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Mara Keisling to step down as NCTE executive director

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen to succeed group’s founder this summer

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National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON — The National Center for Transgender Equality on Friday announced long-time executive director Mara Keisling will step down this summer.

The group selected current Deputy Executive Director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, a Latino trans man, to succeed Keisling, who founded NCTE in 2003.

“After nearly two decades at the helm of the National Center for Transgender Equality, I’m excited to have Rodrigo succeed me. Rodrigo is a talented leader and champion committed to the cause of equity and inclusion,” said Keisling in a press release on Friday. “Our work is now as important as ever as we look to pass the Equality Act, fight for transgender youth, and end all forms of disrespect, discrimination, and violence that hold transgender people back.”

NCTE in 2019 lost more than half of its staff amid contentious union negotiations. Keisling herself has faced allegations of racism.

Heng-Lehtinen has served in his role as NCTE’s deputy executive director for nearly two years. And during that time he has led the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and helped in its efforts to advance trans rights at the federal and state levels.

“Mara had the vision and the persistence to create this amazing organization,” Heng-Lehtinen told the Blade on Friday during a telephone interview. “I think that today a lot of us can take for granted that there is a NCTE, but when Mara created it back in 2003, members of Congress would not take a meeting with her because she was talking about trans rights. Now we are actively working with congressional allies to improve things.”

He told the Blade he was proud of the diversity that Keisling brought as a trans woman to the organization and he encourages the inclusion of more diverse voices at all levels as the group moves forward.

“We completely overhauled our hiring process to make it as informed as we could,” he said. “And we ended up with a very diverse team. I think that’s going to improve our advocacy in messaging and tactics to really improve things for trans people.”

Heng-Lehtinen said for him diversity is more than just organizational or political, it’s personal.

His mother is former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the first Cuban American and Latina woman elected to Congress. Heng-Lehtinen said his heritage helped shape him to assume this new role and the challenges ahead.

“Among the immigrant community there is an idea that being trans doesn’t happen in the country we come from,” he explained. “That it is only in America and that it is only in English.”

Heng-Lehtinen, who is bilingual and identifies as biracial because his father is a white American, said while his mother has been very supportive and affirming of his identity, he can understand trans people of color who often have very different experiences from white people in the trans community. Heng-Lehtinen told the Blade that progress on trans issues has been uneven with the white trans community sometimes seeing advances while the trans community of color faces backlash, setbacks and violence.

“As much as we have been advancing on trans rights, when we talk about backlash, some people feel the backlash more than others,” Heng-Lehtinen explained. “Some are harmed more than others. This is part of why so many Black and Latina trans women of color are being murdered at record rates. They are in more vulnerable situations to begin with.”

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen and his mother, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) attend the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 13th anniversary at Hamilton Live on May 18, 2016. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Heng-Lehtinen said he wants to continue Keisling’s legislative advocacy work, but wants to collaborate with more organizations of color and local groups that could benefit from NCTE’s resources.

“We’ve excelled with working with government agencies and government officials to get things done,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “Where we can improve is in field organizing. The goal is to mobilize people to take action. That’s the missing ingredient, motivating everyday people to get involved.”

Though he admitted this wasn’t going to be achieved overnight, he felt encouraged by his predecessor’s successes and by highly visible wins. These include this week’s confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health.

Levine is the first trans person the U.S. Senate has confirmed.

“She’s not there to be the trans advisor to the White House,” Heng-Lehtinen said of Levine’s confirmation. “She is there to end the pandemic that is hurting every single person in the U.S. She was nominated and confirmed not because she’s trans, but because of her track record.”

Heng-Lehtinen said this is the sort of visibility that will eventually help overcome the backlash against trans rights because “it is about the humanity of trans people.” The incoming executive director added he is very appreciative of the legacy Keisling leaves behind, not only in the organization but in his life as a trans person.

“I am grateful because I’m trans,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “I was able to update my driver’s license fairly easily because of Mara’s work. She made that happen.”

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North Carolina

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Robinson rants at lawmaker over LGBTQ mention

The Senator was referencing Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ+, homophobic and transphobic public statements over the past several months

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Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson ( Screenshot via NBC-affiliate WCNC-TV, Charlotte, North Carolina)

RALEIGH – In a heated tirade in the hallways of the North Carolina capitol building captured on a mobile phone Monday, Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the state’s highest elected Black official launched into an attack on Democratic State Senator Julie Mayfield.

The tirade was witnessed by a dozen people including lawmakers, staff, and visitors. State Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Davidson), who witnessed the confrontation and caught part of the tirade on her mobile told the Charlotte News-Observer; ““It was a rant. He berated her, and he yelled as loudly as he could.” 

The lieutenant governor, who presides over the state Senate, approached Senator Mayfield in the hallway outside the Senate chamber after lawmakers adjourned and “wagged” his finger in her face, Marcus said.

Mayfield had addressed the Senate earlier Monday, after a vote where she highlighted the increasing deadly violence against Black people and ongoing discrimination against LGBTQ people.

In her remarks to her colleagues she said; “It is convenient fiction that we can say something in a particular forum and not expect to be held accountable for those words in another,” Mayfield said. “We are elected officials. And if we can’t respect our constituents rather than viciously attack some of them, then maybe we’re in the wrong job.”

The Senator was referencing Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ+, homophobic and transphobic public statements over the past several months.

Speaking to parishioners at the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem on Sunday, November 14, Robinson attacked the LGBTQ+ community, captured on the church’s YouTube livestream.

Robinson said in his sermon that he questioned the “purpose” of being gay; said heterosexual couples are “superior” to gay couples; and that he didn’t want to explain to his grandchildren why two men are kissing if they see that on television the Charlotte Observer reported.

The state’s Republican Lt. Governor then went on to compare being gay to “what the cows leave behind” as well as maggots and flies, who he said all serve a purpose in God’s creation. “If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said.

In a speaking engagement in June at Asbury Baptist Church in Seagrove, Robinson called LGBTQ people “filth.”  “There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth,” Robinson says. “Yes, I called it filth. And if you don’t like it that I called it filth, come see me and I’ll explain it to you.”

In a statement released in October by Deputy White House Press Secretary Andrew Bates, the Biden Administration condemned the remarks made last June by Robinson. “These words are repugnant and offensive,” said Bates, who is a native of North Carolina. “The role of a leader is to bring people together and stand up for the dignity and rights of everyone; not to spread hate and undermine their own office.”

“Sen. Mayfield’s remarks speak what’s in the hearts of most North Carolinians, and the fact that it set the lieutenant governor off that much is shocking to me,” Sen. Marcus told the News-Observer. “He said ‘You know where I am and where to find me,’” Marcus said, paraphrasing. “’If you have something to say to me you should come and say it to my face.’”

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Georgia

Liliana Bakhtiari wins runoff for Atlanta City Council

First LGBTQ Muslim elected in the state of Georgia and will be only Non-Binary Councilmember in a major U.S. city

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Liliana Bakhtiari  (Photo Credit: Liliana Bakhtiari for Atlanta City Council campaign)

ATLANTA – Liliana Bakhtiari won her runoff election on Tuesday to represent District 5 on the Atlanta City Council, becoming the first out LGBTQ Muslim elected in the state of Georgia and one of less than five currently serving in the entire country.

Bakhtiari will also be the only non-binary person currently serving on the city council of a major U.S. city. During the general election on November 2, Bakhtiari competed in a field of five candidates and received 49.5 percent of the vote, just short of the 50 percent needed to win outright and avoid a runoff. The LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed Bakhtiari in the race for the seat.

Bakhtiari first ran for the District 5 council seat in 2017 – losing to the incumbent by just 2.6 percent of the vote.

Bakhtiari’s election comes as anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ political rhetoric rises in recent weeks, including state legislative attacks on trans candidates and anti-Muslim remarks targeting Minnesota Democratic U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar.

“Liliana’s victory is a milestone moment for Georgia, but also for non-binary people and LGBTQ Muslims across the country who want to make positive change through public service,” Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund said in a statement.

“When in office, Liliana will humanize our issues and be a voice for the underserved communities that are too often ignored by elected leaders. Atlanta is already a beacon of hope for LGBTQ people throughout the South, but with more representation that reflects the entire LGBTQ community, it can become a model for the entire nation,” Parker added,

Also in a runoff for an At-Large Post 3 Atlanta City Council seat is LGBTQ candidate Keisha Sean Waites, a LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed candidate and former member of the Georgia House of Representatives, whose race has not yet been called as of Tuesday.

On November 2, another LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed candidate, former Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan, who successfully represented District 6 from 2010-2018, was victorious in his bid to again represent the District. Wan garnered 79 percent of the vote (7,120 votes) and won election to the District 6 seat.

There are currently just 11 non-binary elected officials serving in the entire country. View all LGBTQ elected officials currently serving at outforamerica.org.

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North Dakota

A young Trans life erased because of hate

“We will always be grateful for the chance to have her as she was and not who we had thought her to be. Now we call her daughter and sister”

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Photo by Max Huskins

BEACH, Nd. – Life for one family in this small community at the edge of North Dakota adjacent to the border with Montana, near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, has been forever altered after their 19 year-old Trans daughter committed suicide.

In an obituary published by the funeral home, her family expressed their grief and their rage;

Haley ended her life on November 12, 2021, her pain being too great. She had grown weary of the knowledge of her reality, knowing this country and this world would never stop trying to force her to submit to its ignorance, and her family rages for her. We would’ve burned the whole world down if we’d thought it would keep her safe, and our fury and outrage is eclipsed only by our grief. We struggle against the currents that try to carry us away from love, for those currents only take us further from her. And she is far enough, already.”

This past year has seen record violence against Trans Americans and legislative efforts to marginalize the Trans community as state lawmakers introduced a record number of anti-transgender bills in state legislatures, seeking to restrict transgender people’s access to health care, bathrooms, and sports and recreation.

It has been a year where 47 Trans people, particularly of colour, lost their lives violently and where because of the anti-Trans legislative efforts numerous Trans youth have considered suicide according to the Trevor Project, as their call-in center has been overwhelmed with a sharp uptick in calls for assistance and counseling.

We are at a tragic and deeply upsetting moment: With the death of Marquiisha Lawrence, 2021 has become the deadliest year ever for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Each of these 45 names represents a whole person and a rich life torn from us by senseless violence, driven by bigotry and transphobia and stoked by people who hate and fear transgender people and the richness of their experience,” Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said.

Dehumanizing rhetoric has real-life consequences for the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color but especially Black transgender women. As we have seen an unprecedented number of bills introduced in state legislatures attacking transgender youth and trans adults, the moment we are in is clear. They have attacked transgender people’s right to health care, right to exist in public, and right to live openly, with the ultimate goal of dehumanizing and erasing their lives and experiences,” she added.

Back in that small North Dakota community, a family grieves.

Obituary for Haley Gabriella Feldmann

Haley Gabriella Feldmann was born on November 18, 2002. She was called boy and so we gave her a boy name—now a dead name. We gave her boy clothes, boy toys, boy things. We didn’t know she was our daughter and so we called her son and brother.

Haley spent the first several years of her life content, within and without. She knew nothing of judgment or ridicule. She knew nothing but the love of her family, which she gave back in abundance.

During her adolescent years she retreated into herself and we lost her. She became silent . . . distant. She built formidable walls that became impossible to breach, and she stubbornly refused to grant us passage. She had begun to grow afraid of the world as she began to understand herself and who she was, and the reality of her situation became apparent.

The more she learned of how the world would judge her for not being who it thought she should be, the more she withdrew. She was an atheist, unable to believe in any religion or deity that taught condemnation of her for not submitting to its beliefs of who she should be.

She was a child of God, made perfectly in his image, her body only a vessel for the beautiful soul He created and with which He graced us. She laughed and she loved, and though her humor was dark, her nature was light. Her kindness, her empathy, her hope for others, and her desire to help anyone in need was a blinding light she shone on everyone but herself.
Haley gave us the gift of her truth, trusted us to see beyond her body to her soul, to believe her, and to love her.

We will always be grateful for the chance to have her as she was and not who we had thought her to be. Now we call her daughter and sister and we closed ranks around her to protect her and to keep her safe from the willful ignorance that surrounds her.

Our daughter Haley spent most days wreaking havoc on the universe, her time spent being “Imperial Empress of the Galaxies, Conqueror of Solar Systems, Creator of Planets and Nations, Destroyer of Stars”, and loving and adoring Lucy, her best friend and the Best Dog Ever, who loved and adored her in equal measure.

She created her own language with a full alphabet and rules, spending years revising and perfecting it, and, in typical Haley fashion, did not leave a key. She created her own maps, detailed in geography, and her own countries, rich in their histories. She dropped out of school and then graduated before her peers, which made her immensely proud. She taught herself history, geography, politics, and never hesitated to school anyone on the finer points of each. And she was usually correct.

Haley lived most comfortably in a Discord community of just under six hundred people from all over the world, each of whom loved and adored her. We are just beginning to learn of her profound impact within the community and we are grateful they had her and she was loved by them. Her soul was radiant there, unhindered by its physical representation here which had become a prison, freeing her to breathe and be.

Haley ended her life on November 12, 2021, her pain being too great. She had grown weary of the knowledge of her reality, knowing this country and this world would never stop trying to force her to submit to its ignorance, and her family rages for her. We would’ve burned the whole world down if we’d thought it would keep her safe, and our fury and outrage is eclipsed only by our grief. We struggle against the currents that try to carry us away from love, for those currents only take us further from her. And she is far enough, already.

Haley is survived by her devastated parents; her siblings; her grandparents; several aunts, uncles, and cousins; and Lucy, all of whom are inconsolable in the loss of her brilliance, consumed with a grief that has buried us in moments of silence, rage, and sorrow—a void that will never be filled, and a loss that will never be eased. The world is less without her and we will never be the same.

There will be no formal services for Haley. She considered money spent on the dead to be frivolous and of better use elsewhere. Any donations to her family should be sent to The Jim Collins Foundation in hope that a life might be saved.

In lieu of thoughts and prayers, her family asks that you be kind to the living and generous with what you have, be it your love, hope, or wealth. Do better unto others as you would have done to you, and reach back to those in need, lift them up, raise them higher, and love love love thy neighbor.

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