Last May, Barbra Casbar Siperstein sat on the floor of the New Jersey Assembly and clutched the hand of the prime sponsor of a bill bearing her name. Moments later, after Siperstein had pushed the assemblywoman’s green button to vote in favor of the legislation, the bill passed. Weeks later, it was signed into law.
“I think that was one of her proudest moments,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen) of the Babs Siperstein Law, which requires the state to issue amended birth certificates to transgender people in New Jersey even if they haven’t had a surgical procedure.
The law took effect Friday. On Sunday evening, Siperstein, 76, of Edison, died at RWJBarnabas Health in New Brunswick, N.J., according to the LGBTQ advocacy organization Garden State Equality. A cause of death was not available.
Siperstein for decades was one of New Jersey’s most prominent LGBTQ activists and was instrumental in securing protections for transgender people on the state and federal levels. The Jersey City native was remembered Monday across the state as a trailblazer and role model for the activists who came after her.
“In the long and proud history of New Jersey’s LGBTQ community, few voices spoke with the power and passion of Babs Siperstein," Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement. “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.”
Siperstein was active in Democratic Party leadership, and in 2009 became the first openly transgender person to serve as a member of the Democratic National Committee. She was appointed to the DNC’s executive committee in 2011 and was a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
In 2010, Siperstein spoke about her selection to the committee, saying that although she was proud of the accomplishment, she was more interested in the fact that the party added “gender identity” to its charter and bylaws as a protected category.
“That’s much more important, because it’s there,” Siperstein said. “It’s part of the infrastructure, and I think it shows the commitment [of] the Democratic Party for full inclusion for all the LGBT community.”
Tom Prol, a board member of Garden State Equality and a longtime friend, said Siperstein’s advocacy was “not about vanity or ego.”
“She really envisioned a future ahead and had a view of how the world should be," Prol said, "and she reverse-engineered a path to it.”
Friends and those who worked with her on policy said Siperstein was tenacious. Leslie Farber, a lawyer and longtime friend, said she “didn’t like taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
In lobbying, though, the “no’s” are plentiful, and Siperstein and her allies faced political setbacks. Though the birth certificate bill had previously passed the legislature, it was vetoed twice by then-Gov. Chris Christie. Siperstein didn’t waver in her commitment, and helped amend the bill so it could accommodate people who identify as non-binary, according to Aaron Potenza, Garden State Equality’s policy director.
Potenza, who is transgender and called Siperstein a professional mentor, said Siperstein was also one of the most important backers of a 2006 update to the state’s nondiscrimination law so that it would include gender identity and expression. He said Garden State Equality relies on the law “every single day.”
She was involved in lobbying for LGBTQ rights and protections even in the last few months. In December, Siperstein testified in favor of a bill requiring public schools in New Jersey to teach middle and high school students about “the political, economic, and social contributions” of LGBTQ people. Murphy signed the legislation Thursday.
For the first 50 years of her life, Siperstein was known as Barry, a military veteran, a small business owner, and the father of three. She began coming out in the late 1980s, first to her wife, Carol, she told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2012. The couple stayed together. Carol died in 2001, and Siperstein later said she used the time after Carol’s death to become politically active.
“If gays and lesbians are second-class citizens, what was I as a single transgender person?” Siperstein told the newspaper. “I kind of used my grief and my anger to change the law.”
Those who knew her said she delighted in seeing young people express themselves in ways she couldn’t. The law that bears her name will allow just that for Rebekah Bruesehoff, a transgender 12-year-old from Sussex County. When the law went into effect Friday and the forms to change her birth certificate became available online, Rebekah and her family printed the forms and mailed them. Now, they wait for the amended version.
Rebekah’s birth certificate is the “last thing tying her to her old life,” said her mother, Jamie, who said it’s because of Siperstein that Rebekah will have a legal document affirming who she is.
“It’s because of her that my daughter was able to transition and be accepted throughout New Jersey,” Jamie said. “New Jersey has a lot of legal protections, and it’s because of that that my kid is able to live the life she does.”
Siperstein is survived by her partner, Dorothy Crouch; three children; and five grandchildren.