Shirley Bushnell’s path to becoming an activist for the transgender community started about a decade ago in the kitchens of UCLA, where she worked as the senior cook at Dykstra Residence Hall. At an employee Christmas party her supervisor, a lesbian who knew about her status as a male-to-female transgender, handed out sex-specific gifts to her staff.
“She gave women earrings and men got socks,” Bushnell, a Portland transplant, recalls. “I got socks. They were nice socks, I wore them all the time, but I was not happy.”
Bushnell wrote to management about the incident, which got her an apology from her boss and cultural-sensitivity training for her department. Calling herself a “minority of one,” she took things further, approaching her union, the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Resource Office (which added “Transgender” to its name) and, ultimately, the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee.
She was soon helping West Hollywood expand its non-discrimination ordinance and organizing rallies in response to attacks against other transgendered women, who usually suffered in silence. That led to work with both the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, which were looking for guidance on how to better deal with transgenders, often after Bushnell reminded them that ignorance isn’t a license for random harassment from law enforcement, which often sees the transgenders under one red light.
“All they knew about was sex workers,” she says, noting that part of her work has also been educating other transgendered women, particularly the working girls, about how cops do business. “There has to be an understanding of each other. But I can’t change the fact that sex work is illegal.”
That understanding has led to more cooperation in combating violence against transgenders, with Bushnell working not only with the police but also domestic-violence shelters, which are still hesitant to take in people they consider “men.”
Much has changed in L.A. since Bushnell started her work, and the “minority of one” has been joined by others willing to speak out and show up. She says her strategy has been a simple one that is inspired by a motto of the late gay political organizer and activist Morris Kight: “I saw something that needed to be done, and I did it.”