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Mara Keisling: A Panel of One (Part Two)

April 28th, 2010 No comments

2010 John Culhane blogs from Equality Forum,  Mara Keisling: A Panel of OneIMG_1780 by Widener Law.

Mara Keisling and Stephen Glassman (facilitator) at Equality Forum (4/27/10). Courtesy of Cassandra King.

For me, the most compelling part of Mara Keisling’s one-woman show last night at Equality Forum was her rare foray into the personal. Typically, she doesn’t share this story with media (am I media? discuss!), because she’d rather leave that to other trans-people who otherwise don’t have a forum. This generosity and emotional maturity seemed to me a natural outgrowth of her personal journey.

I was glad to have heard about that journey, because it placed into helpful context what she’d said earlier. When asked to assess the struggle for LGBT rights from an historical perspective, Keisling said that the movement had “started out much more privileged” than others — notably, we weren’t property and we could vote. From my perspective, the transgender community has been one of the most vilified, marginalized and just plain loathed groups in our history. Look no further than the long-standing reluctance by many in the mainstream gay rights movement to embrace our trans brothers and sisters for the underlining to this point.

Why isn’t Keisling…angrier? It’s risky (and negative comment-inviting) to do too much psychoanalyzing based on the few snapshots of the transitioning process that she described, but it’s too much fun to resist trying. On the “what’s in a name?” front, Keisling said that she couldn’t settle on in her new life as a female. At one point, after she’d nervously consumed “76 rum and Cokes” — taking the Andrew Sisters’ invitation too far — she sat at a table filled with trans luminaries,1 and those present voted from a list of ten names she’d been considering. But her parents, in a moving show of support that many of us can only envy, got together with her and said that they wanted to name her.

If that’s not moving enough, consider this story, which Keisling guaranteed would bring us all to tears. It didn’t, stony asses that we were; but it is very moving. At her place of employment, the principals of her company gathered everyone together for a lunch at which the topic of her transitioning would be discussed. Understandably, she was nervous — especially about one “demographic”, a middle-aged white guy who had “a family and a mustache.” Before she got too far into her presentation, the guy stopped her to ask a question. She feared the question, but took it nonetheless. Here it is, in dramatic block quote style:

“Are you going to be OK?”

How could anyone not come out of such shows of support without charity of spirit? That, Keisling has in florid abundance. Perhaps because of that, she understands the frustration of those who want to scream and march in the street even though she’s not one of them. Sometimes, she allowed, that’s what you have to do.

  1. A great band name if ever there was one.

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.