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Pride Month Profiles: Mara Keisling

Mara Keisling
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Throughout Pride Month, the AFL-CIO will be taking a look at some of the pioneers whose work sits at the intersection of the labor movement and the movement for LGBTQ equality. Our next profile is Mara Keisling.

Mara Keisling is the founder and, since 2003, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization advocating for transgender people.

Keisling grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., as one of seven siblings whose father was chief of staff to the governor. After studying at Penn State and Harvard, Keisling began a career in social marketing and opinion research. Experiencing and witnessing discrimination turned Keisling into an activist, eventually leading to her becoming co-chair of the Pennsylvania Gender Rights Coalition and a steering committee member of the Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition.

Recognizing the need for a more coordinated voice for transgender people in Washington, D.C., Keisling founded the NCTE in 2003 and focused on social justice through advocacy, collaboration and empowerment. Since then, her vision and strategy have led to a series of ground-breaking organizational and coalition victories that have helped move the U.S. closer to transgender equality. 

Under Keisling's leadership, the NCTE has had a long string of successes:

Keisling’s work with the Center has involved several prominent achievements, including the first-ever trans-inclusive federal legislation, modification of State Department rules for changing gender markers on passports and the first congressional hearing on transgender issues. She has also lobbied for a trans-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that has languished in Congress for years.

Many other federal and state victories have resulted from the efforts of the NCTE and coalition partners. Most notably was the creation of the National Transgender Discrimination Study, launched in 2009, and the follow-up in 2015 with the U.S. Trans Survey. For the first time, the 2009 study documented the experiences of thousands of transgender Americans in the areas of employment, housing, health care and the criminal justice system.

The original study is a ground-breaking look into the lives and experiences of transgender Americans and the report released in 2011 was cited an estimated 15,000 or more times in the media. The survey was particularly important in providing an accurate portrayal of the rates of trans suicide attempts, homelessness, employment discrimination, health care discrimination and transition surgery experiences.

The 2015 follow up survey was much larger, with more than 27,000 participants, more than four times bigger than the previous study. Improved study methods also improved the quality of the study, which contains expanded insight into trans seniors, people of color, immigrants, sex workers and military service members and veterans, as well as allow for more state-specific analysis. The newer survey also sought to compensate for the exclusion of transgender people in other research. Because of the work of Keisling, the NCTE and the coalition they built, we know more about life as a transgender person and the obstacles they face in the U.S. than ever before.

Keisling is also a founding board member of the Stonewall Democracy Fund, and has served on the board of directors of Common Roads, an LGBTQ youth advocacy group.

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