Mara Keisling on Being Trans in America

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After growing up with the worry that she might be the only trans person in the world, Mara Keisling was thrilled to discover a budding community of trans folks on the internet in the early 2000s.

“Around the turn of the century, there were a lot of us who were starting to emerge…so many trans people like me who were in our 20s or 30s or 40s had grown up thinking we were the only transgender person in the world.”

Not only did this discovery create a powerful community for Keisling, it ignited a movement for recognition and rights. The online group realized they weren’t being represented in government and began getting political. Keisling says, “A lot of us decided we needed to have a voice in Washington.” Then with a humble laugh, “Ultimately, I had the most important qualification: I was available.”

National Center for Transgender Equality

Keisling went to Washington, DC and founded the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in 2003. Today, she’s the executive director of the organization and one of the United States’ foremost authorities on transgender issues.

Because of their expertise, impact and experience the NCTE was our U.S. partner in our Trans Rights are Human Rights campaign in 2018. The organization advocates to change policies and social perceptions to increase understanding and acceptance of transgender people in the United States. One part of NCTE’s important work is its United States Trans Survey, the largest ever devoted to the lives and experience of trans folks. The most recent survey was conducted in 2015 and collected responses from nearly 28,000 people across the U.S.

Keisling says the survey has allowed the issues affecting trans folks to be quantified in a way that’s digestible and accessible. She says it has “totally revolutionized trans activism” by giving journalists and news outlets a hook to talk about trans folks while providing background and figures for their stories. “It’s been an amazing thing.”

Mara having fun during her visit to Lush HQ in Vancouver, BC

Mara Keisling of NCTE and Carleen Pickard of Lush pose in shower gel and bath bomb costumes

Being trans in America

The survey, however, painted a painful picture of the suffering of the trans folks in America: nearly half of all trans people surveyed had been sexually assaulted. A quarter have faced housing instability or discrimination, and three quarters have experienced some form of workplace discrimination.

And on October 22, 2018, things got worse. The Department of Health and Human Services announced it intends to view sex as either male or female, as determined by the genitals a person is born with. This statement will be applied to a piece of civil rights legislation that’s meant to ban sex discrimination in federally funded schools—a move that could invalidate the identity and destabilize the safety of transgender, genderfluid and non-binary youth across the United States’ entire public school system.

It’s not surprising, then, that Keisling treads carefully when asked what advice she’d give to folks struggling with their gender identity. Speaking slowly and with purpose, she says she’d love for everyone to get the opportunity to come out but acknowledged it’s not always possible.

“The truth is, for a lot of people, it’s not safe for them to come out. Particularly a lot of younger people. Or conversely, older people who maybe have already established lives and they have all that to lose.”

The uncomfortable truth is that being a trans person in America can be frightening, isolating and dangerous. And the jarring figures of discrimination revealed through the survey highlight the need for the NCTE to continue their work in fighting for trans equality in all aspects of life.

Looking forward

Despite the current political climate making for exceptionally trying times for trans folks in the U.S., Keisling is optimistic about the future. Unlike her early fears of being the only trans person in the world, she now knows she’s not alone. The trans community is stronger than ever, and the hearts and minds of parents, teachers, children and lawmakers have been opened to love and accept people regardless of their gender identities. And there’s no going back.

Keep the conversation going by following Mara Keisling on Twitter and learn more about the National Center For Transgender Equality on their website.

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