Trans Activist Tells Members of the Community to ‘Be Optimistic’
Founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Mara Keisling, was in Kalamazoo on Saturday, May 26 to talk about her work in the advocacy organization, their legislative work in the presidential administration, and the political power of optimism.
As the keynote speaker during OutFront Kalamazoo’s annual Pride brunch at 600 Kitchen & Bar, Keisling told attendees that “Things can sometimes look dark these days and they can look polarized and it can look like we’re losing, but we have to always try to be optimistic, which can be really hard, but it’s a choice to be optimistic, and it’s a political statement and tool to be optimistic.”
BTL briefly spoke with Keisling following brunch before she boarded a flight to her home state of Pennsylvania.
The NCTE is celebrating 15 years this year, and Keisling said she has been fortunate at her age to have a longer view of things.
“I’ve seen things get really really bad and get really really good again,” she said, pointing to a 15-year-old out trans high school student who attended the Pride brunch.
“When I graduated from high school in olden times in 1977, there was not an out trans kid in school in the whole country. That wasn’t even possible, and she’s not the only trans kid at her school.”
Keisling offered up another example of how things have changed.
“In 2001, I met with a state senator in Pennsylvania on a bill we were trying to get trans people into and he said he wouldn’t support it. He was a liberal Democrat and he said, ‘But Mara, look at the bright side, five years ago I wouldn’t have even let you in my office.’ That’s not a thing anymore,” she said. “We’re finally gaining power in institutions and we understand how to work in institutions, but now suddenly our institutions are breaking down.”
As things continue to change, Keisling said there are a few ways members of the community can help create power in an institutional vacuum or in a place where institutions are disintegrating.
“One of the advantages to systems and institutions breaking down and rules being rewritten is that we now have sufficient visibility and sufficient power to be part of the conversations about what’s next, and that might seem like a lot for people to bite off, but it is important for everyone to participate in what happens next. What is the system going to look like next? And that means being engaged and demanding things of your elected officials, and it means voting,” she said.
Here in Michigan specifically, Keisling said members of the LGBT community are going to have to step up and file complaints with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission following their decision on Monday, May 21 to approve a statement legally interpreting the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act’s ban on “discrimination because of … sex” to include discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity.
“And understand that might make them visible in ways they are uncomfortable with, but if we don’t use these tools we’ve all created, they will be taken from us,” she said. “If we do use them, we’ll be able to leverage that for more good and getting more things done. The more folks who bring legitimate cases forward, the more evidence there is for the need to pass the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.”
And gathering evidence and data collection will help not just with passing the ELCRA, but it can help with ending things like racism, misogyny, poverty, job and health care discrimination, and violence toward trans people – which NCTE has been dedicated to doing since it was established in 2003.
” … We very much call out violence when it happens, and that’s of little consequence to the victims – we fully understand that – but we have to keep showing that it’s a real problem, a significant problem, and a fixable problem,” said Keisling. “So quantifying it is very important. Insisting that the federal government do data collection better than they’ve been doing. They will try to weasel out of things if you can’t document that there’s a quantitative problem. And generally the federal government is the one who has to do the quantifying so forcing the government or advocating for the government to do good data collection is incredibly important.”
This will protect the LGBT community, she said, from the Trump administration, which is “attacking trans people in every way that they can.”
In just 16 months, the Trump administration has withdrawn federal guidance protecting transgender schoolchildren, employees, and homeless people. It has attempted to outlaw transgender military service, and has argued that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors and hospitals from turning away transgender patients, or insurance companies from refusing to cover gender-related treatment. This month, trans people were targeted again in the Bureau of Prisons with the rolling back of Obama-era policy allowing transgender prisoners to be placed in accordance with their gender identity. New guidelines say that prisons “will use biological sex as the initial determination” and that an inmate’s own gender identity will only be recognized for housing “in rare cases.”
“We think they will come after gay people with the same ferociousness soon,” said Keisling, who encourages members of the community to pay attention to the Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, which may be decided upon in June and will greatly affect the LGBT community and other social justice movements.
“Freedom of religion is extremely important in the United States, but religious freedom should be used as a shield, not a sword, and they are using it as a sword,” she said.
Recently named one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy by Apolitical, Keisling offers up advice for anyone who wants to step up and make a difference in their community.
“You have to stay strong and you have to stay alert and you have to be optimistic. If you do not believe things can be better, you’re not going to help make them better. So, you really have to believe that,” she said. “If you don’t believe that, get out of the way.”