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Mara Keisling: A Panel of One (Part One)

April 28th, 2010 1 comment

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.

  1. There was a particularly funny and bizarre reference to ownership of a mustache. It wouldn’t work here; trust me.
  2. Example: “Most of the citations I’ve gotten are for bad parking.”
  3. 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.

Blogging This Year’s Equality Forum

April 25th, 2010 1 comment

Once again, I will be the “official” and very busy blogger for Equality Forum. Although I won’t be able to cover almost every single session as I did last year, I do expect to hit many of them, including panels on transgender issues, legal developments, LGBT history, and several of the many Saturday programs (a delicious yet daunting menu of options). See the full schedule here.

I really enjoyed the experience last year, and it kicked off a mutually respectful and (I hope!) mutually advantageous correspondence and sharing of information with Michael Ginsborg over at Prop 8 and the Right to Marry. I also had the chance to meet some of the signal figures of our movement, including SF Mayor Gavin Newsom and Bishop Gene Robinson. (You can check out the reports by clicking on the Equality Forum category on the left of this page.) This year promises to be equally interesting; I’m especially looking forward to meeting David Boies at the International Equality Dinner on Saturday.

Obama’s (Mini) Down Payment on Gay Rights: Federal Domestic Partner Benefits

June 17th, 2009 No comments

The issue of causation confounds philosophers and scientists alike, but allow me to identify one instance of clear cause-and-effect that few would dispute: The furor over the DOJ’s filing of the motion to dismiss in the DOMA case — not to mention the hemorrhaging of financial support for the upcoming DNC fund-raiser — led directly to President Obama’s actions tonight. Here’s what happened:

The actual legal step is teensy. Federal employees get a few crummy benefits; not the truly valuable stuff like health care or retirement benefits. Obama barely mentions the benefits  he’s able to confer with the stroke of a pen, because they’re mostly peanuts. (Not to those directly affected, though. During Equality Forum, I spoke to Michael Guest, the moderator of a panel on LGBT Rights and Challenges in Russia. Guest is the former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, and he discussed his constant frustration with how his same-sex spouse couldn’t do any of the simple  things that spouses of opposite-sex couples could, including attending basic learning  sessions on “do’s and  “don’t’s” for spouses living in other countries. My  conversation with Guest is worth its own post; maybe someday soon….)

But Obama’s action wasn’t about these benefits; they were just the handiest vehicle for his now desperately needed effort to calm the LGBT community. There were two ways for him to have done so: He could have delivered a major, sweeping  speech on gay rights, with a mea culpa for the vilified DOJ brief (for which he’s ultimately accountable). In my fantasy world, I  still hope that he might deliver such a speech, and a few posts ago, I took the liberty of writing one for him.  The model for that is the “race speech” he gave last year here in Philadelphia.

This brief signing ceremony cum photo op was the alternative. It wasn’t a grand “gay rights” speech, focusing instead on DOMA — not coincidentally, the act that was the subject of the recent firestorm — and on the smaller steps, like the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, that could be taken leading up to DOMA’s repeal.

Given its focus on DOMA, as a short speech it was good. He neither apologized for nor explained the DOJ brief, but he did acknowledge that he hadn’t done anything yet: “Among the steps we have not taken is repeal of DOMA.” He then reminded us that, yes, he still supports repealing a statute that is “discriminatory” and “interferes with states’ rights.”

The “states’ rights” reason is important to the legal ear. Recall that DOMA does two things: It allows states to refuse recognition of sister states’ same-sex marriages, and denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples even if validly married in their home states. The DOJ’s argument in defense of the second provision was the one that drew all of the outrage, arguing, as it did, that the government shouldn’t spend federal tax money on the “novelty item”  that is same-sex marriage, and (incredibly) that same-sex couples weren’t being discriminated against by being excluded from federal benefits. Tonight, Obama effectively stepped back from these arguments by saying that DOMA should  be repealed precisely because it doesn’t respect a state’s decision to confer the status of marriage on same-sex couples. Not bad, although likely lost on non-lawyers (unless you are lucky enough to be reading this!)

Beyond DOMA, his rhetoric was more general, and — happily! — more reminiscent of his campaign’s. There’s “more work to do to ensure that government treats all of its citizens equally.” He’s committed to fighting “injustice and intolerance in all its forms to bring about that more perfect union.” There, he consciously echoed the race speech, which began with this quote from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We  the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” (The speech also ended with the idea of “perfecting” that union.)

And then, in further answer to the question: “What the hell are you doing on LGBT issues?”, he committed his administration to working “tirelessly” to secure the repeal of DOMA.

Will this action succeed in quelling the outrage? It’s impossible to tell at this point. For once, I’ve purposely refrained from reading other blogs before posting this, because I wanted to voice my own first reaction, unaffected by the cacophony that’s surely out there. My guess is that it buys him a little time — not much — to actually start working on the signature LGBT issues of his campaign. If DOMA gets moved to the front of the pack (ahead of supposedly easier sells, like hate crimes and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), that would be real progress.

But the honeymoon is over.