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Mara Keisling, founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, was the special guest of the first episode of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness at the 2018 Bentzen Ball. The episode, “What Can Allies Do to Defend Trans Rights? with Mara Keisling,” does a good job answering that question. This interview was conducted after that taping. Part introduction, part follow up, it’s somewhat of a companion piece to the podcast. Listen to the podcast here.


Brightest Young Things: Could I ask the vaguest question that I think about when I think about…

Mara Keisling: What is mauve?

BYT: No, no, mauve is an identifiable color. That’s a fact, there’s a color palette. There’s literally a number of mauve [ed. note: it’s hex #b784a7].

M.K.: It has a pantone.

BYT: This is such a bullshit loaded question but it’s kind of everything.

M.K.: Go for it.

BYT: Why would anybody be against anyone? Why does anyone want to stand in the way of someone’s rights? Now answer the unanswerable question, please.

M.K.: It’s not unanswerable. It’s kind of complex, right? Part of it is that people seem to be programmed as humans to distrust the other. Most of us, or some of us most of the time anyway, can overcome that – can control it and not let the little medulla part of our brain, what’s often called the reptilian part of the brain, control us so that we see “that’s a large person, I’m afraid of large people.” So part of it is now very political and people are taking sides. The republicans are now making us part of the other, the other side that they want people to hate so they will like republicans.

BYT: I understand that. I really do. But, I really don’t think it’s a reptilian thing when it comes to trans rights. Do you really think it’s a reptilian…

M.K.: No, I think it’s partly that. I think it’s partly political, I think it’s partly changing. I’m basically 60-years-old, when I was coming up there were no trans role models. Trans people were always exotic or erotic. They were freaks. That’s how they were framed. There wasn’t a lot of exposure. Nobody had good trans role models. Now there are trans role models. There are people in the media, I got to be on this podcast.

Kids coming up now can see, not just trans kids, all kids can see rational, I hate using the word productive, but productive, successful people, kind people, smart people, funny people, entertaining people.

BYT: Let’s get back to the hate. You talked a lot about this on today’s program with Jonathan, but how do you combat the hate? I understand that you said compassion. But you also talked about reaching a lot of kids today because you were on the show. How do you actually do that in a concrete way?

M.K.: Boy, I don’t know. You do it lots of different ways. We’re doing it partially with litigation. Partially with legislation, so policy change. But also partially by just making society safer for trans people to come out so they can educate the people around them. You educating your family is much better than me educating your family. So if I can help you come out, if I can help you be safe and thrive, you can then become an agent of change and magnify my work.

BYT: But it’s a lot easier for me because I’m an adult. What if I’m 17 and I could get kicked out of the house?

M.K.: Yes, absolutely, and people have to be careful about that. But there is lots of kids, lots of kids now who are coming out, who are educating their families. The fastest growing army of volunteers and people speaking out for trans rights now are parents of trans kids. These are parents who want their kids to be able to thrive and go to school and grow up healthy and to not have anxiety disorders because they are being mistreated and to not have the president of the United States bullying them.

BYT: Let’s take a phrase from Nixon, do you believe that most people, the silent majority of people, are actually pro-trans rights? It’s just you don’t want to get involved in the muddy waters of social media, you don’t want to get in the muddy waters of family debate?

M.K.: I think there’s a small portion of people off on the far side who don’t like us and aren’t going to listen and are afraid of us. Or maybe have some toxic masculinity problem. Or a political problem. That’s a small part of the population. I think most of the population just wants to be decent people and they want to know how to be decent people. They are more likely to be decent people to people they know. They are more likely to be decent people to people they understand. Then there’s this whole group of people, a growing group of people who really support us and what’s doing that is trans kids coming out in families. We now have Fortune 500 CEO’s who have trans kids, we have members of Congress who have trans kids and those members of Congress stand up and talk to other members of Congress.

If you want to talk to members of Congress, being a member of Congress is a really great way to do that. I had a member of Congress come up to me at a rally recently and let us know that their grandchild just came out as trans. Now this person was so supportive of us already. It was actually the first member of Congress who invited us into her office to talk to her and that was a while ago. One point about six years ago there were three Republican members of Congress with trans kids and they were all on our side. Because they knew they were protecting their own kin, and that’s kind of a fucked up way in a way to be. But that’s what’s helping. You can’t put that back in the toothpaste tube.

BYT: You can pretend that the toothpaste doesn’t exist and ignore the toothpaste forever.

M.K.: And that happens in families. It really does happen in families for sure. But, you know my family, all 6 or 7 of my siblings, there’s 7 of us – they all know about trans stuff now. They are all now trans advocates.

BYT: That’s great. Was it difficult to get to that point?

M.K.: Oh not for them. I think they were all surprised, but they are all good people.

BYT: How does what you do relate to Obamacare?

M.K.: We are fighting really hard to protect Obamacare for a lot of reasons. Primarily trans people were always considered a pre-existing condition, so we couldn’t get individual health insurance policies til Obamacare. You could get a policy through your job, if you were lucky enough to have that kind of job. But, if you weren’t you couldn’t buy insurance. In most states you couldn’t buy insurance at any cost. So number 1 that’s why it’s important. Number 2, not to get too technical on you, part of Obamacare called section 1557, which is the anti discrimination part of Obamacare. It says insurance companies and health care providers can’t discriminate based on sex. If you discriminate against a trans person, it’s because of sex. It’s because you think I’m a man or you think I’m a woman, or you think I’m the wrong kind of man or the wrong kind of woman. Were fighting to save section 1557. That’s directly what this mishegoss was. [ed. note: The New York Times published  ‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration on October 21, 2018. From the article: “Now the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times.” This was the focus of the episode of Getting Curious.] It was meant to be largely about section 1557 and Title IX education protections.

BYT: Do you think it was a way to chisel away at Obamacare or do you think it was a way to just say you’re not part of our tribe?

M.K.: Oh, that particular thing happens to have a side benefit of screwing up Obamacare, but it was really aimed at us.

BYT: It was a target?

M.K.: Oh absolutely. The pre-existing conditions that the republicans don’t want with pre-existing conditions to be able to get healthcare, that’s not about trans people, that’s about Obamacare. In that case, we’re collateral damage. In the section 1557, Obamacare is the collateral damage and we’re the target.

BYT: How are you feeling as a human being right now?

M.K.: I’m angry.

BYT: That’s your dominant emotion?

M.K.: Yeah. Now I would say most trans people are somewhere between angry and scared. Myself, my job, my personality, is such that I’m a lot more angry than I am scared.

BYT: Do you think that’s because of your experience? I don’t want to say things are good, but things arguably are better than they were 20 years ago…

M.K.: They still are much better than they were 20 years ago. So it is part of that. It’s partly that I’m 60-years-old and have seen the graph scooting along the bottom and then shoot up in the 90’s and the 2000’s. Now it’s a down tick, but I know we’re gonna beat this guy. He’s gonna end up in the ash heap and we’re going to fix all these things he’s breaking.

BYT: Was it you or Jonathan that made the wrecking ball comparison? I think it was you, the pendulum into a wrecking ball. It does swing back though. Are you hopeful at all for 2020. Or are you thinking, I’m almost at retirement age, it’s almost time to get up and move to a different country?

M.K.: I’m very optimistic. Here’s how I look at it. I look at it as a glass. You know the glass half full, glass half empty thing. I look at it as, this is our only glass. I’m not a glass half full or glass half empty person – I only get one glass. I need to care for that glass, I want to make sure it doesn’t get chipped and if it does get chipped I need to fix it. If it gets empty I have to figure out how to fill it. If it’s full I have to figure out how to share it. Sometimes like this week, I need to smash it down on the bar and take it outside. It’s my only glass. I know we can beat this guy. I know trans people are strong and resilient and fierce and scared. That’s no place to put us. Because we will come back at you.