Students Discuss Issues of Gender and Transgender Activism


On Wednesday, Feb. 29, Mara Keisling, Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, visited St. Mary’s to discuss transgender issues in today’s society and also on college campuses.

The lecture, which took place in Cole Cinema, was very laid back and the audience made comments and asked questions throughout. Keisling presented herself as “the poster child for ADD” (attention deficit disorder) and found herself constantly jumping around from topic to topic during her discussion, making it fun and friendly.

Keisling, who was born sexually male but now identifies as female, said, “I grew up knowing I was a boy… [But], I knew from my earliest memories… that I wanted to be like my sister.” Though Keisling desired this early on, it was not a realistic thing to do in the 1960s. There were no transgender role models to look up to and imitate at that time.

The process of switching from identifying as male to female, or vice versa, is called transitioning. Transitioning does not always involve genital surgery, and Keisling emphasized that surgery is often not the most important part of a person’s transition. Even as recent as 15 years ago, “When [people] transitioned, they lost everything,” said Keisling. People in this situation normally received very little support from their family and friends.

“I am the only person I know whose parents renamed her,” said Keisling, who changed her name from Mark to Mara. She said she had been very “charmed” in the support she has received from her family and friends during her transition.

Keisling told stories about the different kinds of job discrimination that transgender individuals have gone through in recent years. One particular story was, what Keisling called, “the worst case of job discrimination that I have ever heard in my life.”

After working for a very long time with the same government agency, Keisling’s friend made the transition from male to female. She was told that she could not use the women’s bathrooms in the agency unless she had genital surgery, which she did not originally plan to do. She was forced to use the closest outside bathroom, which was 20 miles away. Since this was so inconvenient, she had genital surgery which was butchered and left her incontinent. She received no salary raise in 10 years, making her the second longest working employee but also the lowest paid.

Many insurance companies discriminate against transgender people and refuse to pay for transgender-related surgeries. For example, Keisling’s friend’s insurance company refused to pay for sex-change surgery. They also refused to cover the consequences of a coronary event because they claimed the stress causing it was transgender-related.

“This kind of nonsense still happens all the time,” said Keisling about the extreme experiences of her friend, but she made the point that it usually does not all occur to the same person.

Keisling further explained that transgender people are four times more likely than people in the general population to be living on less than $10,000 per year. She also said that seven percent of transgender people had been expelled from school. “Seven percent of any subgroup being expelled means it must have something to do with being a part of the subgroup.”

“While things are getting so much better, there are still about a million tragedies every day,” said Keisling, referring to transgender directed violence and transgender people being turned away from hospitals.

Keisling closed her discussion by saying, “I was born. That’s it. I’m really just a person… Transgender people are not ordinary, they are extraordinary.” They live to face violence and discrimination every day without changing back to the discriminatory and generally accepted gender norms of society.

“I’m really excited SMCM is beginning to spread awareness on transgender issues,” said sophomore Aimhirghin Gilligan. “Mara gave a great introduction to understanding some of the issues that face transgender persons, and suggestions for things people can do to respect and support their trans* friends, family, and classmates on and off campus.”

Trans* is a more general term than transgender, which includes transsexual, non-binary, genderfluid, tranvestite, etc. identified people along with transgender people.

“I thought Ms. Keisling’s talk was fantastic,” said senior Jess O’Rear. “My only gripe with the event… was that the audience was made up mostly of students who already ‘get it.’ … I’d hoped more students would have shown up who were less aware of the issues surrounding trans* identities and activism, because I feel like a large step that a majority of society – including this campus – needs to take is simply learning that trans* people exist, and that there are many obstacles that trans* people face just trying to live comfortably in a culture with such a strict gender binary in place.”

“It… seemed like [Keisling] inspired both me and the rest of the audience to go and and do what they can – like going to the local hospital and making sure they have good practices for LGBTQ people,” said senior Johanna Galat. “It definitely got me excited about the possibilities for creating an inclusive, trans-friendly campus!”