The Austin Chronicle

Creating Change: USDA Protects Gender ID

By Abe Louise Young, February 2, 2014, 9:00am, The Gay Place

When I think of the USDA, I think three things: that new green circle “USDA-Organic” stamp, food stamps, and outdated monoculture farm subsidies. I did not know that that the USDA also houses the largest office of civil rights in the U.S.

That's right, the largest office of civil rights in the entire federal government, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is also in charge of subsidized housing in rural America. Doh!

Saturday’s journey at Creating Change (the national LGBT equality conference) led me to a sit-down with a top-notch straight ally: Dr. Joe Leonard, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Office of Civil Rights at the USDA.

Also an Austin native and Huston-Tillotson grad, Leonard had a lot of news to share. First, Austinites, he grew up on Oldfort Hill Road in the Springdale Hills neighborhood off MLK Drive, and went to LBJ High. Second, “The USDA is implementing historic protections for gender identity. In other words, we are making sure that if a person comes in and applies for a loan they cannot be turned away for gender identity issues.”


The public comment period for this nondiscrimination regulation recently concluded, and once it becomes a final rule, transgender people will be explicitly protected from discrimination when they apply for the more than 177,000 rural single-family housing, rural farm ownership, or farm operation loans that the USDA makes a year.

Holy overalls! Can you taste the organic trans* back-to-the-land movement coming soon? Smell the strawberries, hear the jams and jellies bubble, feel the dancing rattle the farmhouse floor!

I asked Dr. Leonard what he’d say directly to transgender people here in the Lone Star state who’d like to own a house in a rural area or create a farm.

He said, “If there is a person whose destiny is to become a farmer, I want them to stay in Texas and farm that land. Alvin Ailey was from Rogers, Texas. He had to go to New York City to fulfill his destiny. But there are some destinies you don’t need to leave your home to fulfill. I’d say, 'Trans people: we are here to support you in home ownership. We want the trans family to have what every other family in America can have.'”

That’s Dr. Joe Leonard, folks. His dapper colleague Ashlee Davis, resplendent in a black suit and red tie, said that if anyone experiences a hitch when applying, just drop her a line.

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