Mara Keisling Really Just Did Say That

Whenever I am fortunate enough to be on national television, it seems to get a lot of attention in the trans community. Usually NCTE will hear from transpeople and allies and enemies and usually, no matter how good or bad I thought the particular appearance, we get both positive and negative reviews. Oddly, this time, it was not my appearance on CNN news last week that got the attention and comments, but my giving background information on the telephone to a reporter from We don’t actually keep track, but I think this is the media mention that has generated the most comments in NCTE’s history—both good and bad—and I find that really interesting.

At NCTE, all of us have learned to listen to the comments and learn from them—sometimes we learn to communicate better to the media and sometimes we learn that we need to communicate with transpeople better.

It is clear though that, at the very least, we haven’t adequately communicated to our own family about how and why we do media and what are the things we’d like you to take into account when you hear us in the media. First, be assured that we have a very passionate commitment here to do the very best we know how to do to make a positive difference in the lives of trans people. We may not always get it right, and we recognize that as transpeople we don’t always agree, but everything we do is with an eye towards furthering trans equality.

Let’s talk about what was in the CNN story and how it happened and then I’ll explain why I stand by what I said—though I believe it was given more emphasis than it should have.

Last week, as most of you know, a celebrity was reported to be transitioning. The celebrity in question is not someone I have ever met. Neither he nor his publicist has been in touch directly with NCTE. However they did issue a statement confirming the transition and asking for privacy. This meant that NCTE was going to get calls, but we are very resolute about respecting every transperson’s privacy. If a reporter asked a direct question, giving a “no comment” or too evasive of a response could be read as a negative comment (i.e. we have some issue with this person in particular and that’s why we won’t say).”

The first thing we do at NCTE when a potential big news story emerges is gather a group of experts and advisers and consider a) what is the right messaging and b) who are the right messengers. We take our messenging very serious and approach it thoroughly, thoughtfully and professionally. In this case, the who was much clearer than the what. The half dozen or so folks who met about this initially agreed that one of the best parts of this story was that it was among the first times a celebrity or potential celebrity was going public from the FTM spectrum. This might be a chance for us all to address the relative invisibility of transmen. With that assumption, we all agreed that the best spokespeople for this story would be transmen. Thus, I did almost no media interviews, background or otherwise—just the very first CNN request, a Florida newspaper when a reporter I knew called, and then the CNN television thing when none of the several prepared transmen were available to be near a suitable studio.

So before we had assembled and discussed a strategy, a reporter from CNN called and said something like “so I suppose you have heard that Chastity Bono announced she is having sex change surgery.” I said something like, “be careful, that is not what the announcement from his publicist said. It said he was transitioning.” The reporter said something like “I don’t understand. Don’t you need to have sex change surgery to transition?”

I then explained factually, as I have done over the years to dozens and dozens of reporters that no, transitioning is first and foremost not about surgery but about gender identity and living and expressing that identity. For some people surgery is desired or necessary, for others it is not. For some there are medical contraindications that preclude surgery. And many, if not most, trans people just can’t afford it and many others don’t feel surgery is necessary for them to live consistently with their gender identity. In fact, most transpeople do not have any kind of surgery.

I know that the general public and even transgender people find that surprising, but it is nonetheless true. Every study that I am familiar with supports that. The findings from a survey of 6,500 transpeople that NCTE has jointly conducted with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force will be released soon and that study supports this as well. I have no doubt about the accuracy of what I said. Whether it is interpreted to be about “transgender” people, “transsexual” people or even “transsexual people who are living consistently with their gender identity,” it is still accurate. Very few trans people ever have surgery. More importantly though, and the point I made to CNN, is that the important thing for them to consider when covering transgender people is gender identity not surgery.

We have seen that the media and public preoccupation with transition-related surgeries has had demonstrable negative impact on policies that affect transpeople. It should not be acceptable to us or to society that people’s human rights or access to appropriate ID documents or ability to live safely be dependent on their ability to be able to afford surgery which most transpeople cannot. And the preoccupation with our surgeries and the assumption that we all have surgeries or want surgeries makes these bad realities acceptable to the public.

As our collective work to make medical care more available to transpeople succeeds, the numbers of surgeries are likely to rise, but we have an obligation to discuss the realities of transgender lives in ways that are true to who we are and also help advance humane and useful policies.


12 Responses to Mara Keisling Really Just Did Say That

  1. Elena says:

    Brava sister! Well said and well written. You are a true professional and a wonderful leader and hero in the trans community as well as to me.Hugs, Elena

  2. Jim Townsend says:

    Mara – I loved seeing your name on and I thought your points about surgery were well made. Keep up the good work!

  3. glenda says:

    I'm curious about NGLTF's survey methodology. How did they select their respondents? I'm really curious because my own survey has indicated that identifying people that fall under the "transgender" umbrella requires multiple questions.

  4. Anonymous says:

    what a bunch of crap Mara your survey which includes a whopping 6500 people wow !! The fact is just because most Transexxuals can't afford surgery doesn't mean they do not want it, and it also doesn't mean we should just wish it away as a necassary part of transition…. Brandi

  5. proudprogressive says:

    I think you did the best you could – i believe in the NCTE organization deeply. Thank you and the team at NCTE for stepping up to the plate. You don't have to be perfect. We need the voices , and thank you for the explantion you can never please all the people all the time. Its would be unfair of us to expect you or the organization to be perfect. Keep up the good work its hard to keep control of the story – the Main Stream Media hears what it wants and sensationalizes everything.

  6. markisright says:

    Thank you, Mara for your insightful comments. You are a treasure to behold in the transgender fight for equality. Thank you for stepping aside on this one and letting us transmen speak for ourselves. You rock!

  7. Zoe Brain says:

    The problem is the phrase "very few".Because if only two or three do every year, then there's a good argument for saying that it's optional, cosmetic, not necessary, and probably should be banned as a matter of public policy."Very Few" in this case means a couple of thousand per year, not a couple. This should have been made clear. As should the number who suicide if denied surgery.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Glenda,The methodology for the survey that NCTE did along with the Task Force will be described in more depth when we release the results soon, but basically, we used a hybrid Internet and self-administered questionnaire. With 20+ years of survey research under my belt, this "Prevalence of Discrimination Against Transgender People" survey has been one of the most challenging I have worked on. Still, I think this survey is one of the best yet done on a tricky population to sample. A little more time and the results will be public.Mara

  9. Zoe Brain says:

    Mara,Data is good. More data is better.Did the survey discriminate between different categories of transgendered people? Intersexed? Transsexual? GenderQueer? Part-time Crossdressers? Fulltime? Those who have been "diagnosed" with GID?One problem is the common (mis)use of "transgender" as a synonym for "transsexual". This is so common in MSM that I doubt it can be corrected. For a small sample size such as 6500, I'd expect no more than 650 who are full time trans, no more than 50 of them transsexuals who would consider surgery, and maybe 5 who would get it, if only due to cost.But your facts will trump my estimates every time. I'll adjust my ideas to fit the data, not ignore data that doesn't fit my ideas.

  10. True says:

    Mara,Thanks for the written remarks and clarifications.I think we're all in the midst of a giant learning curve, not just the general public, but those with connections to the transgender population, too. I know I've progressed in my ideas and knowledge since the day I was bowled over to discover I wasn't alone in my feelings when I stumbled across Lauren Cameron's book; since the days when I was certain that transgender==transsexual. I don't know how NCTE can create a more controlled release that gets the kind of attention a CNN interview garners, but it'd sure be nice to be able get accurate information out there… It's incredibly hard to create an attention-span soundbyte when there's so much diversity out there.

  11. Nancy Nangeroni says:

    Thanks, Mara, for your continuing good work on our behalf. Your message about surgery is no different from what others, myself included, have been saying for a long, long time. Thank you for your continued clarity. Whatever the political consequences, our mission is first and foremost to tell the truth. Our most valuable asset is our integrity. Lose that, and we lose our way.

  12. Christine says:

    Every opportunity we get to educate those who are willing to learn are opportunities that can only help our community in the long run. There is so much mystery, myth and misinformation about trans people, that helps keep us down. Two other members of the trans community and myself met a few years back with one of Congressman Brad Sherman's aides, and I think we helped in the effort. However, I believe it's those little day-to-day interactions that help us most in the long run. Acceptance cannot be legislated, and it is hearts and minds that must be one at a personal level.

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