2003.
The merger, Marra said, is not about business. Both organizations’ revenues have grown over the last few years, according to public documents. And all staffers at NCTE and TLDEF will keep their jobs through the merger, Marra and Heng-Lehtinen said.
“This is a values decision,” Marra said. “This is about strengthening our movement and giving trans activists a real opportunity to lead and drive progress towards equality and freedom.”
Heng-Lehtinen and Marra agreed that national nonprofit groups like theirs need to be doing more for trans people and that merging will allow them to do that.
Heng-Lehtinen said NCTE and other groups have secured major wins for trans people in recent years, which, in turn, led to increased conservative backlash. For example, the center worked for years to make the Transportation Security Administration’s screening process more gender-neutral to avoid invasive and humiliating searches that trans people have often faced and criticized. The State Department also began offering a gender-neutral X marker on passports in 2021, and nearly half of states have passed laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations and housing. Public support for same-sex marriage has also remained high, at 71%.
“We have, little by little, seen the public understand more accurately what it means to be transgender and start to see us as full human beings,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “So the opposition really took note of this and tried to assess how do they roll back that tide, and that’s when they decided to go after trans kids, because they are the least understood out of the whole LGBTQ spectrum. And by attacking trans kids and exploiting the public’s lack of familiarity, they can make inroads to erode public support and LGBT rights writ large.”
The backlash came at a difficult time for NCTE. In 2019, more than half of the staff resigned or were dismissed after they walked out over allegations of union busting and racism, and in 2021, Mara Keisling, the group’s founder and executive director, stepped down.
Heng-Lehtinen said that when he took over, he wanted to address the concerns, which took time and affected the organization’s capacity. He said he worked to help change 100 of the policies in the organization’s employee handbook and overhauled how it approaches transparency and management. NCTE also worked to build close relationships with grassroots trans rights groups in states that face an onslaught of legislation targeting trans people.
He said the organization will also release more information about the results of its U.S. Transgender Survey soon. In 2016, the organization released its first U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey of trans people, which has been used by Congress and the Supreme Court. The group intended to release the second version of the survey in 2020, but the release was delayed by the internal strife and then the coronavirus pandemic. The survey was also delayed, Heng-Lehtinen said, because it received so many responses — more than triple the roughly 28,000 it received in 2015.
Bringing the organizations together, Marra said, will allow Advocates for Trans Equality and the movement for trans rights in general to better weather the kinds of storms trans people are facing.
“I think that this merger is going to create greater hope for not just the activists that give 125% each and every day, but also the kiddos and their parents at home in their communities across the country that are looking for the national voice for trans rights,” Marra said.
On Wednesday, the unions for the two nonprofits — NCTE United and the Union of Legal Workers for Trans Liberation — shared a joint statement on Instagram saying they are "excited to join forces" but noted that neither union was "involved in any planning of this merger." The statement said management staffers were offered salary increases and bonuses if they chose to stay or three months severance pay if they chose to leave but "management has yet to propose any such benefits for the union."
The unions added that they are concerned the combined organization "may intend to continue the practice exhibited by TLDEF and NCTE management of prioritizing management and executive level hires while ignoring staff needs for programmatic union positions."
In response to the statement from their unions, NCTE and TLDEF said in a joint email statement that they have started working with the unions now that their intent to merge is public.
"We want bargaining to work as it should, and are committed to working with the unions as employees have a crucial role in shaping the new organization, Advocates for Trans Equality (A4TE), and fostering a workplace that is fair and just," the email said, in part.
CORRECTION (Jan. 17, 2024, 10:28 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund’s 2018 budget. It was $830,000, not $130,000.