The Feministing Five: National Center for Transgender Equality’s Mara Keisling

Mara Keisling is the founder and Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization for transgender people. 

A critical voice for trans justice in the US today who is regularly quoted in the media, Mara has led countless coalition efforts that have won significant advances in transgender equity and is the co-author of Injustice at Every Turn.

I had the pleasure of catching up with Mara for this week’s Feministing Five. We talked about her personal goals for the year, trans equity in the age of Trump, and the complexities of heightened trans visibility in media. Catch Mara on Twitter @MaraKeisling.

Senti Sojwal: What are some of your biggest goals for the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2018 and for yourself personally?

Mara Keisling: I think we’re finally understanding the new administration. We know a couple of attacks coming up, and we’re preparing for them. We know we have an obligation to fight and to win. We’re going to hunker down, be part of the resistance, but also be educators. It’s not enough to just resist. We have to convince. We have to educate. Personally, I think those of us on the left are becoming too dismissive and hostile to those who disagree with us. I’d like to do my part to remember that it’s hard being almost everybody these days, and that I can make things better by trying to include everybody, even those who don’t agree with me.

Sojwal: Are you thinking about trans advocacy differently in the age of Trump? Why or why not?

Keisling: Yes, absolutely. I was going to say the Trump administration has changed the rules, but really they’ve just ignored all the rules. It’s been a little less predictable. Any time there’s a change in administration, even from a “good” one to another “good” one, it would take time to figure out how they work and who they are. In this case, we have to figure out how they’re going to do things, which rules they’re going to ignore, which laws they’re going to break, and what bits of human decency they are going to throw out the window. It has caused us to have to learn so much. We’ve been learning quickly. A year seems like a long time, but in DC policy circles it isn’t. The first and most important lesson we learned was about solidarity and intersectionality. The progressive left has been has been so quick to support each other and back each other up, to go into battle for each other. That has been amazing and very effective. Just the other day, we beat the fake voter fraud commission. That is a remarkable victory. Everybody stood up together, even trans groups-you wouldn’t think of that as a trans issue, but it really, truly is. When trans people were attacked on the Title IX guidance for trans students, everybody stood with us. Muslim advocates, immigration activists, economic justice activists – we all stand together on all these attacks. I think we’d all like to think we were doing it well before, but now we all understand that it is an existential necessity.

Sojwal: We’re living in an age of heightened trans visibility in media yet also of increased anti-trans violence. How do you think we can better work to educate people that increased visibility does not mean decreased risk?

Keisling: Well, firstly it’s important to understand that increased visibility, at least in the short run, increases risk. So does coming out. Both for individuals and communities. Trans people are much more visible now, which simply means increased violence. That’s not the biggest piece of increased violence, but it’s true that as more people come out more people will be disrespected and targeted. It’s so hard. It’s not like you want to say to people, “don’t come out, it’s not safe.” Everyone is welcome to come out. It is helpful to the community overall if you come out. Make sure you do it safely considering your circumstances and who you are and in your community and your family. That is so hard.

Sojwal: Who are some of your trans heroes today?

Keisling: I want to call out Jude Patton. This may sound odd. Jude is a hero who has been working on trans advocacy since the 1970s. He’s a trans man. He’s somebody who has been doing great work for more than 40 years. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t often get called out, but was working on driver’s license laws in the 1970s when I was still just barely a twinkle in my own eye. I think the trans folks this year who stood up and ran for office are heroes. Yes, the people who won, but also those who ran and lost and received much less recognition. How brave, how remarkable, and how praiseworthy to step into the arena that way. I applaud all the kids who are coming out as transgender today. We’ve beaten something like 160 anti-trans bills in state legislatures in the last three years. In a lot of these cases, the champion who really stepped forward and made the big dent were teenagers. They were students who weren’t going to stand for themselves and other trans students being disrespected by state government. In one state, a student named Skye stood up in front of the senate and said, “I have to go to school and be bullied by students. I’m bullied by teachers and principals. And now you’re telling me I have to be bullied by my state senators?” These students who are stepping up and speaking their truth and educating people and brought their parents along with them – they are amazing heroes.

Sojwal: What are some of your self-care practices as a prominent activist? What keeps you going?

Keisling: January 6th was my sixteenth anniversary of opening the office of NCTE. I’m feeling super proud. A couple things – I’m an odd person. I have used my humor for advocacy purposes and also self-care. I grew up in a very large family, every one of whom has a great sense of humor. It’s been a life saver for me a million times. The work we do at NCTE and the work I’ve chosen for me is long game work. I know how far we’ve come in the last twenty years. Sixteen years ago, I met with a state senate leader in Pennsylvania. He was a liberal Democrat. He wouldn’t put trans people into the bill he was running. He looked at me as the only trans member of the delegation that had come to see him and he said, “Mara, look at the bright side – five years ago I wouldn’t have let you into my office.” It was harsh, but it was really true. I don’t go to the White House a lot anymore, but a reasonable federal government would want input from NCTE in a way governments wouldn’t have ten years ago. I know that Donald Trump is a blip. We need to fight him, and we need to be sure that when he is gone – which, sure as the night follows day he will be gone. We are ready.


Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She is currently pursuing her MPH at NYU's College of Global Public Health and works as Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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