On of the events I wanted to attend in Boston was a talk by Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Friday, upon my return to the Peabody Marriott from my outing to Boston, I went to what was billed as a town-hall style meeting to talk about the NCTE and the transgender legislative agenda. At this session, which was reported on by the Bay Windows if you’d like to read about it, Mara was direct, informative, straightforward, approachable, and persuasive. She makes sure the NCTE speaks for a very broad definition of transgender and takes great pains to make sure that neither she nor the NCTE makes the mistake of equating transgender with transsexual or cross-dresser or anything else. (By the way, only about 1% of transgender people seek genital surgery, so various legislative requirements for name and benefit changes that are predicated on such surgery are numerically and logically unfair.) She spoke candidly about the HRC’s lobbying for an ENDA that had jettisoned transpeople and about what it would take to rebuild trust between the HRC and various other organizations.
I am fundamentally a free-market libertarian, but Mara certainly got me thinking about federal (or even local) legislation might be more of an equalizer than the open market, especially regarding GLB & T rights and expression (although I still believe the any sort of change requires the bottom-up market forces if any top-down action is to take hold). Mara argued that the law was less important in many ways than having the conversation with those in power, a conversation about gender markers on driver’s licenses, non-discrimination regarding gender expression in the workplace, and access to healthcare for those of us who don’t fit neatly into the F or the M category.
At the end of the talk, I introduced myself, signed the sign-up sheet, and went my way.
However, serendipity being what it is, we bumped into each other later that night in the bar, after I escaped a particularly feeble karaoke event for the conference attendees. I was just standing there, waiting to hail a bartender for a final beer before retiring to bed, when Mara caught my eye, walked over, touched me, and said, “Joyce, let’s go over here and talk.” We found a table, got some fries and some beer, and talked about pitfalls, responsibility, and what she and her organization can do if I get into Press difficulty or what they can do to help my university craft a transgender employee policy. She volunteered information about telling her kids, about her coming out, about what she lost and gained in her transition.
She told me three rules for managing publicity. First, seek it or nurture it for the right reason. It’s ok to sell books, to promote a cause, to right a wrong, but not simply to have publicity — that’s how Jerry Springer disasters happen. Second, be successful, for transsexuals who are doing something successfully are far more palatable to the press and to society than trans-wrecks. Losing your job and writing bitter letters to the editor will fall on deaf ears. Third, learn to say no and to set limits. Don’t allow photos if you’re not totally comfortable and if you’re not finished with your transition. Demand to correct inaccuracies in the news story before publication. She gave me her card with her cell phone and said that it was in the NCTE’s best interest for me to call her if I needed help, and I promised to call her and let her know how things are going. After all, Bedford Falls University is a state school of 25,000 people, and crafting a transgender employment policy is not insignificant.
She spoke with confidence, not in a practiced voice of an imitation female, but in a completely authentic Mara-voice. I realized as I was speaking to her that she was exactly how I wanted to be when I grew up.
In the days leading up to this conference, Khloe and I noted the odd coincidence of the TS Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” coming up over and over again in our email and our conversations. In fact, earlier on this very day, I was telling Sylvia (from Connecticut with whom I feel a connection) about this coincidence, and she gasped and said she was just reading it today and it was her all-time favorite poem. I mentioned these coincidences to Mara and hypothesized that they must mean something.
She said this stuff happens all the time to her and told me an unbelievably coincidental tale involving old girlfriends, giraffes giving birth in zoos, and long lost connections with family. I said, “well, this very conversation we’re having right now is part of a larger thread of serendipity,” which she agreed with wholeheartedly.
We parted ways and I began to muse about what it means. This momentum… where does it come from? How can we know the dancer from the dance? Am I the conduit for something or am I the actor that’s causing these coincidences?
After our talk, I asked what would be better, a $1000 check written to her, or local action, and while she said the money would be nice, any sort of action locally has an enormous impact. Assuming I survive my own transition, it seems to me that I have a responsibility to use my job security and influence on students (if I have any at all) to help make the world a better place. It struck me that here’s what’s going to happen, whether I am an activist or not, whether I care about other T-people or not, whether I like it or not — Bedford Falls University has no written protection for gender expression, no policy on how to deal with trans-people, no mention at all of trans-people, for that matter, except as the “T” that’s used in blanket acronyms like GLBT. My job situation is going to work its way through Dean Wilson’s office, then up to the Provost’s office, and who knows where else — and it’s going to be the case, as my friend in the Ombudsman’s office has written me, that we’ll create a policy for trans staff and faculty in the process (we have an informal policy for students that was crafted around our own undergrad, when she transitioned this past summer). Whether it ends up as an OP, formally adding gender expression to other kinds of discrimination not allowed by BFU, or if it is circulated as an HR/Diversity issue, who knows?
Watching Mara speak — so confidently, knowledgeably, persuasively — makes me scared shitless that I will be asked to do something similar and fail. When it comes to talking with the provost or the board of regents, or god forbid the chancellor or the coordinating board — what am I going to do? Talk about panic disorder! This’ll be the time of reckoning, won’t it? Will I be reckoned as a disaster and an embarrassment, or will I be reckoned to be like Mara Keisling, persuasive and inspiring?