Guest Blogger

Trans Inclusion at the DNC: A History

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 11, 2013 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Babs Casbar Siperstein, Democratic National Committee, DNC, personal stories, trans activism

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Barbra Casbar Siperstein was the first transgender member appointed and confirmed to the Democratic National Committee, and is currently a member of the DNC Executive Committee and the deputy vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. In addition to being the president of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, she's a published author, small business owner, veteran, and a grandparent.


DNC_logo.jpgWith little fanfare in late August 2013 at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) summer meeting in Scottsdate, Arizona, newly-elected member Laura Calvo, a trans woman from Oregon, was unanimously elected vice chair of the LGBT Americans Caucus. I was reappointed to the DNC by chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and was re-elected by our Eastern Regional Caucus to the DNC Executive Committee. For trans delegates, our record was two for two (and no drama!).

In 2000 when Jane Fee of Minnesota became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, many thought she became the first out transgender delegate of a major national political party. Well, not quite - actually, the first trans delegate to a national political party was Karen Kerin, who was a delegate to the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston.

How times and political parties have changed!

In 2004 I was part of the very first group of transgender delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. We had six women who were delegates, alternates or committee members. Kathleen Padilla from Pennsylvania, Melissa Sklarz from New York, Monica Helms from Georgia, Christine Ocasio and Vanessa Edwards Foster from Texas, and me, Barbra Casbar Siperstein from New Jersey. At that time I had not yet legally changed my name and was known as Barbra Casbar.

For a group of us to be part of the convention and the election process was a breakthrough and very exciting, but it was also disappointing as we could not get trans-inclusive language added to a gay employment nondiscrimination plank in the Democratic Party platform. My guess is that it was too controversial at that time.

However, we were able to begin a public dialogue aimed at the addition of gender identity language, which became a fight for another day. Unfortunately, the Democrats lost the big fight that year and we endured another four years of Bush and the related consequences that followed.

stonewall_democrats.jpgMy exposure and engagement at the convention as a delegate, together with my activism on the campaign, is what gave me the opportunity to speak at a LGBT election post-mortem at the DNC's Washington headquarters in early 2005. I was honest and blunt and that summer I was invited to join the board of National Stonewall Democrats (NSD) at their convention in San Diego. When NSD decided to create a vehicle to engage and work with the DNC more closely, I jumped at the chance to join their newly formed DNC Relations Committee.

In 2006, as New Orleans, Louisiana was just beginning to come alive and start functioning after Hurricane Katrina, I joined a small group representing NSD that traveled to the DNC's meeting there. All official DNC meetings and caucus meetings are open to the public.

I was excited as we walked into what was described as the GLBT Caucus, but right outside the door to the caucus room was a sign that said "Gay & Lesbian Caucus." I stared at that sign and silently fumed at the exclusion of the "B" and the "T." Then I walked in, said my hello to members and visitors I knew and took a seat with NSD friends in the visitor section.

As the meeting began we faced the DNC caucus members who were seated at a U-shaped table. Among the guests in the room were several DNC members who were strong allies of LGBT Americans, including two of the vice chairs - Reps. Mike Honda of California and Susie Turnbull of Maryland.

One of our primary reasons for attending the meeting and engaging with the DNC "GLBT Caucus" was a new rule proposed by Californian Garry Shay, an out gay man and member of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee. Shay's proposed rule would add LGBT people to the diversity goals that the DNC recommends to the states as they decide how to select their representatives on the DNC.

When Shay brought up his proposed rule and I heard and read the actual language, I was shocked to see that it read "gay and lesbian" only. Okay, I wasn't actually shocked - although though the informal conversation was framed with the term "LGBT," the actual language - just like the sign on the door - was not transgender-inclusive. I was very angry, disappointed and ready to boil!

Rick Stafford was the new chair of the DNC "Gay and Lesbian" Caucus. He was a friend and fellow NSD board member, and as Chair of the Minnesota DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party), Stafford was a longtime supporter of transgender rights. In fact, he was instrumental in Minnesota being the very first state to have a state wide trans-inclusive nondiscrimination law.

At the first opportunity, I raised my hand to speak. Normally guests are not allowed to speak unless the chair calls on them to do so, but Rick recognized me. Even though I was shaking inside, I managed to ask the caucus in a firm and measured manner if I, an out trans person, was welcome at their "gay and lesbian" caucus.

After all, I'd read the sign as I walked in. I had come here to support the proposed new rule, which was discussed as an LGBT rule, but clearly was not all-inclusive. I asked if this was the same kind of mixed messaging that we got from the Kerry campaign that led to the re-election of Dubya Bush.

The response from the majority of the members was very positive. A few were silent and the only comment from the rule's author was an indication that he was well-intended and that the straight membership of the DNC would not buy it. I addressed that phony fear with facts of positive experience and the demonstrated reaction of the straight allies in the room.

babs-siperstein-obama-sign.jpgWhile nothing changed in 2006, the language was changed to be fully inclusive in time for the 2008 Democratic National Convention and party platform. I continued to show up at DNC meetings and was able to personally engage many other leaders in the party, including the chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee. I was also able to help set the stage for further inclusive changes.

In 2009, I was appointed by chairman Tim Kaine as the first openly trans member of the DNC, but more importantly, just prior to my confirmation vote, the DNC added gender identity to its charter and bylaws not only as a category of nondiscrimination, but also for inclusion in all party affairs!

I've often quoted Woody Allen, who stated that 80% of success in life is just showing up. I was there, I had the opportunity to speak - to frame my point constructively in front of people who "got it" - and eventually got those who were in a position to make the change to actually do it!

Aside from helping myself, I was also able to eventually put myself in a position that enabled me to empower others and hopefully, to create a positive legacy for transgender people.


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