NCTE & the crisis of authoritarian white leadership in LGBT organizations

by Pauline Park

Mara Keisling co-founded the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2003 and has served as its executive director ever since; at the time, there was a desperate need for a credible national transgender advocacy organization, which neither GenderPAC nor the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC) nor the It’s Time coalition of state-based organizations was able to become.

NCTE started off with high hopes and had considerable support from the transgender community, growing to a paid staff of 28, unheard of for a transgender-specific advocacy organization at the national or state or local level; but the staff was reduced to seven and then five in November 2019 in a crisis that has engulfed the organization. As of Nov. 16 , NCTE’s website listed just five staff members: Mara Keisling (executive director), Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen (deputy executive director for policy and action), Lisa Mottet (deputy executive director), Harper Jean Tobin (director of policy) and Jami Westerhold (director of development), following a controversial ‘buyout’ of the rest of the staff. On Dec. 20, Tobin announced her resignation (Kate Sosin, “Harper Jean Tobin to Leave NCTE as Fallout Grows,” New Now Next, 20 December 2019), which Kate Sosin called ‘a serious blow’ to the organization.

NCTE’s 2017 annual report cites a total income of $2,656, 521, with expenses of $2,167, 549, making it one of the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations in the United States and far and away the largest transgender-specific advocacy organization in the country if not the world. Given the relentless attacks on the LGBT community from the administration of Donald Trump since his election in 2016, the stakes could hardly be higher.

In “This Is Why We Left the National Center for Trans Equality” (Out, 15 November 2019), former staff of NCTE wrote,

“We, the former staff of the National Center for Transgender Equality, are devastated. Over the last few months, many of us have made the difficult decision of stepping away from the organization where we’ve dedicated so much of our daily lives… Earlier this year, the organization employed 23 people — a record size in the organization’s 16 years. Since that point, many of us have been fired or pressured out of the organization, and many more were offered a voluntary buyout. This includes almost all of the Policy Department, the entire Communications Department, the entire Outreach and Education department, and the few staff hired to begin the complex and sensitive process of conducting the 2020 US Transgender Survey… Today, NCTE employs seven people, three of which are within the executive department. Those of us now on the outside of the organization know these issues began long before this year. Over the last decade, it’s been abundantly clear that members of the executive team hold an inconsistent and irreconcilable view of how to make the organization itself a strong social justice movement — including recognition of a union and steps needed to ensure NCTE itself is an equitable place for people of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized members of the transgender community… Since 2012, the organization has watched at least 35 employees begin and end employment, 21 of whom are people of color. Fourteen of those employees expressed strong complaints of racism within the organization, including by expressing those feelings to NCTE’s board of directors. At least four people of color were told to sign nondisclosure agreements; no white former staff member of NCTE has reported doing the same… At the end of September 2019, we requested the organization’s Founding Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director — Mara Keisling and Lisa Mottet, respectively — put forward a timeline for their own exit. We remain confident this is the best step forward for NCTE and the critical work it has yet to do… We are left heartbroken and dismayed by the downfall of NCTE at such a time. Each one of us relished the opportunity to do our work, but we simply could not honestly speak for the equality of others from a stubbornly unequal workplace that has continually disappointed its staff, its donors, and the community it seeks to represent. We were flatly denied by Executive and the Board and instead offered a severance package…”

On Nov. 16, Rebecca Kling wrote on her Facebook page,

“Alright fellow white people in the trans rights movement, let’s have a chat. I know you care about (and have put time, effort, and money into) the trans rights movement. I know you mean well, and want to understand what happened (is happening) at the National Center for Transgender Equality. I know many of you have met Mara, liked her, been moved by her words and her actions, and been impressed by her (completely real and totally impressive!) work. So, because I know you care about trans people and the trans rights movement, I will try to speak openly and honestly, white person to white person: BELIEVE TRANS PEOPLE when they say there’s a problem. BELIEVE PEOPLE OF COLOR when they say there’s a problem. Please reread Dr King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, particularly the section about the ‘white moderate.’ No one has ever claimed NCTE leadership was sitting on a throne of skulls, evilly cackling about how to fuck over people of color. I’d even go so far as to say that I honestly believe NCTE leadership _wants_ trans people of color to succeed, and think they (the leadership) are doing What Needs To Be Done to get there. But hiring people of color, only to contentiously lose them over different communication styles, or priorities, or through not trusting PoC staff to do the work they were hired to do? That’s white supremacy culture. To be explicitly clear, I am not accusing NCTE leadership of being white supremacists. I am accusing NCTE leadership of prioritizing ‘white’ work styles, communication styles, and ways of engaging in policy work, all of which made NCTE a more difficult place for PoC (tho not just PoC!) to thrive. And the staff departure of the past week was after repeated internal and external trainings, and stated commitments from leadership to do better…and then not following through… (Assigned reading: White Supremacy Culture). More broadly, these issues existed long before things went so public, and were not ‘just’ about race. Staff was already organizing internally, and pushing for change, in early 2016 when I joined NCTE. We (staff) talked very openly with each other about not wanting to take things public unless absolutely necessary, because we believed in the work and wanted to give the leadership as much benefit of the doubt as we possibly could. But there are only so many times you can hear someone say, “We’re going to do better!” and then see them not actually change behavior, before you have to question whether they’re ever actually going to change. Things I saw firsthand while I was at NCTE from early 2016 to early 2019:

“–Pushback against leadership in staff meetings and staff evaluations
–A ~20 page letter, from staff, to leadership and the board expressing concerns and concrete steps to address them.
–Staff being asked to jump through hoops (joke slightly intended…) for disability-related accommodations.
–Repeated external trainers, internal meetings, strategic planning sessions, and assurances from leadership that things would improve.
–Leadership refusing to break off a partnership with an organization that had harmed a PoC NCTE staff member, citing the partner organization’s important relationship with families of trans youth.
–Internal (intentionally NOT public) union organizing, to give leadership a chance to come around.
–And, finally, my departure. And, in the nine months since, the departure of almost all of the remaining staff.

“I respect that NCTE’s leadership has put blood, sweat, and tears into NCTE and into the trans rights movement. That’s why so much of the staff organizing was private! We wanted to give them the opportunity (so many opportunities!) to depart gracefully, heads held high, being honored by the organization they helped build and the community they support. And leadership (over and over and over again) refused to change, or to hand the organization over to new leadership. The most recent move by staff, asking for new leadership, laid out an 18 month timeline! No one was attempting to kick people to the curb, simply to enter a new phase of NCTE’s work. But at what point do we stop cutting people slack because of their (admittedly amazing and important!) past work? Because, again, this was never ‘just’ about race. (Although ‘just’ that would have been more than enough!) While many of the staff grievances were around NCTE’s inability to support PoC staff or effectively and respectfully work with PoC communities, those were NOT the only grievances. It was about unreasonable demands on when, where, and how staff was doing their work. It was about decisions that didn’t truly represent the needs of the trans community. It was about so much more than ‘just’ race. The external work NCTE does is (and always has been) amazing. I am proud of the work I did while I was there, proud of the colleagues I worked with, and proud of the life-changing work we offered the trans community and allies. Buuuuuttttttt…… some point the ends don’t justify the means. NCTE, by its very name, claims to represent The Trans Community. As has been shown repeatedly over the last few years, NCTE leadership can no longer make that claim. [EDIT: If they ever could. It’s time for them to move on.”

Mara Keisling tweeted a response from her personal Twitter account on Nov. 16, writing,

“I am firmly committed to racial justice… I absolutely do not use and have never used the horrible language that I have been accused of saying… My goal is to create a culture at NCTE where everyone feels safe, respected and included…”

What is striking is that the statement was tweeted from her personal account, not from the NCTE Twitter account, and that Keisling’s statement did not address any of the serious issues raised in the open letter from the former NCTE staffers published by or the very detailed Facebook post by Rebecca Kling; instead, Keisling seemed keen in her statement to try to answer the charge of racism and use of racist language — which struck me frankly as being the kind of response one would expect from a white liberal born to wealth and privilege and power who is completely unaware of the extent of the privilege(s) she enjoys; more importantly, it is the response of an executive director who is not in the least bit interested in addressing the important organizational issues raised by her termination of three quarters of her staff under suspicious circumstances by means of a corporate buyout completely inappropriate for an advocacy organization.

The fact is, the ‘executive leadership’ of NCTE is almost entirely white and upper-middle-class people born to wealth, privilege and power who are used to exercising all three without constraint and without questions from people of color and those born to more modest circumstances. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton’s famous dictum that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”has become something of a cliché, but who can deny the truth of the first Baron Acton’s proposition…? (John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton: letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton, 5 April 1887).

And there is no one more powerful in organizational terms than a founding executive director who controls her board of directors as well as her staff, which is a recipe for absolute power wielded without constraint. I have seen all too many cases of executive directors who dominate and control their boards, which runs directly contrary to the spirit of 501(c)(3) law, which gives the board of directors supreme legal and policy-making authority in such an organization. The position of too many such executive directors becomes all too much like that of those 17th and 18th century European monarchs who styled themselves ‘enlightened’ despots; but such enlightened or ‘benevolent’ despotism or absolutism was almost always far more despotic than it was enlightened or benevolent — especially for the poorer and more marginalized members of those societies — as the rule of Catherine the Great among so many others attests. For all her correspondence with Voltaire and her hospitality to Denis Diderot, Catherine II of Russia was far more concerned to hang onto power and when the choice came between ending serfdom as she professed herself interested in doing and maintaining the support of the Russian nobility upon whose support her own rule was based, she did not hesitate to enhance the privileges of the boyars in order to solidify her rule even if it came at the expense of the poor peasants whose poverty and misery she deepened.

As for the specifics of the scandal now engulfing NCTE, it seems extraordinary to me that the executive director would use a corporate buyout to terminate 21 of 28 staff members; I have never heard of such a thing happening with a 501(c)(3) — either a corporate buyout or the elimination of three quarters of the staff of an organization in a single autogolpe; one can only conclude that Keisling hired 21 entirely incompetent and/or possibly thoroughly dishonest people and kept them on for years — in which case the competence of the executive director must be questioned — or that the executive director dishonestly terminated competent and honest employees simply because she could not tolerate any challenge to her power, which unionization clear was; for an activist who poses as ‘progressive’ and an advocacy organization ostensibly pursuing ‘social justice,’ union busting is a clear indictment of both the executive director and her organization. Sadly, Keisling is not alone among executive directors of 501(c)(3) organizations in employing union busting tactics against her own staff: Charles King has done the same as president and CEO of Housing Works (Mary Frost, “Housing Works employees protest, claiming harassment and union-busting tactics,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 October 2019). Housing Works serves people living with HIV/AIDS and employs a staff that is substantially LGBT and people of color, “Yet workers say the organization has become less progressive than many corporations that maintain union neutrality,” hiring the union-busting firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, which was also employed by Harvey Weinstein to defend his company against sexual harassment charges. The truth is, any organization can write up a mission statement that sounds progressive; the real test of its politics is how it treats its employees; and both Housing Works and NCTE have clearly failed that test.

I served as executive director of Queens Pride House for three full years and I know well the pressures on the chief executive of a 501(c)(c) to raise money, manage staff, work with the board of directors, manage volunteers, organize events and advocate for the community simultaneously; and as an executive director, I can say that there is simply no explanation that could possibly justify Mara Keisling’s actions in this affair. The fact that Keisling had a board member issue a (meaningless) statement in response to the serious charges while the executive director has refused to speak to them in any substantive or responsible way simply confirms my suspicions here.

NCTE will probably survive because Mara Keisling is a power broker deeply entrenched in the Washington establishment with long standing relationships with key power brokers in the political elite, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on down; what will not survive is her reputation as an honest and competent organizational leader, let alone the unquestioned national leader of the transgender community and movement in the United States.

Pauline Park, Ph.D. is the chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House, where she served as executive director from 2012-2015; she led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002; the opinions expressed here are hers alone and do not necessarily represent the views of either of these organizations or any other with which the author is or has been associated.

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