NCTE’s Mara Keisling Talks Next Steps After Calls for Her to Step Down

More than 400 trans community leaders have condemned NCTE's recent staff buyouts, but Keisling says she's not leaving the organization.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) is a different organization today than it was a month ago, and it will be a different organization yet again one month from now. The question remains: Can the non-profit maintain its status as the leading trans rights organization in the nation in the face of 2020 presidential elections, and a blockbuster Supreme Court ruling on trans rights expected next year?

Executive director Mara Keisling says NCTE is already on its way to rebuilding the organization, which was gutted by a massive staff buyout first reported by NewNowNext last month amid union woes and allegations of racism against leadership. In early November, NCTE offered 10-week severance packages to its staff. The buyout followed demands that Keisling and deputy executive director Lisa Mottet resign within 18 months following two years of failed unionization attempts. As a result, a group that kicked off 2019 with more than 20 staffers is headed into 2020 with just seven.

Now, more than 440 transgender community leaders have taken the extraordinary step of condemning NCTE publicly in an open letter published barely a month after the organization largely dissolved its staff.

Among those to add their names to the document are the nation’s first out trans African American elected official Andrea Jenkins, retired MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and HRC rapid response press secretary Charlotte Clymer.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Keisling at a rally in Washington, D.C., in May 2019.

In an extensive interview with NewNowNext, Keisling confirms she has no plans to depart NCTE. Keisling has described the severances as an opportunity for staff to start fresh while NCTE undertakes difficult but necessary reorganization. The organization has suffered tremendous growing pains, she says, tripling in size in just four years. But departing staff accuse Keisling of union-busting and pushing out workers who called for her ouster.

Transgender advocates, lawyers, and scholars issued the aforementioned open letter to NCTE leadership, expressing solidarity with more than a nine workers dismissed in November’s buyout. Signatories make no specific demands of NCTE, instead characterizing the buyouts as devastating to NCTE and the community it serves.

“More troubling than hearing that NCTE has struggled with racism and other forms of oppression is what we have learned is the response of NCTE management when confronted,” signatories write. “When almost all workers in an organization stand together and demand persons at the top look in the mirror and redress intersecting forms of oppression, the answer—at least, if the goal is to address the problem—is not to force those same workers to leave.”

NCTE has been rocked by allegations of racism over the last year, too. On August 16, staff held a massive walkout to protest what they described as a hostile work environment for employees of color.

On November 16, longtime transgender activist and TransGriot blogger Monica Roberts penned a post accusing Keisling of calling her an “uppity N-word.” She adds that Keisling also used the slur to refer to transgender activist Dawn Wilson.

Wilson corroborates Roberts’ version of events to NewNowNext, stating that the incident dated back to 2007, when it was revealed that HRC was backing an employment non-discrimination bill that protected gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, but excluded trans people. Tensions were running high, she remembers.

“Mara was very angry that we let the community know that there was a possibility of betrayal by HRC,” Wilson adds. “As we were returning back to Louisville, several members of the trans community reached out to both myself and Monica and notified us that we were called uppity N-words at a conference.”

Keisling, meanwhile, vociferously denies that version of events, claiming the racist slur in question has “never been in my heart—it never happened.”

Below, read an exclusive Q&A with Keisling.*

What was your first reaction to this letter against NCTE?

We know that trans people are concerned about what has happened here, and we’re going to fix it. As that letter says, and as I think most trans people know, NCTE is a really, really important resource that’s done really phenomenal work for 17 years. So, that folks are expressing concerns is good, and we think we’ve already uncovered everything that we need to fix that the letter mentions. And anybody who wants to weigh in, they’re always welcome to contact me personally or contact anybody here at NCTE.

What are those things you’ve uncovered that need to be fixed?

NCTE grew really fast. We something like tripled in size in four years, and that means that not all the systems that are in place are sufficient for an ever bigger organization and are sufficient for an organization that’s in change, and we’ve identified some communication styles and processes, some leadership styles and processes and some areas where there wasn’t full agreement on the staff on how things happened and why things happened.

We now have engaged a DEI firm that’s local to D.C. It’s black-owned, and they’re going to look at everything.

When you say DEI, do you mean diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is very much different than racial justice. … We are very well aware of that, but this particular one has a racial-justice lens. They come from a black feminist perspective. They’re going to look through everything and help all of us who are here understand what we can all do better so that our values are fully realized for everybody, and that we all have agreement on what we’re doing here and how, and everybody feels good about it as much as you can in a workplace.

Did you ever consider stepping down from NCTE after you were asked to do so?

No. Look, I’m 60 years old—I’m not going to be here in 10 years. It’s not a promise or anything, but I’m just not. It’s really important to always be growing new leadership in an organization and we do that here. You know, we’ve been very focused in particular on growing people of color leadership. … I hate to be dramatic, but it’s going to be one of the most important years ever for the trans community.

Honestly, nobody knows this organization better. I understand what shortcomings I’ve been able to do. But… the real bottom line right now is that trans people need a strong NCTE that is living out our social justice and racial justice values better than we have been. We need a strong NCTE, [and] there are just bunch of people, including me, who feel like me in my current position really makes a lot of sense for now.

But is this reorganized NCTE the same NCTE transgender Americans previously relied on? Can we trust the group after most staffers were dissolved in this buyout?

Try not to use the word dissolve again.

[Laughs.]

I’m not laughing.

I mean—

Absolutely, we’re now bigger than we were four, four-and-a-half years ago. The people we have on board are spectacular. Are we doing as much work as we were a year ago? Maybe a little less right now, but we can scale that back up.

mara keisling
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Part of that success, some would argue, is also community buy-in, which seems to have suffered. Does NCTE have a plan to rebuild that sense of trust within the community?

Absolutely. We have a plan forward that is a lot more fulsome than I’ve described to you and it’s probably not the right time to do it, but it is about investing, but it’s very much about community accountability. But honestly, I don’t know how—not that the quantifying is important, but what is the is the level of trust? I don’t know.

Has it suffered? Yeah, I guess undoubtedly. We’re absolutely going to fix that. … I’m already on the phone talking to lots of community leaders. Everybody understands how important NCTE is and how important our work is, even folks who have heard the things that we have done wrong that we’re fixing and have heard all the things that we didn’t [mishandle] that people are claiming we did wrong, like all of the union stuff. They still know how important we are, they still know that our external work on social justice, on racial justice, on trans justice has been really unparalleled in the policy area. But we are absolutely committed to rebuilding the individual relationships.

Monica Roberts of TransGriot wrote a post in which she referenced a long-ago incident where you were accused of using the N word.

Yeah. What’s the question?

Is that accusation true?

Absolutely not, unequivocally no. I have never used that word. If it had been in my head, it has never been in my mouth. I’d refer you to my Facebook statement on that. Monica is somebody whose work I’ve always respected. She’s—she’s wrong.

It did not happen, and here’s another important thing. What I’ve tried to focus on are the real racial justice challenges that we can actually fix—that there are staff members who have worked here who think we haven’t done a good enough job supporting them, that we haven’t done a good enough job of nurturing them. That stuff, I own that… and I am 100% committed to fixing those things. You know, there’s not an organization that doesn’t have some problems like that.

I reached out to Dawn Wilson about that incident, who remembers it as Monica has told it.

I don’t know what to tell you. It never happened. Nobody who has ever known me at any point in my life would have let me get away with that. I am not going to say anything about Dawn or Monica. It never happened.

I want to ask about the status of the union. Is NCTE planning to continue the unionization process with new staffers?

This is what nobody seems to understand: We can’t do anything about the union. That’s not up to management. There would be a union at NCTE if staff had wanted to, or if staff had followed through with it, or whatever the right thing to do is. There was nothing we could do, okay? We just said, “Yes, we voluntarily recognize your union…” and then it never happened.

We could not be more pro-union here. This union thing is so bizarre that people are attacking us on it. But it is very, very, very bad practice—bad labor practice, bad organizational practice, and, honestly, bad social justice to put supervisees in the same units as their supervisors … We could not have tried harder. I can’t even express to you how frustrating this is to me. There is not an organization I know of that is more pro-labor, we did everything right. We could not have done better.

transgender memo protest
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I have to go back to this question. Now that we’re a month out, what happened at NTCE? What happened with staff that caused the fracture?

You know, it’s so much more complex than that. I’m not blaming you on this, but your article made it sound like there were two sides. It wasn’t two sides. There were some people who left because they were just tired—not tired in general, but tired of the changes we were going through and the challenges we were having. Some people left because we presented [forward-looking plans], and they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Some of them, because maybe they didn’t trust us, but some of them because they knew it takes emotional labor [to do this work]. So, it’s a complex thing.

What is a fair way for me to help explain this to folks so that they do understand? I want to be able to do that.

Sorry. I don’t know that either you or I are the ones who can figure it out. NCTE was a super fast-growing organization. We had to change systems. It’s not for me to judge why [this story] has became public, but it wasn’t me. I think people need to look at how we’re going to move forward. Are we still doing the great work we’re doing for trans people, and have we fixed the things that need to be fixed? I think people are going to see that we are already on it, and it’s going well, but it is going to take a while. … Do you want an easy [answer]? There’s not one.

Would that answer satisfy you if it were about another entity wherein a number of trans people left their jobs?

We know things have to change, right? It is really hard to do this work. It’s not black-and-white, and I’ve never been a black-and-white person. I’ve always tried to understand the nuance. If it helps people, I hope people hear me say that I know I made mistakes, and if they want to hang the whole hat on that, that’s fine, and we’re going to fix them. It is necessarily and unequivocally a nuanced thing. And, God, it would be a lot happier for all of us if it wasn’t, but it just is.

A previous version of this article stated that a dozen staffers left in November. According to NCTE, nine left at that time, while others left during other points in the year. This article has been updated to reflect that change.

*The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.
@shoeleatherkate