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Barbra Casbar Siperstein: Breaking ground in N.J., nationally
LGBT HISTORY MONTH SERIES Special to the online edition of Windy City Times by Victoria A. Brownworth
2012-10-10

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The story of Barbra "Babs" Siperstein is one that will both break your heart and move you to action. It's a story of the power of love, the passion of commitment and the importance of being present.

On Sept. 30, Siperstein, nee Barry Siperstein, was at a surprise birthday party—her own. It was thrown by her daughter and some friends. Her grandchildren were there, her oldest son flew up from Florida. The party was for her 69 and 5/6 celebration. It was a bit of a family tradition, because when Siperstein was nearing 50, her late wife Carol Ann threw her a 49 and 5/6 birthday party because she knew Siperstein was uncomfortable about turning 50.

But at the party last weekend, things were somewhat different. It was still a big event, although Carol Ann wasn't there. And the guests also had a present that Barbra couldn't have imagined at that earlier party: a resolution from the New Jersey State Assembly, noting the significance of the day. Because, as she approaches 70, Barbra is no longer Barry, but one of the premiere transgender activists in the state of New Jersey, if not the country. In September, she was elected as the first transgender member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee.

It didn't take a party to signal that Siperstein has arrived.

Soft-spoken, charming, funny and pretty, Siperstein seems never to stop moving. She talks fast, yet ruminatively, and has story upon story to tell—though none as interesting as her own. She has an engaging way of luring her audience, be it one or hundreds, into her thrall. Siperstein wants change, she's passionately committed to it and she wants everyone to come on board. Her enthusiasm for activism had an almost giddy quality to it. But don't mistake that for a lack of seriousness. She's serious—she's just learned through a lifetime of finding her own way that, to get people to do things, you have to talk to them as individuals and make them understand what has to be done and why. That process is what made her a successful businessperson and a leading LGBT activist in Democratic politics.

LGBT history is made one person and one action at a time. But in the moment when we transition into being an activist and making history, there is always someone guiding us—positively or negatively—in that direction. For Siperstein, those figures included her parents, who she said fed her independence from childhood, as well as her late wife.

Siperstein had the standard queer experience of feeling "different," but is quick to note, "I'm very fortunate in that my story is a positive story."

"As a child and a pre-adolescent I knew I was different," she said. "There were certain things that I was extremely sensitive to. I still remember—I don't know how old I was—I always read and was a little too independent. I would go outside and take the bus to my father's store. My mother put me in the local school because it was around the corner. She didn't want me wandering off."

Siperstein never lost that early streak of independence. Inevitably, it would lead her to understand her own identity and come out as transgender in an era and milieu when it was anything but easy.

"There was always a sensitivity there in me," she explained. "I remember reading, always reading, and there was a medical book. The duality of gender and sex struck me. I read about Christine Jorgensen [the first known person to have sexual-reassignment surgery]. But then, back then, one had to be in denial. I was the first-born male of the first-born male in a tough, working-class Italian/Irish neighborhood."

It was not the slapstick tough of "Jersey Shore" or the mobster tough of "The Sopranos," but the tough of class and ethnic differences and the many isms that they inspire.

Siperstein's family was one of only a handful of Jewish families in her neighborhood. Early on, she had to deal with anti-Semitism and being was called a "dirty Jew." But, she fought back.

"They didn't call me that again," she laughed, dryly.

But as she neared middle age—that 50 mark looming, living with a wife and children, a successful New Jersey businessman—she could no longer deny what she had always known to be true about herself.

"I started to come out to myself," she said wistfully. "I was fortunate my wife was my best friend. She was the type of person I could come out to, and she was the type of person who would love me anyway. We were very fortunate. I was very fortunate."

The two stayed together. Barry became Barbra, and the pair gave themselves a new last name, Casbar—a combination of Carol Ann's initials and Barry's name. It was a name they would use as they met other couples and spent evenings and weekends in New York and the Poconos and New Hope. They found other middle-aged couples living similar lives, where the husband was transgender and the wife was learning to accept the new life they were leading.

"We were both gregarious people," Siperstein said of her and her late wife. "We liked people, we liked going out."

It was a transition for both Siperstein and Carol Ann.

"She would prefer that we were 'normal,' but her biggest thing was that this wasn't a fetish, that it was who I was. She said to me, 'If I'm going to be with you in public, you are going to look like a woman and act like a woman.'"

Carol Ann told Siperstein she would have to maintain her familial responsibilities with their children and grandchildren.

"She was clear and I understood: It was the family, it was the responsibility. I had to protect my family first."

It wasn't the easiest life, but Siperstein became an activist almost immediately—in part because of the complexity of their dual life.

Being transgender, Siperstein acknowledged, was "a huge stigma. In New Jersey, we've changed a lot of the laws, but there's still that societal stigma. I was able to be out politically and be a separate person in my business."

That "dual life" went on for many years until she became more politically active in 2000.

She became involved with a gender advocacy group. As for Carol Ann, "instead of being active in Hadassah, she was active in Invasion of the Pines," Siperstein explained.

Siperstein also joined Empire State Pride Agenda, which she describes as a "mini-HRC [Human Rights Campaign]."

That's when she started to feel like the left-behind letter in the "LGBT" soup.

ESPA was "pushing an LGBT-inclusive agenda" but Siperstein was said that agenda did not include gender identity. The group had, Siperstein felt, "reached out to trans people and then turned their backs on us."

She notes that [trans activist] Sylvia Rivera was among the first to throw a punch or a bottle in the Stonewall riots, and that being cut out of the nondiscrimination picture was not something Siperstein was going to stand for.

It was, she said, "shallow." The activists were "straight-acting white men, feeling their privilege. I've been both places. That really got me going."

Siperstein was now a transgender woman with an activist mission of her own—to make gender discrimination part of any LGBT agenda.

But soon after that revelation, at the end of the summer of 2001, Carol Ann became ill while the couple was visiting friends in Hawaii.

"That night my wife developed a cough and that got worse and worse."

At the end of September, Carol Ann was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which had spread throughout her pelvic area and lungs, and she died at the end of the next month.

"It was devastating," Siperstein said. "It happened so fast."

The pair was married 34 years.

"Fortunately, I had some friends who pushed me," she said.

Siperstein said she used her political activism to channel her grief.

An appellate court decision over a doctor who was fired after a gender transition "got me going," Siperstein explained.

"As a business person and an employer, unless I saw gender identity and expression on those discrimination posters at my business, the discrimination against people like me was going to continue."

She threw herself into work with longtime political and transgender activists, including "the former president of the Log Cabin Republicans in New Jersey. She was involved with the [former Republican governor of New Jersey] Christine Whitman administration. It gave me a different perspective, talking with the really grassroots people."

"Our history is on so many levels," Siperstein said earnestly "We are in every group—ethnic, religious, racial, gender, economic class."

And the same is true of transgender people, she said.

"Some people will look at transpeople like they have a disability. Being transsexual is a disability. But it's a disability because of what society does to the person."

The next years passed in a whirlwind of activism.

"As I look back on it, there's a logical story and chain of events. I quote Woody Allen—80 percent of success is just showing up."

Siperstein became an active, and visible, member of National Stonewall Democrats in 2002. At the time, HRC was advocating for nondiscrimination legislation that protects on the basis of sexual orientation, not gender identity.

For Siperstein, that was not enough. She began showing up at fundraisers, including one for former New Jersey U.S. Sen. Bob Torricelli.

"New Jersey politics is always about the cash. I brought an envelope with ten $100 bills. I caused a little commotion. I ended up using a credit card. I told Torricelli sexual orientation doesn't include people like me. You have to add gender identity."

He listened.

"You've got to be there and you've got to open your mouth," Siperstein said.

The activism ratcheted up to Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John Kerry's 2004 campaign for president.

"One of the problems we had was that the Kerry people did not want to put gender identity in the Democratic platform."

While gender identity didn't make it in, activists, including Siperstein, got their point across. Siperstein was brought in for a meeting with senior staffers at the 2004 DNC in Boston.

"It gave me some insight," she said. "We still tried to engage the party. In 2005, they had an LGBT roundtable to do a post-mortem on the election."

The door was opened, and Siperstein was on her way to the DNC, where she became a member of its relations committee.

"You have to engage people one-on-one. That's how you get to people. That's how I got to people. I've had a taste of very different worlds. I feel comfortable. There's a little bit of me in everyone. I've worked in factories and sat in board rooms. I can realize and relate and respect people for what they are."

But that didn't mean the struggle was over. Siperstein found herself at a meeting of the DNC relations committee and its LGBT caucus. But, as she walked into the meeting, she saw "gay and lesbian caucus" on the door. It was, Siperstein believed, the very sort of mixed messaging that had cost Kerry the 2004 election.

However, Siperstein realized she just had to be present, to keep showing up, standing up and speaking up.

"When the chair of the DNC relations committee had to step down, I offered to step in and I became the new chair," she said. "I wanted to get as many transpeople to show up and be present as I could. I hate being the only one."

With visibility comes respect, she asserted.

"Getting that political respect? The end result is societal. But you have to show up."

Last year, Siperstein was elected to the DNC executive committee—the first transperson to join that panel.

"If you have the political capital, you can force it. That's my nature. Find the win-win," she said. "You need to understand people. You've got to step up. You've got to raise your hand and do."

And Siperstein does.

In a little more than a decade, she's taken her charm, grace and enthusiasm to the halls of power. She's met with Vice President Joe Biden and former DNC chair Tim Kaine and a plethora of other members of the party hierarchy. But she's never lost the memory of being called a "dirty Jew" nor the memory of the wife who loved her enough to stay with her through the biggest transition of their life.

Those memories fuel her activism and compel her to do for others, as well as for herself.

"I've been in the front of the bus, so suddenly being pushed to the back of the bus, I knew the difference," she said. "I had a taste of it and I lost it. Same thing with marriage. I've had a taste and had it taken away. Maybe this has given me an added advantage because I want it back. And I know there's no reason why someone else shouldn't have it."


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