By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
ANN ARBOR – On Nov. 21 Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, addressed roughly forty students and community members in an appearance sponsored by The University of Michigan’s Stonewall Democrats.
Her message: “We don’t want to fight for equal rights, and get them in a crappy world.”
Keisling explained that her three-year-old organization, which she helped found, isn’t “just” about advocating for the rights of transgender individuals, but is a social justice organization.
“There’s almost nothing you could do to help transgender people that wouldn’t help everybody else as well,” she said.
To that end, NCTE works on racial and economic disparity issues, immigration, and other social justice issues that impact transgender and natal men and women alike.
During her informal, frequently humorous presentation, Keisling outlined a number of common hurtful myths about transgender individuals.
Among the most common myths are that genital surgery has anything to do with being transgender, that being transgender is always a person’s main identity, that arguments against acceptance of transgender people are in any way valid, and the myth of “the transgender community.”
“Very few transgender people ever have any genital surgery,” she said, and explained that the myth hurts trans people not only because it causes some individuals to feel self-doubt, but also because it leads to laws that require that surgery takes place before an individual is legally recognized as the gender of his or her choice.
As for the identity myth, Keisling said, “If you think about it – if you look at who have been the murder victims, they are generally low-income, young, trans women of color,” she said, a situation that won’t be fixed entirely even if transgender people win all of their rights on the legal front.
“There are a lot of transgender communities,” Keisling said, “most of which never intersect. That’s okay, but it’s a question of if we get together on the stuff we need to get together on.”
Keisling then recalled once hearing from someone within an LGBT organization that a proposed board member for that organization was “not quite ‘there’ yet” on transgender issues.
“Why would someone running an LGBT organization think [that’s] okay?” Keisling asked.
As a society, we’re still at a point where a lot of people think that being uncomfortable with transgender people is not the same as feeling uncomfortable with other minority groups, Keisling added.
Another myth Keisling addressed is the belief that trans issues are just about transgender people. To illustrate her point, Keisling cited NCTE’s work against implementation of the Real I.D. Act. Rather than pointing out the Act’s consequences for transgender individuals, Keisling said, she tells legislators that it should be amended or repealed because the states don’t want to deal with the expense; it violates medical privacy laws, and it could create a security risk when a transgender person’s appearance doesn’t match the name and/or gender marker on his or her ID.
Keisling also took on the idea or myth that there is a single “right” policy or approach to transgender issues. She said that for some people, gender identity is “a medical thing,” while for other people it’s a choice.
“But who cares?” Keisling said. “People should be allowed to work, should be respected, and be safe from violence.”
“On a human rights scale, it doesn’t matter if it is a choice or not,” Keisling said, and reminded the audience that religion is a choice and is protected under law.
Keisling also addressed what she called “Three Rules for Inclusion” to help student organizers create groups inclusive of transgender individuals.
The first rule is “Respect.” “It’s that easy,” Keisling said.
The second rule is “Voice.” “Give a voice to the trans people in your groups.”
Keisling’s final “Rule for Inclusion” is “Do not make the mistake of anointing someone in your group as the ‘spokestrans.'”
Keisling said of NCTE that, given the diversity of transgender people and communities, “We don’t want to be ‘the’ voice in Washington – and certainly not the only one in the U.S.”
The evening concluded with a question and answer session that addressed local issues of concern to transgender people, the need to prioritize issues, and the problem of burnout among activists.
Keisling ended the evening’s talk on a positive note.
“We’re winning,” she said, “because thousands of people around the country are educating their friends, their families and their communities,” about the human rights of transgender people.
“This goes out to Jerry Falwell,” she said, offering a quote from a poem by William Butler Yeats: “Measure this now against the great and their pride – their children’s children will know that they lied.”