November 8, 2016 at 9:27 am EST | by Mara Keisling
After my arrest, penance helping trans youth in D.C.
SMYAL, transgender youth, gay news, Washington Blade, transgender people

Mara Keisling (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In April, I was arrested at the State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., participating in a protest against the HB2 bathroom bill. I had never been arrested at a protest before, but was honored to participate this time, especially in a direct action led by the NC NAACP – a “Moral Mondays” protest organized that day to fight HB2 and support trans people, whom I serve as executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

As punishment for standing up for the safety and dignity transgender people in North Carolina in the way I did, I was required to perform community service. I chose to do it for SMYAL, the D.C.-based LGBTQ youth organization.

I’ve always believed that we can conquer bad situations in ways that make them less bad or even turn them into advantages. In my professional life, this has never been truer than with the very public bathroom fights we have been having in North Carolina. Trans and gender non-conforming youth are being attacked in N.C. and all over the country, so I chose to do my community service working for these youth.

I chose SMYAL for two reasons. First, I have always admired the important work they do with D.C. queer youth. Second, if I am to be punished for fighting for the safety and dignity of trans youth, it would be a remarkable honor to do my penance fighting even more for the safety and dignity of trans youth. SMYAL was the right organization to help.

The work hasn’t been glamorous, but the best work rarely is. Helping feels good and it has led me into a deeper relationship with some great people doing amazing work in the city where I live.

I know that the governor and state legislative leaders meant ill toward trans people when they made the very harmful HB2 law, but we will use it for good whenever we can. We will get it repealed. Until then, we will use it to have an important conversation with America. And I am fortunate enough to be involved with SMYAL because of HB2.

Something at SMYAL I’m especially excited about is its brunch on Sunday Nov. 13. The keynote speaker this year is Schuyler Bailar, a young trans swimmer at Harvard, whom SMYAL is honoring with its Community Advocate Award. I’ve seen Schuyler on the Ellen Show and 60 Minutes, and I’m really impressed and excited to hear him in person. And how often do we get to attend fundraising events where the keynote speaker is a trans youth of color? Thank you, SMYAL.

I’ve even signed up to be a table captain and am hoping to get lots of people—trans people, parents of trans people, and others—out to support Schuyler and SMYAL. Please consider joining me at SMYAL’s annual brunch to support SMYAL’s important work and to hear Schuyler speak.

I don’t suppose that Gov. McCrory and the state legislature had any idea of the pain they were unleashing on their state and themselves with their viciously and incompetently conceived HB2. Of course they knew they were disrespecting and hurting trans people, especially young trans people. And I am positive that they never saw any good coming from it for our community. Trans people have come together, many people have joined to support us, and America is having a much needed conversation about trans people and our lives. Oh, and I have become involved with a great organization in D.C. called SMYAL that devotes itself to LGBTQ youth.

For more information about SMYAL, visit

Mara Keisling is executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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