By all accounts, Barbra Casbar Siperstein was funny, smart and unafraid.
She was a champion of transgender rights and a towering figure in local trans history. Everyone called her “Babs.”
Siperstein died Feb. 3 of cancer at RWJBarnabas Health in New Brunswick, N.J., announced Garden State Equality. She was 76.
A longtime Democrat who was deeply involved in local and national politics, Siperstein made history as the first openly transgender member of the Democratic National Committee. In 2009, Tim Kaine, then-DNC chair, appointed the New Jersey native to the committee. In 2011, she was appointed to the DNC’s executive committee and served in that capacity until October 2017.
Siperstein also served as a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Among her numerous notable efforts was her campaign for legislation to allow individuals to change their gender identity on their birth certificates without proof of gender-reassignment surgery. It was legislation for which she had fought for over a decade and which had previously passed the state legislature twice, only to be vetoed by then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). According to Aaron Potenza, Garden State Equality’s policy director, Siperstein even worked to amend the law to have it include nonbinary people.
The “Babs Siperstein Law” was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy (D) on Feb. 1 and went into effect immediately — just 48 hours before her death.
In a two-part profile in PGN for LGBT History Month several years ago, Siperstein talked at length about how she came to transition at age 50 after life as a successful businessperson, military veteran and husband with a wife, children and grandchildren. Her wife, Carol Ann, helped her through her transition process and Babs became an activist overnight as the first out trans activist in New Jersey politics.
Carol Ann died from cancer in 2001. The couple had been married 34 years. Siperstein said her grief pushed her into activism.
“If gays and lesbians are second-class citizens, what was I as a single transgender person? I kind of used my grief and my anger to change the law,” she told PGN.
To get laws passed, Siperstein cultivated friendships and alliances in both political parties, and worked with the administrations of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) as well as Murphy.
Siperstein told PGN that maintaining a presence among lawmakers was essential to activism.
“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 with everyone. There’s a little bit of me in everyone. I’ve worked in factories and sat in boardrooms. I can relate to and respect people for what they are.
“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 trans people to show up and be present as I could. I hate being the only one.”
While local and national groups were asking for nondiscrimination protections for sexual orientation only, Siperstein worked to get gender identity protected too. She recounted lobbying former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) at a fundraiser.
“New Jersey politics is always about the cash. I brought an envelope with 10 $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.”
Longtime friend and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), with whom Siperstein would joke about his vegan diet, called her Sunday night.
In a tribute last year, when the Babs Siperstein Law passed the New Jersey Assembly, Booker wrote: “Babs is a leader, a trailblazer, and a role model for an entire generation of New Jerseyans. If you don’t know her, you probably know someone touched in some way by her tireless activism. It’s an honor to know her, to work with her, and to call her my friend. Here’s to many more years of activism to come, and to a legacy that has changed the lives of so many.”
Siperstein told PGN that, as important as it was to have been appointed to the DNC, she considered it more critical that she’d convinced the Democratic Party to add gender identity to its charter and bylaws as a protected category.
“That’s much more important, because it’s there,” she said. “It’s part of the infrastructure, and I think it shows the commitment the Democratic Party has for full inclusion for all the LGBT community.”
Murphy issued a statement after Siperstein’s death in which the governor noted her impact on New Jersey.
“In the long and proud history of New Jersey’s LGBTQ community, few voices spoke with the power and passion of Babs Siperstein,” he stated. “She was a tremendous advocate and good friend, and was never shy to push us to open our hearts and minds, and to move our thinking ever forward.” n