For the first 38 years of 53-year-old Mara Keisling’s life, she knew she wanted to be a woman.
“I knew I was a boy, but I wanted to be a girl,” said Keisling, who transitioned from male to female about 13 years ago.
Keisling came to the University of Massachusetts Wednesday night to speak about the progress of transgender rights in America. She is the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, one of the country’s largest transgender rights organizations.
“We are by far the most aggressive LGBT group in Washington,” Keisling said.
In her lecture, “Being Real, Kicking Ass, and Changing the Word: How Trans People Are Getting It Done,” Keisling discussed her group’s activism and how the election affected LGBT groups, all while giving insight into the struggles transgender people face.
During her lecture, she told the story of one transgender woman who was homeless in Florida, and ended up in Las Vegas with $15. She called a homeless shelter and used her last $15 for the cab ride.
But when she finally arrived at the shelter around midnight, she had to spend hours standing in the waiting room as people examined her. In the end, they said she could not spend the night, because they said they could not decide if she should stay in the men’s or women’s shelter.
They said, “We can’t put you in the men’s shelter, we can’t put you in the women’s shelter, you have to leave,” according to Keisling.
She told another story about a woman who ended up in jail while trying to change her name. The woman wanted to legally change her name, but the people at the social security office told her that since she had not had a surgery to change her sex, she couldn’t change her sex.
But the woman said she wasn’t trying to legally change her sex, she was trying to legally change her name. After arguing about this with the officials, the woman was arrested, Keisling said.
These are the types of issues that Keisling said the NCTE – a group she founded – is fighting against.
“We’re getting crazy amounts of stuff done,” Keisling said.
NCTE focuses primarily on work in public policy, such as economic empowerment and survival. According to Keisling, trans people are four times more likely than the general public to live on $10,000 a year or less.
“When trans people lose a job, they almost always lose their career,” she said. “The people who seem to have not tanked entirely financially are the ones who kept their jobs when they transitioned.”
The organization hopes to work with the Labor Department to help transgender people enter the workforce.
According to NCTE’s website, transequality.org, “The Department of Labor should identify, promote and fund best practices for helping transgender people enter the workforce.”
But transitioning genders impacts more than just a person’s finances, Keisling noted. Keisling works to help raise awareness about the discrimination transgendered people face, particularly when it comes to identification documents and health care.
“It’s not as easy to have ID documents that match who they are,” Keisling said. These documents, such as licenses, birth certificates and passports, require sex identification.
“There is no reason for sex to be on it, and we’re sort of stuck with it for now,” Keisling said. “Our No. 1 thing should always be to try to get the gender thing taken off.”
Keisling said she is also fighting for greater access to health care for transgender people. She said that 20 percent of transgender patients had been turned away from the doctor’s office, 28 percent avoided acute care and 30 percent couldn’t afford it. But she said that she is very close to getting the Department of Health and Human Services to realize that it is illegal to discriminate against people based on their gender.
While the NCTE focuses on transgendered issues, Keisling is also an advocate for other causes within the LGBT movement.
“We will not leave the gays behind,” she said.
But she worries that as the campaign for gay marriage continues to be at the national forefront, it might create a lull in other civil rights efforts for transgendered people and gays.
“With marriage equality, it gets harder and harder to get funding to do other things,” Keisling said. “We’re going to see most of the groups just dry up and disappear.”
Towards the end of the lecture – which was sponsored by the University Programming Council and the Stonewall Center – Keisling encouraged students to become activists for a cause versus being “grumpy” about it.
“If you’re just grumpy about it, you’re not going to do anything about it,” she said.
She told students to “know what’s right and not break your moral code,” because, she said, activism can be not only life changing but can make a difference in someone’s life.
“You really have to care,” she said. “There are so many amazing transgender or gay people who really need your help.”
Mary Reines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.