Editors' Note: Babs Siperstein is a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee, Deputy Vice Chair of the NJ Democratic State Committee and Political Director of the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ.
As a trans activist who is relatively new to the dance, I missed the years of bitter fighting by transgender activists merely to be included in the mission of the Human Rights Campaign. I became involved when HRC said we were included and the fight at that time (and arguably still today) is that HRC's actions do not meet and match their words. I suppose the slogan, "Trans rights are human rights!" was intended for the ears of HRC directors rather than right wing legislators as one might reasonably assume.
After observing the manner in which transgender people were excluded from "SONDA," the NY state gay employment non-discrimination legislation that was promoted in 2001, I was appalled, shocked, and angry. Was not the beginning, at least the symbolic beginning, of the modern "gay" rights movement in New York the Stonewall riots? Were not the acknowledged heroes of Stonewall the trans identified or openly gender variant icons, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Stormie Delarvarie?
What really riled me was that the big time "gay rights" groups like ESPA in NY and HRC would encourage trans identified people and drag queens to dress up and volunteer for their big fundraising galas, but did the legislation they were pushing cover transgender people or gender variant gays? Umm... Nope! there's a Yiddish term for this kind of behavior, it's called "chutzpah." It fits!
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2001, for me, personally, the unthinkable happened. My lover, my best friend, the mother of my children, the woman who gave me support with my transition - at first reluctantly, but later with enthusiasm - my wife of 34 years died suddenly of late stage cancer which had been diagnosed only a month before.
At some point in time, trying to focus and fight the murky clouds of my loss and grief while trying to make some sort of sense of everything and hold together a family and a business already under stress, I came to a stark realization. I was no longer a comfortable middle class married white man living a double life with a supportive wife, but now a single transwoman.
What was frightening was the realization that if gays and lesbians were "second class" - what was I? How was I now perceived? I was angry, frightened and insecure because the conclusion to that question was, to me, intolerable and unacceptable.
I was angry, but I saw an opening, maybe an opportunity to be part of the "gay establishment." After all, in my old life as a straight white man, I was used to have a little privilege - a little local stature.
I held an advanced college degree, felt that I had the ability to relate to most people in business, and took responsibilities in local religious, cultural and civic institutions, but it became a challenge to do this without outing myself. My late wife and I had created the name "Casbar" and we were known in the trans community as the Casbars! We were out to our trans and gay friends but not out to our family, straight friends, neighbors and business associates.
One of the first things that I did to get involved in the mainstream gay political infrastructure, was join an organization. There were not too many choices, although the president of the NJ Log Cabin Republicans was a friend and an early LGBT mentor, her inspiration, Christine Whitman, was no longer governor. More importantly, I could see by 2002, that the "Compassionate Conservative" Bush was not as advertised and the Republican Party was trending nationally toward something dark, arrogant and reactionary.
We had a progressive Democrat as governor in Jim McGreevy (whom I had known as a popular mayor of the town in which I had my business), and the Stonewall Democrats seemed to be a growing and diverse organization that included HRC members. Although the leadership seemed to the left of me politically, all in all there seemed to be more of a comfort level politically and socially and they sought an inclusive membership with full participation.
By this time I was aware that the federal Employment Non Discrimination Act - like SONDA - offered workplace protections for gays and lesbians only. It excluded transpeople and even gender variant gays. When the Stonewall President started to circulate a call to support ENDA, I asked for a time out and asked, "Why are you supporting this legislation that does not include people like me as well as some of the gay and lesbian members who may not be the most mainstream conformists in their gender expression?"
They did stop and think. I was offered a challenge by one of the Stonewall members who was also a member of the HRC Board of Governors. It was late summer of 2002 and one of the HRC bigwigs was hosting a fundraiser for incumbent US Senator Torricelli. He was up for re-election that November, and I was invited to come to the fundraiser and meet him.
I'm a realist; I've been around. I know nothing is free and this event cost $100 - or for $1000 you could have an extra hour with the senator in the VIP room. Money means access; money wisely invested can yield dividends.
This was not pocket change and business was very challenging at the time, but I had to make a decision. If I was going to be an activist who was going to make changes, I'd better be prepared to put my money where my mouth was. I wrestled with it, then decided to go all in for the $1000. It was the first and, in retrospect, perhaps the best political decision as a woman that I have ever made.
Remember, I was still stealth - not out - and did not want to write a check with my real name. I came to the event and signed up for the VIP hour with an envelope containing ten hundred dollar bills! The senator's senior staffer who manned the entrance table freaked out as she explained there were laws that prevented cash contributions. I had a credit card in my femme name which she eventually took. I guess I created a little splash.
Once inside I was able to introduce myself and have a little one-on-one time with the senator as befitting a VIP setting. I spoke about ENDA and said I was very concerned by the fact it did not include trans people. The senator's response startled me; he said I was covered by the legislation. I told him that the ENDA language talked only about sexual orientation which was about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people only - and those who appear to be straight acting. I told him this firmly and succinctly, did not belabor the point, and moved on to other things that were not contentious. I used the remaining time to listen, learn and network with the lesbian and gay political activists present and the senator's staffer.
I came away with a great deal of knowledge that day and the realization that HRC lobbyists were not giving correct information about trans people - and who was (and was not) covered in the legislation. I learned that there was a big disconnect between HRC and transgender people - something that was confirmed time and time again over the years. It was confirmation of my belief that transpeople needed access and if I was going to do anything, I needed political access at the very least.
I said that this was my best investment. Here's why.
A couple of days after the fundraising event, the senator abruptly resigned his seat because of a big scandal. The checks he'd been given were immediately deposited and donors never got their money back. Because I gave my credit card and the paperwork was not processed by the time he suspended his campaign, the event turned out to be a freebee for me and that money was available for other events which funded my political education as well.
Now I sit as a proud transgender member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee. Money well invested, indeed.