Mara Keisling — 6-foot-2, with frizzy brown hair and a wry smile — is the best-known transgender activist in Washington, which is to say she is not well known at all.
“Trust me,” Keisling said after finishing a conversation with one congressional staffer. “We have no political clout.”
But as she wound her way through the Rayburn House Office Building, there were sparks of recognition. “Hey, Mara,” another staffer said warmly when he bumped into her on his way to lunch.
Such small acknowledgments count as progress in Keisling’s rarefied and often difficult campaign for transgender rights. Ten years ago, when she was a transgender activist in her home state of Pennsylvania, Keisling was thrown out of lawmakers’ offices and told she was going to hell.
Things have changed, although slowly. And the movement that long lingered on the fringes of political debate — so much that even some mainstream gay and lesbian groups kept it at arm’s length — has won several victories.
Last year brought the first federal law with protections for transgender people — the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — along with scores of state and local ordinances banning discrimination based on gender identity. In February, the U.S. Tax Court ruled that hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgeries are tax-deductible, an important issue for transgender people.
Activists say they have found an ally in President Obama, who has appointed three openly transgender people to his administration — Amanda Simpson at the Commerce Department, Dylan Orr at the Labor Department and Ejay Jack to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
The biggest battle activists now face in Washington is for inclusion in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, a bill first introduced in 1994 to protect gay and lesbian people from prejudice on the job.
In 2007 the bill was broadened to include protections for workers treated unfairly because of their “gender identity.” That phrase would have protected transgender people, including transsexuals, cross-dressers and others who express themselves in a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.
But not everyone was ready for it.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), an openly gay lawmaker and a lead sponsor of ENDA, stripped out the protection for gender identity after fellow lawmakers told him they couldn’t vote for the bill if it was included.
“This transgender thing, this is new,” Frank said lawmakers told him. “This scares people.”
A schism opened in the world of gay, lesbian and transgender rights.
Transgender activists picketed outside of a dinner organized by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, which supported the new bill. The organization’s only transgender board member resigned. In a speech, Keisling accused the group of “actively hurting trans people.”
Keisling, who a few years before had moved to Washington to form an organization to advocate exclusively for transgender-friendly laws and policies at the federal level, was well poised to help lead the newly galvanized transgender movement.
Her primary task: education. Unlike gays and lesbians, who have been elected to office, played in national sports leagues and hosted talk shows, there are few openly transgender figures in popular culture.
So Keisling gave hundreds of interviews and has spent many hours on Capitol Hill talking about an issue that many still find uncomfortable and ambiguous, both in political terms and otherwise.
Before one interview with Fox News, an anchor asked her repeatedly whether she had had sex-reassignment surgery.
“I’m here to talk about policy, Keisling said she responded curtly. “My medical records are my business.”
Keisling grew up as a boy named Mark in Harrisburg, Pa., one of seven brothers and sisters. The family was political — Keisling’s father once served as the governor’s chief of staff — and Keisling studied government at Harvard University and worked for a time as a political pollster on Democratic campaigns.
In the late 1990s, Keisling told his friends and family he had always felt like a woman, and began the process of transition. Mark became Mara.
She turned to activism in 1999 out of frustration with discriminatory policies that kept transgender people she knew from getting jobs, raising children and otherwise living normal lives. “There were so many people getting a really raw deal,” she said.
Today, the six staff members of Keisling’s National Center for Transgender Equality work out of a cramped but cheerful office rented from the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.
The center does research — a recent survey it conducted with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that transgender people are twice as likely to live in poverty as other Americans, and nearly all have experienced harassment or discrimination on the job. And it has compiled a wide-ranging list of recommended policy changes, including amending Medicare and Medicaid policies to include hormone therapy, and changing the way prisons segregate inmates (the organization would like to see prisoners separated by gender identity, not birth sex).
The organization has also brought more than 1,000 transgender people from around the country to Washington to talk to their representatives about the nondiscrimination bill — an effort that has paid off.
The House bill, which has more than 200 co-sponsors, is expected to go before the House Committee on Education and Labor soon. President Obama has indicated that he will sign the bill if it passes Congress.
Despite the victories, the battle for acceptance is constant. Keisling and her colleagues have learned to tread carefully.
During one meeting, they debated who they should invite to speak to transgender activists at their lobby day.
Suggestions of Lady Gaga and Cyndi Lauper were quickly shot down. “We don’t want partiers,” said communications director Justin Tanis.
Less flashy candidates, like Vice President Joe Biden, were also rejected. “No Secret Service,” said Stephanie White, the managing director.
Barney Frank was nixed, for obvious reasons. “We don’t want Barney yelling at our people, and we don’t want our people yelling at Barney,” Keisling said.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s name came up, heads nodded. White said she would put in a request to the San Francisco Democrat, and called the meeting to an end.
A few weeks later, they learned Pelosi had declined the invitation.