Mara Keisling: A Panel of One (Part One)
It’s good to be back blogging about the many events at Equality Forum again this year. Honestly, with my life much busier than at this time last year, part of me was wondering whether I’d made a good decision to re-up. But last night’s transgender panel was just what I needed.
Prompted by “conversation facilitator” and good friend Stephen Glassman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, featured speaker Mara Keisling held forth for well over an hour on a range of issues relating to the legal and social status of the TG community. Keisling, who is the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) is amusing,1 self-deprecating,2 and insightful3 – but perhaps a bit too gracious.
The fifty or so folks in the rapt audience were treated a variety of topics, well-guided and supported by Glassman’s deft but low-key questioning. Much of the discussion, of course, focused on the role of her organization and other LGBT lobbying groups, none of which she spoke disparagingly of (and where’s the fun in that?) Without naming organizational names, she did acknowledge that not all of these groups were on board with the importance of equality and justice for the TG community at first, but said that by now “almost everyone has been won over.”
And things are further along in Congress than most of us realize. The votes are already there, she said, for ENDA, the repeal of DADT, and something called the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend benefits to the spouses of federal employees. So Keisling, who referred to several bills by the acronym “MARA” (example: ENDA should be called the “Marginalized Americans Rights Act”), has reason to be gracious and optimistic, despite recognizing the truth of this pithy aphorism attributed (but apparently erroneously) to Eric Hoffer:
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
Upon hearing that, I thought: “Well, enough about the HRC.” But Keisling, who did state a willingness to slam the group, did so only in the spirit of fun; in substance, she avoided criticizing any of the groups, probably because, as she flatly declared: “We’re winning. Sometimes I forget that, and I think we’ve already won.” Keisling, who founded NCTE and brought her background in public relations and media consulting to the job (as well as training as a rookie activist on the state level here in PA), has long understood the value of collaboration. As she said, her organization does almost nothing alone. That’s smart politics from the leader of such a marginalized group, but it also seems to reflect a deeper personal philosophy about the importance of education, friends, and alliances.
Perhaps because her background also included some work on public health messaging, Keisling also gets the importance of the administrative and regulatory environment that usually goes unreported. If a sixteen-year-old kid transitioning from male to female can’t get identification papers, how can she get a job? Her organization has worked on creating national standards for dealing with issues like birth and death certificates for transgendered people, and then communicates with groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City to get those standards implemented on the local level. More changes are apparently on the way, including one that would make this situation disappear.
Keisling, who doesn’t usually discuss her own story of transition in the media, did so last night. I’ll post separately on what she had to say about it later today — after some sleep and a vat of coffee.
- There was a particularly funny and bizarre reference to ownership of a mustache. It wouldn’t work here; trust me. ↩
- Example: “Most of the citations I’ve gotten are for bad parking.” ↩
- She claims not to be a theorist, but has clearly thought out complex social and legal issues on both the practical and the meta-level. ↩