Q&A: #Out4MentalHealth Workgroup Member Named Social Worker of the Year

December 20, 2018
Zander Keig

A strong advocate for transgender communities and #Out4MentalHealth Workgroup member, Zander Keig, LCSW, is the 2018 NASW-CA Chapter Social Worker of the Year. We spoke with Zander about his efforts to increase the visibility of trans men for the last 20 years, from pushing for the inclusion of the word “trans” in local student affairs to working with veterans and authoring anthologies featuring pioneering trans men.  ​

Tell us about your background and how you got interested in advocating for trans folks?

I got involved with transgender issues when I was in college in Denver, Colorado 1996-1999. I was working in the Gay Lesbian Bi Trans Student Services Office (GLBTSS) on the campus of Metropolitan State College of Denver. It was one of the few campuses at that time that had an official center that had full time professional staff.

At the time I had never heard of the concept of “trans man” or “FTM”, even though there one  person I knew in San Diego that left for san Francisco with one name and came back with another and looked and sounded very differently.  But I did not understand what was happening, it was very confusing. So working in the GLBTSS Office is what gave me access to transgender people who visited campus (ex. Kate Bornstein) and books about transgender people (very few existed at the time).

That’s when I read Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. She came to town and did a reading at the women’s bookstore. Her book introduced me to the whole idea of being transgender. Leslie talked about using the word transgender not as an umbrella term but as a separate identity for a person who is basically female-identified but maybe very androgynous or masculine in presentation. I was very androgynous and thought, “oh yeah that makes sense, I’ll just start using that term”.

On campus every November the GLBTSS Office hosted a Transgender Awareness Month where we brought in speakers and held events, so I was able to meet people like Kate Bornstein, who had authored the book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us in 1995.
 I was also able to interact with individuals and learn more by attending conferences like Creating Change and Gold Rush. It was through those avenues that I became more familiar and more engaged with the transgender community.

How are you advocating for the transgender community nowadays?

Right now, I serve as the Clinical Social Work Case Manager for the Navy Medicine West Transgender Care Team at Naval Medical Center San Diego. I work with active duty individuals going through gender transition while serving on active-duty in the military. I also serve on the board of directors for the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) and as the appointed chair for the NASW National Committee for LGBT Issues.

What I really enjoy about being a social worker is teaching self-advocacy. Let’s say you had a negative experience at a medical office? Ok, who was it with and which department was it in? I help people figure out who they may take their issue to and how to keep elevating their request for resolution until the incident gets resolved. Figuring out who the right person is, is crucial. It is not necessarily the medical assistant at the counter who is looking up your next appointment or the security guard on your way out of the building, it has to be the right person. That’s why the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) is around, to help people figure out how to and where to escalate their issue for resolution within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

One of the issues you are trying to address is lack of visibility, how do you raise awareness about the trans community?

I find it very meaningful and rewarding to be involved in trans advocacy. Not everybody wants to be an advocate or an activist but what they can do is get involved and be visible. 

There are so many different ways to bring awareness to not only the injustices but the really wonderful things that are happening too. I prefer to focus on the good things. I’m an optimist and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about and focusing on what’s not going well, I’d rather look into how to generate positivity and ways to resolve issues.

I edit anthologies documenting the lives of trans men. I have three books out and all of them have been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the Transgender Nonfiction category. I have been featured in a few documentaries, including Zanderology, an illustrated film about my life, which has garnered some awards at international film festivals. I also was one of the co-founders of the Lou Sullivan Society in San Francisco which is an effort to keep the life and work of trans man pioneer Lou Sullivan (1951 – 1991) alive in the hearts and minds of trans men everywhere. He was a trans man who was able to successfully lobby the American Psychiatric Association to change some of the ways they thought about trans men, especially dealing with sexual orientation. Prior to that gay trans men were not usually able to get approved for gender transition at the university based gender clinics available across the USA in the 1980s.

I have started a similar group in San Diego: The Michael Dillon Society. Same effort, keep FTM pioneers alive in the hearts and minds. Michael Dillan was the first recorded trans man to do testosterone, have chest reconstruction surgery, phalloplasty and change his sex and name legally in government records in England in the 1940s.

I have a very strong interest in the history of the FTM community, because if you do a Google search on transgender history, nearly every result on the first few pages are about trans women. Even when trans women are documenting history, that has to do with the trans community as a whole, they rarely include trans men. Out of sight, out of mind, you know? So I have taken an interest in making sure FTM history stays alive and is visible.

For more on Zander’s work and publications please visit his website.

The opinions in this article are Zander’s own and do not reflect the view of the Department of Navy, the Department of Defense or the United States government.