A Q&A with Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality

On Thursday, August 22, the Akron Pride Festival will be hosting an evening with Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization aiding monumental policies for the trans community. In advance of her visit, Prizm spoke with Keisling to get her take on how to best approach advocacy work that can be reactive, geographic, and draining. 

There’s advocacy work that you do, but then there’s also the work that you do responding to current events or to tragedies when they happen. How do you go about balancing being proactive with being reactive?

That’s a really good question. We actually built reactivity into our plans. We know that what we’re doing is trying to change the world, trying to change society, and so there are always new things that are going to come up at any given time. We’ve become so good at federal policy because we’ve become opportunistic. And I mean that in a really good way. There’s this kind of inane conversation about which is better: incremental advancement or sudden, disruptive, revolutionary advancement. And the reason that it’s not a useful conversation is because both are super important. You can’t go around waiting for the big moments. You have to create little moments that add up to the big moments or to move and advance things while you’re waiting for the big moments. So reactivity is a big part of that work. It keeps us hopping, but it’s super important. 

You’re coming here to speak in Ohio, a state that lacks protections in housing, employment, and public accommodations. How do you approach this work that can be so different based on geography?

You really have to follow the lead of the people on the ground. That’s one really important thing. We do a lot of state and local advocacy in addition to federal advocacy. But particularly at the state and local level, we really are almost consultants to the folks on the ground. Ohio is very lucky in that it has a very vibrant trans group in TransOhio, and a really great LGBT group in Equality Ohio. We wouldn’t presume to know Ohio better than either of those two groups. So we will support them as they do their work as we support local activists on their important things. 

What do you want people to know already before they come here you speak? Are we past the point of having to do Trans 101? 

Probably for the crowd I’ll be speaking with in Akron, which is affiliated with Pride Weekend, probably most folks have exposure to trans people and there will hopefully be lots of trans people there too. But I think it’s always important that we’re on the same page and are talking the same language. So there will probably be a little bit of what may sound to some people as Trans 101. More and more when I have to do a Trans 101 as part of something, I try to focus on the really important thing which is to treat everybody fairly and equally, like you want to be treated, and everybody gets that.

If you could script any action items that people could do immediately after hearing you speak, what would you script for them?

Register to vote. Register everyone they know to vote. Plan on voting. Make a plan to vote. The most important thing for trans people and for LGBT people in the next year is change at the very top, change in the White House. I’m just not afraid to say that at all. We need the White House to change. This guy is no good. 

This work can be so draining and there certainly is a lot of burnout. What advice can you provide with regard to doing this advocacy work but also practicing that elusive thing called self-care?

I will say I’m not especially good personally at that, but I do have threefold key self-care items that help. Number one is my dog. She forces me to come home in the evening. I work in the evening often, but I have to come home or she will starve. She causes me to walk around my neighborhood and greet my neighbors, so she’s definitely part of my self-care. The second is my sense of humor. I think a sense of humor is really important. The harder your work is, the more important that you have a sense of humor and an understanding of having joy and feeling joy. A lot of people these days aren’t feeling joy and there’s a real need as humans to experience joy. I have an ability to do that. And third is that I’m an optimist. I think if you’re not an optimist, you can’t be in this line of work. If you really think everything sucks and it will never get better, you probably ought to think about getting out of the way so the optimists can get stuff done. 

“Akron Pride Festival Presents: An Evening with Mara Keisling” will be held at 7:30pm on Thursday, August 22 at the Akron Civic Theatre (182 S Main Street). Tickets are free and more information is available here.