United We Stand
by Nancy Ford
Mara Keisling has flown in for Houston’s Transgender Unity Banquet for the past two years, but she’s especially looking forward to attending this year’s event. The gala, one of the nation’s largest events celebrating transfolk and their supporters, is “a big deal everywhere,” Keisling says.
“I’m just so excited and honored to speak at the Unity Banquet, because it is something I’ve been a fan of as long as I’ve been involved in the community, which has been 12 or 13 years,” she adds. “It’s a model for a really good thing we try to promote in other cities. It was the first, and it’s been tremendously helpful and successful.”
As founding executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality, Keisling delivers the keynote address at the annual Transgender Unity Banquet gathering, scheduled May 1 at Sheraton Brookhollow Hotel. The NCTE is a 501(c)(3) social justice organization dedicated to advancing the equality of transgender people through advocacy, collaboration, and empowerment.
Chances are, Keisling will have a thing or two to say in her speech about her experiences talking to legislators about transgender equality on Capitol Hill in conjunction with the group’s Lobby Day, held in March.
“ENDA is what we’ll be prioritizing for our Lobby Day. I know that congressman [Barney] Frank told a reporter that it is going to pass the house, so our Lobby Day is particularly important,” Keisling told OutSmart in an early March interview, in which she discussed the challenges facing her organization, and the transgender community in general.
Nancy Ford: Has there been any recent progress with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA]?
Mara Keisling: I know that Congressman Frank told a reporter that it is going to pass the House, so then it has to get some time in the Senate. That’s a challenge for everything right now, because the Senate is sort of shut down. There are 290 bills that have passed the House and are being held in the Senate because the Republicans are just blocking everything. So there are 290 bills that are backlogged—by far the most ever. It really points to a big challenge to try to get this done. People are worried about whether we have the votes—and that’s important—but the bigger issue right now is whether or not it’ll just get caught in the logjam that the Republican minority is just putting up in front of everything.
It’s really frustrating to watch that. Would you consider lobbying to be Job One for the National Center for Transgender Equality?
Oh gosh, no. No no no no no. Actually, very little of what we do is lobbying. We also have a very large administrative policy docket. Yesterday we met with the State Department to talk about what you have to do to change your gender on your passport. Yesterday we met also with the FBI about how to do data collection around the new Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act. So we do a lot of non-lobbying stuff.
I would say Job One for the community, as a whole, is public education. The policy stuff is extremely important, and I’ve chosen to be part of that. But much more important work is public education that individuals do when they come out and talk to their families, when they have a discussion at school or at church. Public education is really the key to acceptance and the most important key to getting most of our policy agenda through.
So it’s big picture and little stuff?
What’s the biggest difference in the transgender community since you’ve been an activist, in your estimation? I know that’s kind of a vague question, but it seems like there have been so many advances made overall in the LGBT community in recent years, but especially in the transgender community. What do you think is perhaps the most significant change?
I would have to say the biggest change has been the increase in public acceptance. And we’re not there yet. There’s still a lot of people who face really, really horrible discrimination and disrespect and violence. But I think all of us know it’s a little less. When I met with policy makers, I used to have to say all the time, “Hey, do you know who we are, and do you understand what it means to be transgender?” We’d have to do a little 101 with them. And that’s not the case anymore. Every educated person in the country and every culturally aware person in the country has now been exposed to some bad imagery about us, but also to a lot of good imagery about us. And it’s made a huge, huge difference. That’s why I say public education is the most important part.
Right, right—there’s been a kind of a constant chipping away of old attitudes. The murder of Matthew Shepard is one of the more unifying events that brought the LGBT community together, in terms of hate crimes. Is there a similar event that we can look to that has galvanized the trans community?
I hate giving a big blurry answer like this, but I would have to say the Internet. The Internet and the rise of the ability to create communities online have just been invaluable. It’s what’s helped there to be hundreds of thousands more out folks than there used to be. Because we have communities, we can find out information, we can look to each other for support. I’d have to say, far and away, the Internet is one of the most important things that’s moved us along.
Plus, the trans part of the movement has moved faster than any civil rights movement in American history. And a big part of that is that we were next, and we were after a lot of groundbreaking work. The black civil rights movement, the farm workers’ movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement—all of them provide the tools, the structure, the framework for us to get in there and do our work. That’s both good and bad; there are some negative aspects to that. But overall, it’s a lot of turbocharge.
I want to be really careful about making those comparisons with other civil rights communities, because in a lot of ways, we started out fairly privileged. I know it’s kind of hard to talk about trans people as privileged, but when the black civil rights movement started, folks weren’t allowed to vote. Or even be free. We’re starting off light years ahead of that.
And with the tools, so to speak.
With the tools and the privilege. There are also some things that have made it harder for us. We are, for instance, not geographically clustered very well. There are little clusters in some big cities, but you know we’re really, really scattered far more than black people used to be, and I think we’ve overcome that a little bit because of the Internet. So we have had our challenges, but overall we’ve been very privileged and as a community have been able to leverage it very well.
Recently here in Houston, a transwoman named Myra Ical was murdered. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding how the press reported the crime in terms of reporting Ical’s gender. What would you say to the local transgender community here in Houston and beyond to lift their spirits, to encourage them to keep fighting the good fight?
This happens all over the country all the time, but every time we learn about it, every time folks stand up to try to force newspapers to do it right, and the TV stations, it really does matter. And it gets better the next time. We’re dealing with a situation where somebody’s life was ended because they were disrespected. That we would continue to disrespect them after death is just unconscionable. And these victims—it’s often too late to stand up for them individually, but allowing them some dignity so that in a way they stand up for the next generation of folks can help. But it’s really hard work, you know. It’s about the hardest thing I have to do, when I go to vigils. It’s just horrible because it feels—it’s just horrible.
That kind of brings the urgency home, doesn’t it?
Yes. It means we, as a community, have failed and we, as a society, have failed. Last year we worked with the administration and got them to add gender identity as a protected category in federal employment. And when we get ENDA passed, that means that people will be able to have jobs. The kind of trans folk who end up getting murdered are rarely middle-aged, middle-class transwomen. They’re almost always young, they’re almost always people of color, they’re almost always low income or working class. They’re very frequently immigrants. And if we can start getting people jobs, they’re going to be a little less susceptible to violence. If we can just start educating the public more, they’ll be a lot less susceptible. So that’s what we’re all working for.
The 18th Annual Houston Transgender Unity Banquet, presented by the Houston Transgender Unity Committee (the consortium of area transgender organizations) takes place May 1, 6:30 p.m.–1 a.m., at Sheraton Brookhollow, 3000 North Loop West. Advance tickets are available for $50 at www.htuc.org and Vanity: A Trans-formation Studio (1446 Yale St.) or $60 at the door. Benefits Peggy Rudd Transgender Scholarship Fund.