Mara Keisling is the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. A trans woman and a parent, Keisling is one of the country’s leading voices for transgender rights and has appeared in many prominent media outlets promoting the organization, which she helped found in 2003.
It’s a big season for the group. This week, the Center celebrated its eighth year anniversary at the Mayflower Renaissance with an event honoring Shaun Donovan, Brian Bond and Donna Cartwright. And Keisling and the staff also support and endorse the many Transgender Day of Remembrance events slated for the region (the District’s is Sunday at 5 p.m. at MCC-D.C.).
Keisling’s work with the Center has involved several prominent achievements including the first-ever trans-inclusive federal legislation, modification of State Department rules for changing gender markers on passports and the first congressional hearing on transgender issues. She has also lobbied for a trans-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that has languished in Congress for years.
Prior to her work with the Center, Keisling was a public health social marketing and opinion researcher. She also taught government as an adjunct faculty member at George Mason and Marymount universities. Keisling started transitioning in 1999.
Keisling is a graduate of Penn State University and did her graduate work at Harvard University in American Government. She is a founding board member of the Stonewall Democracy Fund, and has served on the board of Directors of Common Roads, an LGBTQ youth group, and on the steering committee of the Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition.
The 52-year-old Harrisburg, Pa., native is single and lives in Adams Morgan. She enjoys relaxing with “humor, music and alone time with my dog.” (Blade photos by Michael Key)
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I came out almost 13 years ago in early 1999. No doubt, telling myself was the hardest.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
It’s a tie between every young trans person I have met and Lisa Mottet, who runs the trans rights project at the Task Force.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
No one should take nightlife advice from me.
Describe your dream wedding.
I am not the slightest bit romantic about weddings.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
I have a gut reaction to bullying, so child abuse, animal cruelty and wars are especially motivating to me.
What historical outcome would you change?
Probably the presidential election of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected and Americans were told it was OK to be selfish. It’s not that simple though.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Going to lots of baseball games with my son when he was young.
On what do you insist?
That people, including me, try to be intentional.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
A note on my thoughts around the Penn State child rape scandal. I am an alumni and a Pennsylvanian.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
A press release.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I believe in motives and love and effort and feelings and our ability to help others.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
I am fortunate enough that I get to give my advice to LGBT movement leaders frequently. Right now, I am most urgently concerned that we LGBT leaders, just at the height of our effectiveness, are taking the movement down the same road to non-saliency the women’s rights movement took when it largely became a one-issue movement.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
Anything I believed in. First, I would try walking around the coals.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
I have two: that trans people can’t be L,G or B and that we are homogeneous.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
You probably mean art movie, so I’d say “High Art” with Ally Sheedy. But really, if I were to ask people to see one must-see movie it would be “Cruel and Unusual,” a documentary about trans women in the U.S. prison system.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Weddings (see above)
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Not that I’m a celebrity, but someday I’d like to compete and win in the charity contest for D.C.’s Funniest Celebrity.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
I wish I had known that I had so much work to get done.
To paraphrase Willie Sutton, it’s where the policies are.