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White House hires first transgender staffer. Why it matters

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National Center for Transgender Equality via AP

(Read caption) This handout photo provided by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) shows Raffi Freedman-Gurspan in Washington. The White House announced Freedman-Gurspan's appointment Tuesday as an outreach and recruitment director for presidential personnel in the Office of Personnel. Transgender advocates say she is the first openly transgender official to serve in the White House.

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The White House has hired its first openly transgender official.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a former policy advisor for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), began Monday as outreach and recruitment director for the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

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"[She] demonstrates the kind of leadership this administration champions," White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said, according to NBC News. "Her commitment to bettering the lives of transgender Americans, particularly transgender people of color and those in poverty, reflects the values of this Administration."

Gender-equality advocates have hailed the appointment as a crucial step forward for the LGBT community in the face of continuing violence and discrimination, especially towards transgender people.

“President Obama has long said he wants his Administration to look like the American people,” NCTE executive director Mara Keisling said in a statement. “I have understood this to include transgender Americans.”

LGBT advocates have in recent years made steady progress towards gender equality the US; not least of their successes was the Supreme Court’s historic June decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide.

The rise of celebrities such as Laverne Cox, who stars in the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” as well as the very public transformation of Caitlyn Jenner, have also drawn renewed attention to equality issues for transgender people in particular.

“We are having a larger national conversation about transgender issues, and by Caitlyn choosing to tell her story, she’s adding to that conversation,” Nick Adams, a spokesman for LGBT rights advocacy group GLAAD and who is transgender, told the Los Angeles Times following the release of Ms. Jenner's Vanity Fair cover. “It is allowing Americans to feel like they know someone who is transgender and hopefully bringing a greater understanding about what it means to be a transgender person.”

But challenges facing the LGBT community, particularly transgender individuals, remain. Crimes against transgender people rose by 13 percent in 2014, and of the 20 documented homicides of LGBT individuals that year, more than half the victims were transgender, according to the most recent report from the National Coalition on Anti-Violence Programs.

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Nor is the discrimination limited to outright violence.

In a joint 2011 survey by the NCTE and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, about 14 percent of respondents were unemployed, double the general unemployment rate at the time. Forty-seven percent said they had experienced an “adverse job outcome,” such as being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion despite being qualified because of their gender, and 90 percent said they had been harassed or forced to hide who they were at work.

“We have the cover of Vanity Fair, but transgender people lack significant rights in most of the country and experience really, truly, heartbreaking levels of poverty, housing instability, and violence against the community,” Laura Durso, director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, told The Christian Science Monitor.

These realities highlight why the appointment of a qualified transgender woman like Ms. Freedman-Gurspan to the White House staff is an important step, advocates say. In her time with the NCTE, Freedman-Gurspan has advocated for the improvement of conditions for transgender prisoners, addressing police treatment of transgender communities, and ending violence against transgender women of color, according to Ms. Keisling.

“Raffi’s decade of experience brings important qualities to this historic appointment,” Keisling said.

“As the old saying goes ‘if you’re not in the room, then you can’t possibly be at the table,’ ” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference of Human Rights, said in a statement. “Our nation will be stronger with Freedman-Gurspan ... both in the room and at the table as the first openly transgender White House staffer.”