Monday, 13 January 2014

Interview with Marisa Richmond

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Marisa Richmond, a transgender politician, activist, a member of Boards of Directors of The National Center for Transgender Equality, the Trans Advocacy Network, and a lobbyist for the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. She is also an active leader in the Democratic Party in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Hello Marisa!
Marisa: Hi Monika. Thanks for having me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Marisa: I assume you mean as a trans activist. I don’t really consider that a career since I do it for love, not money. I enjoy the challenges and doing what I can to move our community forward. I want to make everyone’s life easier. I am especially concerned about doing so for the younger generation. BTW, my real career is as a historian. I love teaching, but I need to get back to research and publishing.
Monika: Was 2013 a good year for the transgender community in the USA?
Marisa: Yes it was. At the Federal level, we saw the adoption of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), only the second trans inclusive federal law ever passed, along with Senate passage of the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA). We saw new non discrimination laws covering trans people enacted in Delaware and Puerto Rico, and one for trans students in California.
Delaware also added trans people to the Hate Crimes law, while Oregon and the District of Columbia liberalized their gender change and name change laws. There were also numerous local laws, including two in my home state of Tennessee. We also saw more private employers adopt new policies ending discrimination against trans people and, in a few cases, expanding health care for trans employees. 
Monika: What are the pending issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Marisa: At the federal level, we still need to get the House of Representatives to pass ENDA. An Executive Order from the President would also help in many states without our own state laws. We also need to end discrimination against trans people in the military and end bullying and harassment of our youth.

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?
Marisa: There were about 30 of us around the country who came together through multiple conversations to message around the Obama Administration’s accomplishments for trans people. We also wanted to raise money, to show our commitment, and help publicize the work of the trans delegates at the Democratic National Convention, to show that we were a full part of the process.
Some of us were already leaders within the Democratic Party, while others were just committed activists. We are expanding it in 2014 to become “Trans United for Progress.” We want to elect more openly trans candidates, but we will also support cisgender candidates who have done exceptional work for the trans community.
Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Marisa: It has been very good. Besides the fact that the President has signed the first two trans-inclusive laws in history (VAWA and the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act of 2009), we have the first openly trans Presidential appointees, several trans-specific policy meetings in the White House and across the Administration, and several new policies, of which the Passport and Social Security policies permitting gender change without surgery are probably the most important. There is still work to be done, but at least this Administration is willing to work with us on our issues.

Marisa with President Obama in the White House, June 2011.

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?
Marisa: The Democratic National Platform was trans-inclusive for the second time in a row. The Republican National Platform was not. The Democrats also had the largest, and most diverse, a trans delegation at the Convention. There has been a total of only one openly trans delegate in the history of the Republican Party, and that was way back in 1992. We currently have two openly trans members on the Democratic National Committee, and at least three on State Democratic Committees.
In 2013, I served as President of the Davidson County Democratic Women in Nashville. To my knowledge, I am the first openly trans person to head a mainstream Democratic group. Both DCDW and the Davidson County Democratic Party Executive Committee, of which I have been a member since 2008, expanded their non-discrimination statements to include trans people, and I am proud of getting that done in both groups.
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?
Marisa: Those of us who work in the political arena put a lot of stock in alliance building. We have developed key allies among organized labor, women’s rights groups, immigrant rights groups, and of course, traditional civil rights groups. Some also work to build alliances with the Faith community.
As a member of the Davidson County Democratic Executive Committee, Marisa
was on the subcommittee that wrote a new platform this year. That platform
has explicit, fully inclusive language, and it even uses  the word "transgender"
which the DNC Platform does not.

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?
Marisa: We have more and more trans focused groups who provide a voice on our issues, to ensure that those are not overlooked. We still face the challenge of making sure our groups get a seat at the table, sometimes forcing us to kick down the door, but we have a growing number of activists who are showing other trans people how to be effective. We have made leadership development a priority so that the next generation can move the ball even further.
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?
Marisa: We have had several groundbreaking activists over the years. We must not forget the contributions of the late Dr. Virginia Prince, who organized one of the first trans support groups in Los Angeles. Her publication, Transvestia, also got her arrested.
Many others, including Jane Fee in Minnesota, and Phyllis Frye in Texas, have also been pioneers in the political and legal fields. Today, the Executive Director of NCTE, Mara Keisling, is certainly the most prominent trans activist, but she will tell you that she is hardly alone. We literally have people working in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, who are advancing the cause.
In her capacity as President of the Davidson County Democratic Women, she
got their Membership statement expanded to include trans people. When she
proposed it at a Board meeting, the only response from her fellow
Board members was "Amen!"

Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights? 
Marisa: I think we are already doing that. We may not be recognized by everyone for it, but it is already happening. As a historian, I feel confident that our work, and successes, will be recognized in the long run.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Marisa: It varies greatly, depending on race, class, education status, and even geography. Those who are white, well educated, in large urban areas, have lower hurdles than those who are People of Color, have limited education, or who live in rural areas. For all of the successes we are having, we must not overlook the challenges that our immigrant brothers and sisters face. Plus, the injustice foisted upon Cece McDonald just infuriates me whenever I think about her case.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Marisa: The historical and sociological works being produced are getting much better, especially those written by trans authors. Fictional works are still pretty bad. They focus on negative stereotypes way too often to titillate the reader or viewer.

Monika: Did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Marisa: When I was growing up, the only images available were of entertainers or sex workers, and I knew I was not interested in going in either of those directions. Fortunately, today, we have many people coming out in lots of areas. We now have transgender academics and political activists, we have trans business professionals, we have trans scientists and engineers.
Today, a young person can see someone like themselves in nearly every field and can now imagine themselves doing the same things. That not only benefits the trans person but also the rest of society. It means that we can now benefit from the talents and abilities of everyone, not just a select few.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Marisa: I have had several people tell me that I need to do it. I guess I need to slow down first so I can find the time to write one. That day may not be too far off in the future. 
Monika: Marisa, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Marisa Richmond.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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