Harper Jean Tobin’s grandfather thumbed through the issue of Condé Nast Traveler. In it, Tobin was quoted in an article about how Pete Buttigieg could make travel safer for LGBTQ+ people as the first gay secretary of transportation.
As he read his granddaughter’s quote, the 94-year-old man — ailing in a bed in Louisville, Kentucky — began to perk up. He wasn’t perfect with Tobin’s pronouns, and he still wanted her to teach law at Harvard. But seeing her words preserved in the magazine’s pages meant something.
“I don’t really understand all of this,” he confessed about her work. “But I’m so proud of you.”
Tobin, 39, is one of the most consequential transgender changemakers that you’ve likely never heard of. Her mind has produced most, if not nearly all, of the model policy that makes up the framework for modern transgender rights. As Gillian Branstetter, her former colleague from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) put it, “From a federal perspective, she’s the backbone of trans rights policy.”
Yet just a handful of advocates who have worked alongside her know her name, and she seems eager to keep it that way.
“None of us do this work by ourselves,” she emphasizes over and over. “We stand on the shoulders of so many other people.”
Tobin can spend 10 minutes rattling off the names of people who she believes are more worthy of a profile than her. It took her two months to even agree to be interviewed for this one. Ask her what she is proudest of, and she’ll offer it with the caveat of her immense privilege, stressing that there were teams of people beside her in every success. All of that is true.
But it’s also true that for 11 years that spanned the Obama and Trump administrations, Tobin helped guide the transgender rights movement from the streets into the halls of the U.S. Capitol. If you’re a transgender person in the United States holding an ID that reflects who you are or living in a state that has made it illegal to deny you access to a public restroom, you are living in Tobin’s America.
“Anytime you hear anything about a model policy, when it comes to trans housing and shelters, when it comes to interactions with law enforcement in the correction system, the immigration system, everything, everything, everything … has Harper Jean’s fingerprint on it,” said Mateo de La Torre, a longtime transgender rights activist who also worked with Tobin at NCTE.
Tobin was born and raised in Louisville, the child of two lawyers and the youngest of three siblings. As she grew up in what she described as a patch of blue in the red South, she sensed early on that she was “different,” she said.
“That discomfort, that sense of displacement became more acute in adolescence,” Tobin said. “It became more clear to me that it had a lot to do with gender.”
Tobin struggled in school due to ADHD, and her mother quickly became her advocate. Her mom had also pushed the bounds of gender stereotypes and disability, fighting to become an attorney despite being legally blind and a woman.
“My mom was very adamant speaking up for me, really pressing for understanding that this is a kid who’s maybe not being the way that you expect, but if you have a little more flexibility, this kid will do great,” Tobin recalled.
She did go on to excel, and it wasn’t until high school that she started to realize the differences between herself and classmates. Tobin didn’t know her “specific genre of queer,” until her first year at Oberlin College in Ohio. There, flipping through transgender texts like Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaw” and “My Gender Workbook” and taking feminist theory classes, she found the language to describe herself.
“I spent a couple of years figuring out, then, exactly which flavor of trans person I was,” she said. “I had never heard the words genderqueer or nonbinary, but I think for me that is more or less the space that I existed in for the middle chunk of college.”
Tobin spent her early 20s floating between the binary of male and female. Over time, she came to understand that she was a trans woman.
Unlike those of a lot of trans people, Tobin’s family took her transition well, she said. Her parents and sisters supported her. Older family members might falter on pronouns, but they corrected themselves, she said.
In her last year of college, she started to seriously consider following in her parents’ footsteps. Grad school at Case Western University led to a law degree and then an internship with what was then the Gay and Lesbian Taskforce — now the National LGBTQ TaskForce — and Lambda Legal in Atlanta. Tobin took a string of legal policy jobs post-graduation, working for transgender military advocacy organization Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (now Modern Military Association of America) and then the National Senior Citizens Law Center (now Justice in Aging). There, she started doing LGBTQ+ policy and case law work that would become the foundation of her career.
In 2009, a position at NCTE opened up: director of policy. Friends urged Tobin to apply.
“It was an opportunity for me, as somebody who was just starting their career, to build a department out from under me in an organization that I knew was likely to be growing a lot,” she said.
Founded in 2003 by transgender advocate Mara Keisling, NCTE had established itself as the only organization dedicated solely to the advancement of national transgender policy. Working during the George W. Bush administration, the organization had yet to truly flex its muscles. The Obama era presented new hope to LGBTQ+ advocates eager to advance change. Tobin would be at the forefront of that movement.
Tobin’s career blossomed with the growth of NCTE, where she crafted many of the country’s first standards on transgender rights for the Obama administration. NCTE during those years pushed the Obama administration toward affirming transgender people through federal policy.
In 2010, the administration began formally updating passports for transgender people wishing to update their gender markers from “M” or “F” after transition, a policy Tobin spearheaded. It came two years before Biden or Obama would come out in favor of marriage equality. That policy would also lay the groundwork for when state policy director Arli Christian, whom Tobin supervised, began persuading states to issue “X” gender markers on state IDs.
During the the Obama administration, Tobin worked with the U.S. Department of Labor to help craft policy to implement employment protections for transgender federal workers and contractors. She championed transgender inclusion and protections in the Affordable Care Act and battled transgender exclusions from state Medicaid programs. She helped draft what became nondiscrimination regulations for transgender people in federally funded shelters and housing programs.
But the Trump administration challenged NCTE in extreme ways as staff faced an onslaught of rollbacks of the hard-won rights. The administration had moved swiftly to ban transgender people from military service and to roll back protections for transgender kids in schools and had courted anti-LGBTQ+ organizations by inviting them to meetings in the White House.
But perhaps no moment defined NCTE or what it had come to symbolize than this New York Times headline the morning of October 21, 2018: “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration.” According to the story, the administration was weighing federal policy that define gender as immutable, legally erasing transgender people from federal recognition.
Tobin was not surprised. She had been interviewed for the article and was preparing the organization for action. By 2018, she knew the Trump administration. But the boldness of the move was terrifying.
That day, a Sunday, the NCTE staff assembled in their Washington, D.C., office. As the rest of transgender America reeled and tried to grapple with a proposition that seemed keen on their extermination, NCTE staff got to work on a campaign that would change history.
“We knew that we needed both to push back in a big way and to ensure that there was such ferocious pushback that they would not dare go that far,” Tobin said.
Tobin and colleagues flipped the narrative. The organization’s communications team: — Branstetter, Jay Wu, and Laurel Powell —created the viral hashtag #WontBeErased and asked transgender people across the country to share photos of themselves with messages of resilience in defiance.
For Tobin, the work felt active and positive. “I think for me, it’s always much easier to play offense than defense, easier, more fun, more exciting,” Tobin said.
Social media filled with defiant messages from trans people: They weren’t going anywhere. Tobin watched as the campaign she helped build took on a new life. It wasn’t just policy anymore; it was a movement.
But it also took a toll. Others at NCTE felt burnt out, overworked and underpaid. The organization was made up nearly entirely of transgender people, from Keisling down to its interns. In August 2019, several staffers walked out after the organization hit a snag in union negotiations and terminated a new staff member.
That November, Keisling offered staff an option to buy out their contracts and leave. The vast majority of staff left, leveraging allegations of racism against leadership. Keisling strongly denied those allegations. Tobin announced her departure the following month.
“It became more and more clear over time that like many other organizations, there were a lot of things about the way that we worked as an organization, the organizational culture, that we were not living up to our values,” Tobin said.
She now runs her own consulting firm, working with LGBTQ+ organizations to develop model transgender policies like those she crafted at NCTE. She can’t imagine when that work will be done. She sees herself retiring before the things she dreams of — a full and just equal society for transgender people, the deciminalization of sex work, racial justice — are achieved. She has made peace with that. Part of her work is in training younger organizers.
There is a phrase from Jewish teaching in the Pirkei Avot that Tobin often quotes and applies to her own career: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Tobin stopped trying to predict the future long ago. Today, she’s just doing the slow work of trying to shape it, day by day, policy by policy.
“I am in some ways incredibly hopeful for the possibilities for change in the world for trans people and for all people,” she said. “At the same time, I have never harbored the illusion that I will see a day when we live in a fully adjusted equal society.”