Sunday, 26 May 2013

Interview with Babs Siperstein

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Babs Siperstein with whom I would like to discuss the role of transgender women in US politics. Barbra Casbar Siperstein is an American politician and transactivist. She serves in many Democratic Party political organizations and groups, including the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, Garden State Equality, and the Democratic National Committee Eastern Caucus. 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 to win the culture wars to gain 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 organize 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 delegated 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 in 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 with many issues that we share with our LGB brothers and sisters, there are so many issues that relate only to trans people.
Monika: Were there any particular initiatives that you found inspiring?
Babs: There was no publicity surrounding the event, but if there is one thing I can be most proud of 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 the 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 a 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: 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 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 the 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 that 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 on 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 at the meal.
Just this past week I received a call from a national LGBT political group that 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.
Monika: So can we be really successful?
Babs: 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 benefits. 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” are 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 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 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 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.
We need positive role models and we need 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 chat... all middle-aged, 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 neighborhood 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.

All the photos: courtesy of Babs Siperstein.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska 

Part 2

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