Sunday, 26 May 2013

Interview with Babs Siperstein

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Babs Siperstein with whom I would like to discuss the role of transgender women in the US politics. Hello Babs!
Babs: Hi, Monika! Thank you, for the opportunity to have an international stage. As one who can neither sing, dance nor model, it is a rare opportunity!
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Babs: Lucky! The writer and actor Woody Allen once said that 80% of success in life is just showing up and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to show up and lucky that when opportunities have arisen, I’ve been able to “carpe diem”, take advantage of them.
Monika: What are the current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Babs: Where to begin? I think the most important right now are jobs and access to health care. Often in many cases it’s just a fundamental matter of survival. Looking at the big picture we need win the culture wars to gain the societal respect to be recognized as the people we are.
Monika: In 2012 you were a member of "Trans United for Obama", a national group of transgender people, their supporters, allies, families and friends that acted successfully to re-elect President Obama. How did you organise that project?
Babs: “Trans United for Obama” (TU4O) was the idea of Lisa Mottet, Director of the Transgender Civil Rights Project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). It was purely a voluntary effort of advocates, bloggers, political activists and leaders on a national and regional level. As we learned that people were elected or selected to be delegates to the Democratic National Convention we engaged them to be part of the initiative as well.
Working with the Obama campaign and using our own contacts we got some pretty impressive campaign surrogates to participate on our calls. Delaware Governor Jack Markell, Newark’s charismatic mayor, Corey Booker, and Chaz Bono were some of our headliners. I was just one of several people on the TU4O Executive Committee.
We engaged people across the country to volunteer for the campaign and I think we surprised people that we raised a bit of money, as well. 
Engaging with Vice-President Joe Biden.
Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Babs: Generally very positive! To say that the Obama Administration has done more for transgender Americans than all other Administrations combine is a huge understatement.
Adding recognition of transgender people and appropriate rights and non-discrimination policies as they have done throughout much of this giant bureaucracy is almost revolutionary.
A couple of things got some publicity such as the new State Department policy for changing the gender markers on US Passports, the specific non-discrimination policy in federally financed housing, the Federal Employment non-discrimination policy as well as the EEOC ruling that employment discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” is illegal.
More important is the fact that they have been willing to interact and engage with the trans community directly. From the beginning, our advocates and policy people had met with the Administration as part of inclusive LGBT groups, but as many issues that we share with our LGB brothers and sisters, there are so many issues that relate only to trans people.
There was no publicity surrounding the event, but if there is one thing I can be most proud is in facilitating the first ever meeting in the White House of Trans policy experts and advocates with the Administration policy staff.
Although this was strictly a non-political event, I could introduce myself only by my affiliation with GRAANJ, our New Jersey gender rights group, but it was by my earning of “political capital”, friendship and confidence that I suspect made it possible.
Last year, a promise was kept, something for which I had been strongly advocating for some time and on November 20, 2012 the White House had its first ever official Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) observance along with a follow up meeting with the trans policy wonks.
A year or so prior to that I had encouraged the White House to invite Gwen Smith the woman who organized the international TDOR observance to speak at a Hate Crimes conference and talk first- hand about the endemic violence against trans people. It’s important to recognize that Obama pushed for and signed the Matthew Shepard- James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Act which was the very first fully trans-inclusive LGBT law.
Vice President Joe Biden called transgender rights the “civil rights issue of our time”. I’ve talked to him several times... he “gets it”!
Monika: You were following quite closely the US last presidential campaign. Was there any difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats addressed the needs and rights of transgender community?
Babs: The difference was stark. Republicans were consistently speaking and acting to deny rights for all LGB and T people, despite two gay groups endorsing Romney. Romney, while Governor of Massachusetts, had a direct and harmful record of anti-transgender actions. 
In 2009 just minutes before my confirmation, by vote of the membership, as the first openly transgender member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), that organization amended their Charter and By-laws not only to ban discrimination against transpeople, but to actively encourage the participation of trans people within the party. As the sitting President, Barack Obama is the Leader of the Democratic Party. In 2011, I ran for an open seat on the DNC Executive Committee and was elected. It was an open and positive process.
Obama has sought transgender support in the campaign, but more importantly his record has been of engaging with the community to hear our concerns and work with our advocates and policy experts.
With Newark, NJ Mayor Corey Booker.
Monika: The American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the transgender community in this respect?
Babs: If we look at where we are and how far we need to go, I would say, not very successful. If we consider the our size, how many of us are closeted, how many of us are “disabled” by pervasive societal stigma and living in poverty and fear… how much we have accomplished in the last 10 years or so.
I’d say we’ve achieved a remarkable degree of success by working with our many partners and allies and in some cases interacting directly. As we step up and assert ourselves in smart and constructive ways, as we persist and draw more people with us, we will succeed.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Babs: Sometimes it is. For too long we have been a lower case “t” with most groups. What I have observed recently is that as LGBT organizations have been achieving success for their lesbian and gay constituencies, i.e. marriage, these organizations in order to survive and be relevant must expand their mission and goals and often that means focusing on transpeople and our issues. Some friends of mine, national LGBT leaders and funders have begun a project to encourage more national and state LGBT organizations to have transpeople on their governing boards.
With repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) in the US Military, the lead organization involved, Servicemen's Legal Defense Network (SLDN) found itself in a crisis because it had achieved its #1 priority. They recently merged with Outserve a younger more inclusive group who is focused on those currently serving. The new Executive Director, a West Point grad, of the merged group is a transwoman!

I recently attended the New York Gala of Lambda Legal, which is I believe the 2nd largest LGBT organization at least by $ budget. It was a bit disconcerting that out of 900 people in attendance I observed that I was perhaps only one of three transpeople present. I was encouraged by the fact that they now have a trans woman in their board.
She had encouraged me to come, and I was pleased to hear some talk about them starting a transgender legal project. Perhaps it is now “politically correct” to be trans-inclusive or perhaps there is a real desire for these LGBT organizations to give us a seat at the table. Regardless, we would be wise to step up and take that seat. If we are not at the table, then we will most likely be the meal.
Just this past week I received a call from a national LGBT political group who has no ties to the trans community and appeared to now realize the need to expand their base and to be inclusive in fact. We shall see, I’m often a bit cynical, but I welcome an honest attempt at real inclusion and I always look for a win ... win scenario.
It depends on how smart we are and how inclusive or myopic the other communities are. The first bit of LGBT legislation I was involved with was a school anti- bullying law. It gave explicit protections to LGB students, but not trans students. We engaged with the primary LGBT group that advocated for inclusion for gays and lesbians, they were sympathetic and understood when we explained that it is usually the gender variant expression of the student that bullies act on and trans language would cover it. They understood that, but were unwilling to push the lawmakers to include that language in the legislation.
But, a little more than a handful of focused, persistent and motivated amateur lobbyists and transgender activists, learned the rules and got our language in, just like the high priced lobbyists, and that law passed!
I also want to note that our core group of trans activists included, if we must use labels, transsexuals, cross-dressers, and lesbians who understood the concept of gender variance. We were people who worked together for a goal.
2011 - Grand Marshall of the Hudson County Pride
Parade and Festival.
That was a great learning experience for me, It showed that you have to learn the rules and make them work for you. We did that time and time again in my state of New Jersey. When the big national gay legal organization hired a successful producer and organizer to hold town meetings and dinners to support same sex marriage, we showed up and spoke in support of marriage from the perspective of a trans-person.
We educated the public and the LGB organizers and we were welcomed. We eventually were included in every speaking event to speak on marriage and other trans issues. It was a successful partnership where everyone received benefit. We were fortunate that this organizer, who later organized Garden State Equality was willing to be engaged had a broad perspective of LGBT equality.
There are other people and organizations that give the impression that could care less about transpeople or even about most gay issues. The people from “Freedom to Marry” is but one such group that seems to care only about gay marriage.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Babs: Harvey Milk was a public figure, a politician with a demographic that reached a level of a critical mass. I don’t know of any transperson who can herd cats. WE don’t have a critical mass… yet. We do have people that can lead that can use the tools of today…I’ve got to think about this. We’ve had some historical leaders... I met Sylvia Rivera before she died, but she was disrespected by the gay white male gatekeepers who took advantage of her actions at Stonewall to take care of themselves.
We do have some young smart leaders who can connect and stand on their own feet. Last year I met a young woman from Delaware who was an intern at the White House and has great potential as well as a political background, a policy degree and I think a sense of trans history. There are young folks stepping up all over the country.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Babs: We are slowly making headway, we need to be out, be positive role models in society, not just in the media. However we are stigmatized by the media, especially the mass media, because we sell- headlines sell.
We need positive role models and we need a media that can help us project those positive roles. We also need more of us that have some success to come out of the shadows without jumping into the spotlight. It’s a balance that I seek.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the US President?
Babs: I’m 70, I wouldn’t bet on it, but perhaps my grandchildren might.
Yeah, I'm a "Jersey" Democrat!
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Babs: We knew several couples where the husband was trans ... they were dealing with their trans status and spousal relationships much longer than we. We had an informal circle of friends, mostly couples, from upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina with whom we met for dinners, weekends, vacations, or just chats ... all middle age, middle class folks.
We learned the positive aspects and what perceived to be the negatives and shortcomings. We helped each other as friends, sometimes just in knowing there were many others like ourselves and we could talk and share ideas and experiences. I had been on a very long transition. I knew I was different as a child, as a pre adolescent and as an adolescent. But I had a role to keep, I grew up in a tough working class neighbourhood where you lived by your wits and your fist. For many years I was in denial.
I suppose things started again as I reached mid-life. I wasn’t sure what it was... kind of an itch that would not go away. There was a woman inside, but I didn’t know whether it was a fetish or what. I read, I fantasized, my thoughts were all over. Was this my mid-life crisis? I had a sports car, raced horses, had season tickets to the NY Rangers Hockey team, but there was something else.
I was very fortunate that my wife was also my best friend and generally speaking she was the one for whom I wanted to share my time and she did with me. I had the confidence to share some of my thoughts of dressing and acting as a woman with her. At the time I did not know how far I would go, as I did understand the difference between fantasy and reality. I was very fortunate as Carol was the type of person who could make lemonade out of a lemon.
We decided to “explore” this woman inside me together. We were monogamous. We were both gregarious and enjoyed being with people. Being beginners, We decided to seek out other couples where the husband had this female side. We met an older couple and developed a friendship that lasted till they passed on, but they told us about support groups and crossdressing weekend where we met other couples. It was that very first weekend in which I was able to dress and act as a woman that I went through a catharsis and I knew, for me, that this was no fetish, no game, the trick was how to make it all happen so I could keep and protect my family, business and I could pass as a woman that my wife could be comfortable to be with as we went out together. I guess at that point I was about 47 or 48.
Award from Garden State Equality.
We started attending a CD Weekend each year, “Paradise in the Poconos” and got friendly with other couples, each had their own story. We found restaurants and clubs and other venues where it was “safe” to go out dressed. At some point in time we graduated from the “support groups” and eventually developed a network of other middle class, middle aged couples in the North East U.S. where the husband was trans in some degree. We built friendships based on that.
We did weekends at gay resorts and eventually went with our friends to straight resorts as well. Both Carol and I enjoyed doing cruises and when we found out about the Dignity Cruise we decided to book one with a couple of our friends. It was great! I think that from the beginning I wanted to do just about everything I did normally, but now as a woman. I was a person, I had the same interests, movies, shows, food, travel... OK, I was softer and gentler as a woman, but I was still, essentially the same person.
From the late 80’s to my wife’s sudden passing in October of 2001, we led a very active double life as I began my transition from male to female. My parents passed away in 1992 right after my 50th birthday. They never knew. The first physical change I made to myself was to have a nose job, a rhinoplasty as my nose was broken a couple of times as a kid growing up. I was careful to have something that fit my face. My beard, although not really dark was dense and I often broke out from shaving.
I started electrolysis beginning in the mid nineties, but was not really satisfies with the slow pace nor the quality of the work. I read about a trans dentist is Texas who had a faster method, without scarring and used lidocaine as an anaesthetic. We decided to take a trip to Dallas and try it! 67 hours with 2 operators working on my face to totally strip the beard. They said it was a record as my beard was incredibly dense. Ice packs each night and after I got home my face was blown up and red. But no scarring. Back at work I had to make up a story about a food allergy at this Texas restaurant.
Well, I did have food intolerances that everyone knew about, so this went to my face instead of my stomach! I made several more trips over the years, and each time it took less time to clear my face. My wife was amazing although I could see the look in her face as she picked me up after each long daily session.
Fortunately I was a principal in a family business, but what made things the most difficult is that when my father died, he was the oldest of 4 brothers, not everything was in writing and I found myself as a minority shareholder in the business and being shorted in the profits and opportunity to share in what had been a fairly successful and growing business. I soon found myself being sued and in a protracted lawsuit and my resources uncles and cousins.
When attacked I fight, but in my heart and gut I knew there was no way I could transition openly and be partners with these people. I was tearing myself apart and going to work with them everyday. By 2000, we reached a legal settlement which left me with a fraction of the real value, but I had a small independent business and could go forward, or so I hoped.
With her family at the 2011 Legends Gala when
she was honored by Garden State Equality.
My wife’s family and her sister lived in South East Florida, near Ft. Lauderdale. At least once a year we would drive or fly down to visit them. Sometimes they would take the kids and we would take off to the Keys or Lauderdale beach and be “us”. One year, 1997, we took a CD dignity cruise out of Miami, it was a short 3 day cruise for Fantasy Fest in October in Key West and we flew down with our friends.
While we were away, my sister in law called our house and the kids told her were in Florida for a cruise. In Miami and she didn’t call? She was hurt, understandably so. The next spring we were down for a week visiting as my mother in law was diagnosed with cancer.
There was a lot of tension and anxiety and at some point my wife decided to tell her sister why she could not see her on our last trip to Florida. The fact that the reason was not something negative between the sisters was a relief. My dressing, my female persona was not to keep the sisters apart and my sister in law indicated that she wanted to “go out” with Babs. She and her husband actually joined us on our next cruise, along with their neighbours, which was another Halloween Fantasy Fest Cruise to Key West.
In 1998 at Wigstock I was picked out of the crowd as a contestant for a pageant to be Virgin Queen, sponsored by Virgin Cola. I was actually one of the three finalists which meant 2 tickets to London on Virgin Airlines, but my wife was relieved I didn’t win because the winner had her picture in a million cans of Virgin Cola, and she was afraid I’d be recognized. The cola never quite made it. It was quite an experience however being on stage in front on thousands of people!
My three children knew about me, and some of our friends, but we kept “Babs” out of their lives so as if not to complicate their lives or that of their friends who congregated at our house. With few exceptions we kept our trans and gay friends separate from our old straight friends. By 1999 I had been taking herbal hormones for some time and now started low dosage estrogen.
Everything changed on October 30, 2001. Carol, my wife of 34 years died suddenly after being diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer only the month before. Much of what happened was a blur, but I suppose I have to thank primarily the friends of “Babs”, for stepping up and encouraging me to go on. I still was living this dual life, but as my children were grown and I had to go forward, and there was less of a necessity to protect my family, my transition was bound to speed up and I had much to prove to myself that I could eventually stand on my own and be successful as a woman.

There was one bit of closure that was necessary... we never took that London trip with the tickets we won as Carol had a brief but acute illness just before we were scheduled to leave. My daughter, my youngest, was in college and had an international internship in London. She had scheduled a week of free time after her school term was over in England, so I booked a 2 week trip, the first week would be a similar tour that Carol and I had previously booked and the second week would be with my daughter.
July 2002, I was going to travel as Babs, I was going to see if I could spend a week on a bus tour and pass as a woman. I had a lot of accumulated air miles and decided there was less of a chance of a hassle if I travelled “first class”.
Everyone is different, every situation is different, but the more people we met, the more we learned and that helped us adapt and survive and in some ways thrive.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Babs: I came out gradually and in stages. My biggest fear was the unknown. I had a decent sized business with partners who would savage me if they knew. They would do anything to get an advantage ... to take advantage. I had to get out and salvage some equity in the business. There was a long drawn out expensive lawsuit and eventual settlement. I had control of a small scale business, but I was vulnerable and weakened.
My wife passed away rather suddenly in October 30, 2001. My world, my life was shattered. Everything changed or was put on a new track. Because of his fiduciary responsibility if something now happened to me, I had to come out to perhaps my oldest and closest friend. I phoned him and told him there was something important he needed to know and he met “Babs” for dinner one evening.
He was a bit in shock, but certainly was hurt because he felt that I didn’t have the confidence of our friendship for him to handle the new me. We were Grad school buddies and for years we shared NY Rangers Hockey season tickets. We were blunt and always brutally honest with one another. His big fear was if the basic nature of our friendship would change. He wanted to know that if he felt I did something stupid or foolish, could he still call me a “blankety-blank” (curse)? I smiled and said, “Of course ... and if you screw up, I’ll still call you a “blankety-blank-blank” (curse)!” He smiled and said, “Okay”!
2009 - Speaking in Washington DC, to an enthusiastic
crowd of 200,000 people.
My public outing came in the biggest daily newspaper in New Jersey. I had been out as a political activist and transgender advocate for several years as Barbra or “Babs” Casbar, but I never used my last name and no one really knew who I was. 
I was not out at work. With a wig, makeup and women’s clothing, I lived a double life. My late wife and I had his and her “vanity” license plates on our cars, “MR SIP” and “MRS SIP”. I gave them up when I sold them and bought a new car with regular issue plates.
I think it was around 2006, I was vice chair of Garden State Equality and we were holding a town meeting for LGBT equality featuring the children of LGBT parents. My daughter Jana came with me and spoke eloquently and dramatically to a crowd of several hundred. She impressed one of the reporters covering the event, they took her picture which appeared prominently in the paper and the article described her as Jana Siperstein daughter of Barbra Casbar.
I knew my employees would see the picture as they read that paper every morning. I came in late that next morning and no one said anything, but I knew I had to be proactive and called my managers and assistants in to my office when business slowed down early in the afternoon. I explained the situation that I was transgender, a woman, I had been living a dual life for many years, my late wife knew, I haven’t shaved for several years from the electrolysis, etc, etc.
They were concerned that because most of our customers were tradesmen, they might not understand and we would lose their business, if I started showing up very fem. I allayed their fears and those of my daughter who worked in the business. I reminded them that I had been making small changes over the years and no one really knew and that I would just continue to make gradual changes bust perhaps just a little faster. I would eventually appear as one of our female tradespeople in dress, rather than one of the decorators in high heels.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Babs: I was married and shared my life for 34 years to Carol, an incredible woman. Love makes all the difference, love and hard work as in any marriage... just a bit more challenging. We shared much of my early transition, so much of my basic education as a woman. She was extremely supportive although she would have much preferred that we be a “normal” male female couple.
It was the love and strength of our relationship that made it possible ... and being the type of “positive” person who could make lemonade out of a lemon.
After she passed away, I had a small group of friends that pushed me to continue to be active socially and politically. At one of the Imperial Court events, (Carol and I were both Princesses), I met a woman for whom there was an immediate chemistry. I was not ready emotionally for anything serious and she was in a care giving relationship with a long term partner, but we respected our situations and our friendship and love grew to a real relationship. We’re together now.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Babs: I suppose I’ve thought about writing a book. I suppose I’ve done things and looked back in amazement that I had the guts to those things, the many trips we took together, the close calls of being outed, but you do what you feel you must after taking calculated risks and you reap the rewards. There was much that I had to prove to myself that I could do as a woman and without using the advantages and privileges of my old male self.
I was devastated when my wife passed, but serendipitously I met a woman several month later, when I least expected and gradually developed a relationship. We have been together over 10 years. I suppose I’ve been “Twice Blessed”. 
Monika: You have three grandchildren. Do you spoil them?
Babs: I try. My two older grandchildren will be coming up here for a week this summer. They will surely keep me busy, but I can’t wait to spend quality time with them. They are 11 and 13 and growing up fast.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Babs: Yes, I feel I am able to do something positive, create change, hopefully help create that societal “respect”, have a partner, a loving family. I can’t afford the new Aston Martin, but I can’t complain, either.
Monika: Babs, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Babs Siperstein.
Done on 26 May 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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