Q&A with Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, the White House’s Primary LGBT Liaison

Keshet recently spoke with Raffi Freedman-Gurspan. Raffi, a Jewish woman, is the first openly transgender member of staff at the White House. Pictured above: Raffi (center), with Keshet’s Idit Klein (left) and Joanna Ware (right).

How has your Jewish identity and/or your Jewish values helped shape the course of your career?

My Jewish identity and family played an enormous role in shaping the individual I am today. Torah, tzedakah, and tikkun olam are essentially the Jewish education I received at Temple Israel in Boston and at home. The importance of social action and taking responsibility of the welfare of those less fortunate in our midst was drilled into me by parents and Jewish educators from an early age.

Embracing diversity and understanding different perspectives was also a value I learned through Judaism. My family has also been at the forefront of many important movements in our nation’s history. My great-grandmother was a suffragette who fought for women’s right to vote; my grandparents advocated for unions, fair wages, and worker protections; and my parents, as social workers, have consistently supported social justice causes including voting and civil rights for people of color, destigmatization of mental illness, and women’s and LGBTQ rights. I believe this progressive Jewish upbringing, both at synagogue and at home, deeply impacted the path I took to work on public policy matters that affect the neediest in our society.

You recently returned to Massachusetts, where the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston honored you with the Excellency in Advocacy Award. Can you share with us what that experience was like?

To be honored by the JCRC of Greater Boston, a Jewish organization that champions causes I believe in, alongside other great women leaders was humbling. The Massachusetts State House, as an event location, was so symbolically important because it is where my political lens was sharpened when I worked for former State Representative Carl Sciortino in the House of Representatives. I firmly believe the positive experience I had working in the Legislature prepared me for my work here at the White House. Therefore, the JCRC event was a moving ‘homecoming’ and recognition of the work I have done and hope to continue to pursue in future.

Join Keshet in celebrating the JCRC for their current and past work to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Greater Boston and beyond at OUTstanding! on April 13.

 You were very involved with the campaign for the Trans Equality Bill that passed in 2011. What inspired you to get involved, and how did that experience impact you?

I transitioned while I was a student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, one of the few states at the time that had protections for transgender people. When I moved back to Boston after graduation, I quickly realized that Massachusetts had no state civil rights protections for people like me. I got connected with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), led by Gunner Scott, which was advocating for legislation that would add gender identity to the list of protected categories in the state’s non-discrimination laws. Working with MTPC, and of course meeting Carl Sciortino, deeply impacted my passion for public policy. I am grateful to Gunner, Carl and the coalition that advocated for the 2011 Transgender Equal Rights Act – the experience truly taught me how to approach public policy and advocacy – and I will never forget the signing of the bill by Governor Deval Patrick. I still get emotional thinking about it.
Any advice for the Keshet community?

Keshet is such an important institution that I hope continues to grow, thrive and move with the times. I remember when I was a teenager attending Keshet events and feeling secure in the fact that I knew other queer Jews. It’s critical that we have a dedicated Jewish LGBTQ organization as an active part of the larger queer movement in this nation. As a Jewish person of color, I’m grateful that Keshet takes seriously diversity, inclusion, and fighting for social justice for all people. I’m hopeful that Keshet will maintain this intersectional approach to so many key issues facing the LGBTQ community and be informed by the Jewish values that underscore so many of its successes.

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