Metro Weekly

Mara Keisling, founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, to step down this summer

After 18 years of working on behalf of trans rights, Keisling will hand the reins over to longtime activist Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen

Mara Keisling — Photo: Todd Franson

Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, has announced she plans to retire from her current position this summer, after nearly 18 years of advocacy on behalf of transgender rights.

“I’m proud that I got to be part of this amazing organization and this amazing movement that got so much done in a short period of time,” Keisling told Metro Weekly in an interview announcing her planned departure.

“There’s certain ways in which 18 years seems like a lot. But in social justice movements, it’s just a flash,” Keisling says. “From the time that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton held their first women’s conference in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848,  it took them 70 year to win the right to vote. And we started with some bigger advantages than that. But this movement has been so fast-moving, and that I’ve gotten to be a part of it is just thrilling and amazing. I’m super lucky.”

Since founding NCTE in 2003, Keisling is credited with building coalitions to push for transgender rights and trans visibility, including passage of the first-ever federal legislation specifically mentioning transgender people, and building working relationships between NCTE and federal lawmakers. Under her leadership, NCTE co-founded the U.S. Transgender Survey, a national survey delving into trans people’s lived experience.

Keisling marveled at how far the transgender movement has come in less than two decades. When she first started her advocacy, as NCTE’s then-only staffer, many federal lawmakers refused to even meet with her. Now, NCTE is regularly included in coalition efforts to push for LGBTQ rights, has a presence on Capitol Hill, where its staffers lobby members of Congress, and transgender visibility has increased to the point where out transgender people are being elected to public office. Keisling pointed to the recent confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, as the Assistant Secretary of Health at HHS as testament to how far the trans rights movement has come.

Keisling’s departure comes at a time when transgender rights are at the forefront of some of the nation’s biggest political fights. Transgender inclusion, particularly in athletics, has become a sticking point in negotiations over the Equality Act, a proposed federal law that would prohibit various forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. At the same time, transgender Americans in more than two dozen states have been targeted by bills introduced in state legislatures seeking to deny them goods and services, limit their ability to access gender-affirming care, and bar transgender middle and high school students from participating in sports based on their gender identity. Yet Keisling says she has no regrets about the timing of her departure.

“There’s always going to be more to do, and while my heart is full of pride, it’s also important to have a heart full of humility,” she says. “One of the things I’m really proud of is that I helped create this amazing organization that’s just going to be just fine without me.”

Regarding the current attacks against the transgender community, Keisling says she’s confident NCTE and its allies will be able to push back against the misinformation campaigns launched by their opponents.

“The extremist, anti-LGBT right has, for the last 10, 20 years, been playing around with different ways to attack LGBT people. And currently they’ve had a little bit of success at the state level attacking trans people, so that’s what they’re going to lead with most loudly right now,” she says. “But it’s so clearly shenanigans. Maybe it’s not 100% clear to the public yet, but it will be. They’ll start understanding it, and then our opponents will move on to some other offensive bit of nonsense.”

Read Metro Weekly’s one-on-one interview with Keisling: The Advocate: Mara Keisling on Trump, the Equality Act, and fighting for trans rights

Replacing Keisling as NCTE’s executive director will be Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, a longtime equality activist who has served as the organization’s deputy executive director for the past two years, where he has overseen all of NCTE’s policy, communications, and engagement initiatives, as well as its updating of policies and workplace culture to promote racial justice and foster a more diverse workplace.

Heng-Lehtinen, a transgender Latino man, has wide-ranging experience in the LGBTQ movement, including field organizing, leadership development, fundraising, and media advocacy. He previously served as the vice president for public education at Freedom for All Americans, which advocates for full nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community.

Anybody who knows Rodrigo knows Rodrigo is a leader. It’s almost self-evident to those of us who know him,” Keisling says. “But Rodrigo is is a good manager. He has a 100 percent commitment to trans equality and racial justice.

“Thirty-five years is young, but it’s not all that young. Rodrigo has years and years of experience that he brings to bear here: management experience, sort of general leadership experience, messaging, experience, field experience. He’s been through all of the different parts of our work from policy and communications,” she adds. “There could not possibly be a stronger candidate for this job. Rodrigo is the right choice in every way I can think of.”

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen – Photo: National Center for Transgender Equality.

While Keisling doesn’t have a specific date in mind for her departure, estimating she’ll probably leave sometime in June or July. But she has told the NCTE board that she’s willing to stay through the end of the year if needed.

“The truth is, I don’t think we need me to stay through the end of the year,” she says. “I’m in no hurry to get out. As long as I’m useful to Rodrigo, I want to be here. But the truth is, at some point I’ll start getting in the way, and even though Rodrigo and I get along really well, we’ll both want me to move along.”

Heng-Lehtinen says he’s eager to build on Keisling’s legacy as NCTE’s new executive director. 

“It sounds cliché, but it really is true: no one else could have pulled something off like this,” he says. “Now in 2021, it’s easy to take for granted that there is a national transgender rights organization pushing for a policy change and meeting with lawmakers…. It is astounding to think now, 18 years later, of us not only being able to get a meeting with lawmakers, but being able to be lawmakers ourselves. Trans people are winning elected office, and we’re becoming a force to be reckoned with in politics. So I think that’s really incredible. And I think I think NCTE has a unique role to play in that.

“What we really do that no one else does is this amount of policy work. We look at every single law and every single government regulation, including really nerdy stuff that most people don’t even know anything about, and we make it better for trans people,” adds Heng-Lehtinen. “So I’m really excited about keeping that going and expanding it…. I think there’s a ton more work to do, but I think I think NCTE’s in a good position to do it.”

Heng-Lehtinen notes that the transgender rights movement is well-poised to take advantage of the opportunities provided by having a president who is an ally to the transgender community.

“Having a Biden-Harris administration means that we are not under siege from the federal government like we were under the previous administration, so we have some more bandwidth now to fight in the states, to fight back against these attacks on trans youth, especially that we’re seeing in states,” he says. 

See also: Fox News has consistently enabled anti-trans misinformation since Biden took office

He expects NCTE to work closely in coalition with grassroots local organizations, both transgender and LGBTQ, to share information and coordinate efforts to push for greater equality.

“NCTE is always looking ahead to be to support these groups on the ground and make sure that we’re sharing information and make sure that we’re working together,” he says. “And and those organizations are often interested in how they can plug into the federal fights. So I think there’s so much we can do when we collaborate more. We’ve been doing that for a long time and I think now we can do that more of that with better political conditions.”

Heng-Lehtinen is optimistic about the future of the movement, despite the number of bills specifically targeting the trans community at the state and local levels. 

“The anti-LGBTQ extremists went after us on marriage, and eventually we won. And then they went after us on bathroom bans, and eventually we won. Now they’re going after us on sports,” he notes. “They are desperately trying to undermine support for LGBT rights wherever they can because they are otherwise losing. Public opinion is increasingly our way. It can feel like that’s not accurate on a day to day level because homophobia and transphobia are still raging. But on the whole, more and more people in the public are coming around to our side. So our opposition is getting desperate and getting nasty. That’s what people do when they’re losing.

“Our job as a trans movement and as NCTE is to keep fighting so that they don’t get away with this,” Heng-Lethinen adds. “And I’m confident that the more that we keep showing who trans people really are, the more that we eventually win this thing. That’s how we won past battles, by really showing who we are, busting these stereotypes about what trans people are really about, and putting a human face on this issue.”

Read more:

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HRC video highlights absurdity of anti-trans athlete bills

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