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Fighting for Transgender Rights

Contemporary Sexuality, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Fighting for Transgender Rights


An interview with activist Mara Keisling

When Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), spoke at the AASECT conference earlier this year, she was giddy with optimism. Several small- and medium-size cities and counties had recently adopted gender identity anti-discrimination statutes, pushing the percentage of Americans living in places with such protection to about 39 percent.

"This is freaking remarkable," she said. "We sit in meetings and ask ourselves, 'Is this really happening?'"

Not all the news surrounding the transgender civil rights movement has been positive. After Montgomery County, Maryland - population 932,000 passed a law prohibiting gender identity discrimination, opponents attempted to put a measure on the November ballot that may have repealed the statute. (The Maryland Supreme Court struck it down.) Similar successful measures in Gainesville, Florida and Hamtramck, Michigan, have also faced repeal efforts.

But the biggest brush-up happened last year when the U.S. House of Representatives seemed on the cusp of adopting the Employment NonDiscrimination Act (ENDA), a bill aimed at protecting job discrimination against LGBTs. Before the bill was put to a vote, the measure's sponsor Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) - removed wording protecting transgendered people.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, continued to support the bill. The NCTE didn't. In defending his actions, Frank said an ENDA bill with gender identity protections would fail. To withdraw the bill from consideration would be a mistake, he said.

"That's profoundly wrong in a moral sense," Frank said, during a news conference. "You protect people when you can. I also think that in politics the notion that you don't do anything until you do everything is self-defeating."

Keisling disagrees. In this interview with Todd Melby, senior writer at Contemporary Sexuality, she highlights recent victories, current efforts and explains her point-of-view on the confrontation with Barney Frank in 2007.

Would you describe your work as part of transgender civil rights movement?

Oh, absolutely.

How far along do you think you are right now?

I think it's very clear to anybody who's watching, that there's never been a social justice movement that has moved this fast. Part of why we're moving so fast is because we were not moving that fast for several decades. There were people doing amazing, amazing work, but society and frankly, our friends, were standing in our way.

Now that that has broken down a bit, things are zooming. For instance, at the end of 2001, just 4 percent of the American population lived in jurisdictions that had employment protection based on gender identity or expression. That number, in just six years, has grown to just shy of 40 percent. That's a ten-fold increase in six years. We're almost caught up to the percentage of sexual orientation protections, which is just over 50 percent.

It's just been amazing growth. We can barely keep track of the corporations adding gender identity anti-discrimination policies and barely keep track of the colleges adding [similar policies].

What do you attribute this rapid change to?

I attribute it to the decentralization of the movement. Nobody, including NCTE, has tried to centralize the movement. So there are tens of thousands of people all over the country doing the things they think are the important things to do. We have people trying to pass local ordinances in their towns, we have people trying to get their employers to have better policies, and we have people trying to get their schools to have better policies. Everybody is doing what makes sense to them, instead of waiting for someone to give them orders.

What's the reception you're getting as you're going around the country? In 2006, you were in Salt Lake City.

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