Anti-trans legislation continues to spread across the country as states like Kansas, Ohio, and Texas try to ban gender-affirming care for adolescents and Florida’s Department of Health officially advises against it. But despite ongoing efforts by state legislators to shame and scare trans people into silence, Eli Lawliet, a gender doula based in Los Angeles, is using his knowledge and expertise to hold space for people at any stage of their transition.
Lawliet’s journey to becoming a “gender doula” began 10 years ago when he went back to school at UCLA. He was not out as trans yet but was exploring his gender identity through academics. He started researching trans health care and eventually pursued a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, focusing his research on transgender people and health care through the lenses of public health, policy, law, sociology, and history. While in grad school, Lawliet heard a podcast interview with Erica Livingston, a full-spectrum doula who believes that people should have doulas for every threshold of life.
“That moment was a lightning strike where I thought, ‘there should be transition doulas for trans people,” Lawliet said.
Lawliet eventually reached out to Livingston and shared his idea for a transition doula with her, but said he didn’t know where to start. Livingston and her business partner Laura Interlandi mentored Lawliet as a doula, and by January 2020, The Gender Doula was born. According to Lawliet, there are only two other people doing the work under the term “Gender Doula,” but that care work is growing as more people see the need for transition-oriented care and want to share it. In two-and-a-half years, Lawliet has provided one-on-one services for 80 clients. Lawliet’s services, which there is no official coursework or pathway for, span across the many stages of transition.
“One of the things that’s challenging about this work is explaining it,” Lawliet said. “It’s so different for each person.”
Some of Lawliet’s clients are curious about gender and need someone to help them work through their complicated feelings. Other clients have been 10 years into a medical transition but are processing new gender feelings, and some are in the early stages of their medical transition and need help finding doctors. Lawliet also said he’s helped people navigate social transitions like finding new wardrobes, tailors, and hairdressers. Aside from people transitioning themselves, Lawliet has also helped families and partners who have had family members transition to help them understand what was going on and how to best support their trans family members.
“There’s no particular time when I come in,” Lawliet said. “I come in when people need me.”
Lawliet grew up in a conservative Christian household in Missouri and did not even know trans people existed until he was in his 20s and found a gender theory book in a library. It wasn’t until then that he realized he was trans and he wanted to transition.
“When I was growing up, it was extremely homophobic and transphobic,” Lawliet said. “It wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable even trying to know myself or where I could flourish, and I really had to get out of there.”
In 2011, Lawliet finally was able to move to Los Angeles and began researching how to transition. Looking back, he wishes he could have had someone to support him, like a gender doula, during that time. He remembers not knowing the “right words to Google,” and even though Los Angeles theoretically had resources available to him, he didn’t know the proper narrative to present in order to receive treatment. In one instance, he called his insurance company to ask how he could get top surgery, and the person told him that “he actually had to be trans to get it.”
“It was so devastating to me because there’s all the imposter syndrome, and at that time I was like … even a random lady on the phone knows that I’m not actually trans,” Lawliet said. “It was really sad and scary, and it really set me back. I think if I had a gender doula at that time to be like, ‘Hey, listen, that’s bullshit. And when they say “actually trans,” all they mean is that you need a letter from a mental health professional, and that’s easy to get, and I can tell you how to get a contact’ … that would have been life changing for me.”
While Lawliet is not a licensed medical practitioner or a therapist, his services bridge the gap between medical providers and patients—helping his clients feel understood while preparing them in case their provider is not an ally to trans people. Lawliet’s process differs from a counselor or therapist—he listens and acts as a sounding board, offering ways to support them during their transition. Lawliet’s clients span across the U.S. and internationally, including Canada and other countries. Some of Lawliet’s clients have come from places where policies are hostile to trans adults and youth, and he said he has seen somewhat of an increase in inquiries from those states. Lawliet said the politics of a client’s city do not always dictate the ease of their experience. For example, a client who lives in a city that does not have explicitly anti-trans legislation may come from a home or family that may be transphobic. Alternatively, Lawliet said a client may be in a city with transphobic laws, but their workplace may be accepting, making their experience different than someone in the same geographic place who is on Medicare or Medicaid and dealing with a more transphobic, bureaucratic structure. Beyond that, Lawliet said he is seeing more and more patients experiencing despair and feeling overwhelmed. The trans community is in a “survival state,” he said, and many cannot afford to leave their repressive homes.
“I hear a lot of different experiences,” Lawliet said. “I have to be careful when I’m talking to people about navigating the world as a trans person. I have to be very mindful of their geographic location.”
While “gender doula” is a new role in general and has only existed as a formal practice since 2020, Lawliet has seen many people interested in becoming one themselves. Lawliet hopes to offer mentorship in the future and to see “hundreds and thousands of gender doulas” to address this countries’ “deeply broken relationship to gender.”
“It’s really difficult when you’re a community that is so embattled and so marginalized, to navigate community spaces in ways that feel supportive,” Lawliet said. “There’s so much trauma, and there’s so much to be done. And yet I think we are our greatest gift, and we are our greatest asset. No one else has ever stepped up to save us. We’ve always saved ourselves. I don’t think that’s going to change.”
As transphobic legislation continues to pass across the country, Lawliet said the current landscape is dystopian and horrifying. When facing the current policies, Lawliet suggests prioritizing mental health, focusing on building coalitions with other trans people, and connecting with local trans legal groups to understand their rights in whatever city they’re in.
“The legislation that’s being pushed through right now in states trying to restrict trans health care, trying to mandate genital inspections on children, it’s dystopian and horrifying, and it feels very upsetting,” Lawliet said. “The more that we can band together as a community, support one another and make our voices heard, means the more that we can provide structures of protection, even when we’re being attacked.”