Sunday, November 25, 2007

Whither Now NCTE?

“I don't like defining myself. I just am.” — Britney Spears

Beyond dealing with my own issues this month (family crap, work insanity and a computer virus with its residual problems), it’s been a memorably weird month, this November.

To begin the month, one of my NTAC-mates, TransAdvocate’s Marti Abernathey mentioned to me that the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) was dead, which I’d heard from my Hill contacts was the opposite. In short order, they showed once again to be remarkably accurate – again! Faith was reaffirmed.

Next came the initial indignation from Mara Keisling of National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) where – astonishingly – she did her “liar, liar, pants on fire” routine with Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Joe Solmonese in the press.

At first glance it doesn’t seem shocking – NCTE being upset about lack of transgender inclusion in ENDA. However, NCTE’s entire raison d’etre is to be the antithesis of the group who preceded them, the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC), who publicly (and consistently) noted distrust of HRC. Ms. Keisling and company derided NTAC as “crazy”, “loony” and intransigent towards Barney Frank and HRC in order to distinguish herself and her upstart organization. For the record though, even NTAC never came out in public and explicitly called HRC and company liars.

And yet … here was NCTE’s Keisling sidling up to the outsider “crazy” tranny element. Or was she?

“'In that direction,' the Cat said, waving its right paw round, 'lives a Hatter: and in that direction,' waving the other paw, 'lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.'
'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice
'You must be' said the Cat 'or you wouldn't have come here'” — Lewis Carroll, from Alice in Wonderland

A scant week later, Keisling was a guest on CSPAN. During the call-in segment of the interview, Mara took great pains to avoid any critique of HRC or of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), deferring in all her responses to HRC or to Barney Frank. Nary a cross word said she, playing the part of the good “company girl.”

So where is Mara on the political map? The Mara of lo these many years, chiding us while trumpeting our heroes HRC and Barney Frank? Or the frustrated Mara fresh from a stinging rebuke of Barney Frank, cutting ties and showing her trans colors? Or the mutable Mara looking for the sweet-spot such as at the HRC protest, where she showed in support but didn’t protest, did lots of press showing solidarity and even raising funds while privately edging away from the protester element? And Mara aside, where does the group itself stand?

As mentioned, NCTE was the politically diametric counterpart to the non-trusting transgender groups. She and (later) her group were the New Turks, with “collaboration” and “collegiality” with Barney, HRC and in fact all Gay/Lesbian organizations as the new mantra. They also made no secret of distinctly shutting out the trans non-believers, drawing a bright line between the trans segment flying on faith alone and those of us who (thanks to our congressional contacts) knew better than the hype du jour and kept a safe distance.

Traditionally, NCTE has been an HRC-devoted bunch, working numerous times in conjunction and even receiving rewards no other trans members had been deigned with before. HRC helped funnel press in NCTE’s direction, in hopes of supplanting the “old voices” of trans America. HRC even assisted in funding the new bunch, knowing this was their 'inside' with the trans community as well as very effective marketing for them with a segment that had historically been a tough sell. They ensured they received their money’s worth.

Their coup de grace was the keynote, center-stage at the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) this past September. HRC had finally arrived, smack in the middle of trans America at their largest, most renowned event no less. It was briefly what appeared to shut the door and permanently dispense with the non-HRC transgenders personified by the likes of NTAC, ICTLEP, NAATCP and so many other individuals and local organizations over the years. HRC and the gang were in, disbelieving naysayers were out.

Yet a short two weeks later came what to many in the transgender community – even leaders like Donna Rose, Jameson Green and Mara Keisling – felt was a huge shock. When push came to shove from Barney Frank, HRC buckled, caved and became contras in the battle for rights.

We “crazies” knew about this potential “shock” for some time – as early as February for some of us. The news was disappointing and infuriating, but it was anything but surprising. If you examine HRC’s history, it’s quite consistent – most recently back in 2004 (not exactly ancient history).

So now we have Mara Keisling who was all over the press on the NTAC protest at HRC (commanding all but one line of quotes in the Advocate), and who was very uncharacteristically critical of HRC in her recent press with Gay City News and Michelangelo Signorile’s radio show. Even though she’s making a faint overture, it’s highly unlikely you’ll see any stampede by the outsider bunch to embrace her. When you crunch toes on your climb to the top, those toes tend to remember you when you’re on your way back down.

To be sure, HRC has taken note of Mara’s public criticisms. Another not-so-unknown fact is that HRC is notably vindictive, and they never forget or forgive a sleight. No longer their “golden tranny”, Mara has now self-tarnished herself to HRC. Personally Mara’s wedged herself between the rock and a hard place. It also certainly impacts NCTE’s “insider” status with HRC and company.

Meanwhile, HRC is aware of how much ground they’ve captured using a handpicked “insider” to build their image within the tough confines of Transgender-land. It’s certain that HRC would seek out another similar trans person with the same singular ambition of Keisling or Riki Wilchins before her, one who is easily separable from ground-level trans politics.

Quite likely Mara was reminded of this before going on CSPAN and dancing a deft pirouette of avoiding controversy with HRC on national television. Indeed, NCTE took great pains to send notice of the interview to their trans community mailing list. It’s backpedaling time.

So folks from the trans community may now be asking: which direction will NCTE take? I’m reminded of what Yogi Berra once said: “when you see a fork in the road, take it!” Mara would do backflips for such an oversimplified solution. Reality won’t be so simple. She can’t be both insider with the elite few and outsider with all the rest of us. The choice must be made.

That said, her performance as an HRC critic makes zero sense. It’s like watching a cigarette boat zooming ahead in a race when suddenly the rudder snaps, and the boat does a quick 180 headlong into the oncoming race boats. The outsiders weren’t buying the “sudden critic” routine.

"Well, if I eat it, and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door: so either way I'll get into the garden, and I don't care which happens!" — from Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 1 by Lewis Carroll

Meanwhile the momentary zag off course likely caught a lot of the NCTE membership by surprise. The members of the organization she created signed on to be the insiders, the collegial allies with HRC, Barney Frank and others. They certainly did not sign on to be the very people they’d worked so hard to distinguish and distance themselves from. Where would the hopeful trans insiders go if Mara decides to play outsider critic again? It jeopardizes their seat at the inside table, understandably a concern for them.

While it’s possible for them to vote to terminate Keisling and bring in a new director to get back to their original goal, it’s unlikely to the extreme. Mara single-handedly created the organization months before even choosing the board, much less opening the group to membership. When it comes to NCTE, Mara is inextricable and integral. It’s like trying to imagine GenderPAC without Riki Wilchins – it’s not going to happen.

If Mara stays and decides to move NCTE towards being more like the outsiders, she alienates the base of her own original membership. That in itself could cause yet another schism, with the splinter forming the new HRC “insider” faction. Anyone who knows Mara knows she won’t give up insider privilege without a fight.

The CSPAN interview was merely the first in a series of attempts to right the good ship NCTE and understandably put it back on its original course. They were built to be the insiders, or (as some may call it in the parlance) the “house trannies.” This track will lead them back to more convivial relations, and reestablish a measure of the benefits HRC has favored (and presumably will continue to favor) them with. HRC, of course remembering the earlier transgressions, will shorten their leash, will tighten up their grip on funding and will keep the relationship distinctly more tenuous.

One downside for NCTE is that Mara will at some point have to eat a heaping portion of HRC’s humble pie while expecting a now-reduced share. Another downside will be the duplicity the trans community will see once they go back to playing nicey-nicey with HRC again. It’s one they won’t be able to avoid. It’s either that or HRC searches for a new “golden tranny” – a new insider. Certainly Mara will never settle for being a second-fiddle, so the choice is pretty clear.

Chalk it up to putting all one’s eggs in the HRC basket: there’s a likelihood that your eggs, as well as your hopes and dreams, may end up broken. How hard is it to break a promise?

“If you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Kara said...

I consider how I relate to Mara as 'polite'.

On one hand, we are sometimes going in the same direction. For example, sharing resources/ideas for the TDOR in DC (which was ironically an alternative to the one HRC was going to have).

On the other, I will not soon forget that she called me a liar. Even if that were excused it does not address that she then attributed false words to me to try and distance myself from other activists.

MJ said...


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posted by a few young men in New Zealand. They filmed themselves harassing a trans woman of color and posted it on YouTube 'for laughs'. Since you're a high visibility blog, I wanted to flag this video for you as it might be of interest to your readers.