Mara Keisling addressing EMU students as part of Transgender Day of Remembrance events. BTL photo: Jerome Stuart Nichols

Keisling Calls For Passionate Action Against Violence

National Trans Leader Inspirational At EMU

By Jerome Stuart Nichols


Trans people don't always have a lot to celebrate. Besides the fact that the odds are stacked against them financially, socially and judicially, they're also much more likely to be victims of violence. This is why each year on Nov. 20, we take a bit of time out to celebrate and recognize those who have lost their lives due to transphobic violence.

To recognize this year's Transgender Day of Remembrance, Eastern Michigan University's LGBT Resource Center hosted prominent trans activist Mara Keisling. As she's known to do, the towering Michelle Obama fangirl brought her patent-pending sense of humor and charm to the discussion. Her speech focused on themes of transgender rights and issues, racism in the trans community and offered tips on how to be a trans ally. It was an inspiring night capped by a lively Q and A and a reflective candlelight vigil.

Although mostly unknown to people outside the movement, Keisling is the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and is one of the most knowledgeable people on the topic of trans issues, making it an easy decision to invite her to share her message and perspective from a national level.

"EMU is really lucky to have her here, especially on the eve of TDoR," EMU LGBTRC Program Coordinator Mary Larkin said. "Just being able to have such an intimate conversation with her I think is really beneficial to our students. I know a lot of the students were really excited about that happening. My Facebook status today says, 'play it cool today' because I feel a little excited but I want to be professional."

The goal of the event was to remember and celebrate, but also to inform. Since people spanning the gender spectrum were in attendance, this presented a great opportunity to spread knowledge and bridge gaps.

In the fight for trans equality, it is important to connect trans and to other people. Often, it's a lack of knowledge that proves to be a barrier to understanding. Recently, NCTE and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force quantified these issues and the results are disheartening. Trans people have an unemployment rate twice the national average, are four times more likely to live on less than $10,000 a year and 91 percent of them have faced difficulties in their work place because of their gender identity.

Then there's the issue of health care.

"We saw 20 percent of people in our sample say that they had been refused care from a healthcare provider because they're trans," Keisling said. "We once got a call from a nursing student in Florida who had been in a class on emergency room care. They were covering the difference between treating men and women in emergency rooms. She was a trans ally and said, 'what about transgendered people?' The teacher said, 'when I was in New York City, we would just let those people die.'"

Since these socioeconomic issues are inextricably linked, solving one requires progress on another. This makes it difficult to confront the main issue at hand on TDoR; violence.

"The folks who are murdered - about one a month in the United States - are never like me. They're never middle class, middle-aged, white trans people," Keisling said. "They're almost always young, almost always women, almost always people of color, often immigrants, often sex workers and almost always low income because if you're any of those things, you're much more susceptible to violence.

"You aren't really killed just because you're trans - although it may have been transphobia that triggered it. There's also socioeconomic implications and education implications. So, we need to fix all of those things. We need to make it so that people don't have to live in the conditions that foster that kind of violence."

This compounding of issues also makes attacking the racism within the trans community challenging.

"Sure, they're facing transphobia. But for a lot of folks the racism they have to deal with is worse. We really take that seriously and I always talk about racism when I speak," said Keisling.

For Keisling, it's not about making sure that everyone joins in the fight to stop the inequalities that trans people face. It's about doing something about the issues that someone is passionate about.

"I want the folks who are in the audience to maybe get inspired to do something," she said. "I think all people, including students, are sometimes for things or against things and don't do anything about it. I want people to act, but I don't want them to do what I want them to do. I want them to do what they want to do. But really do it."

Once Keisling's speech was over the lights were snuffed and candles were lit. In the darkness, there was a sense of camaraderie that filled the space. As the names of the victims were read, many people were moved to tears. The amber cast of the candlelight outlined hands grasped, giving strength in a touching and emotionally evocative moment.

"This is my first Transgendered Day of Remembrance. I knew it was going to be really emotional," participant Jessie Kane said. "What really got to me was the 'unknowns.' That's somebody's child, parent, lover, friend. Just all those people that died to this senseless ignorance. It's important to remember."

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