Making Government Work

The Rise of Transgender Political Candidates

October 10, 2017
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The Rise of Transgender Political Candidates
Transgender woman Danica Roem made history when she won the Virginia House of Delegates primary. She keeps her campaign focused on economic issues over social ones. Photo courtesy of Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund
As lawmakers continue to target the LGBTQ community, trans individuals aren’t just protesting — they’re running for office.

If visibility is key to influencing policies and the lawmakers who write them, then LGBTQ advocates could soon have reason to celebrate. Since the start of 2017, the number of transgender people campaigning for office has risen —leading multiple news outlets to dub 2017 the “year of the transgender candidate.”

So far, there have been 29 transgender individuals to appear on ballots this year, according to the Trans Candidates Project.

The result, hope activists, could change the way the U.S. debates sexual-identity politics, especially in an era when the culture wars have become so inflamed that state lawmakers routinely dedicate time and resources to dictating which bathrooms their constituents can use.

“Our opponents are pushing for anti-trans laws, and we really believe that trans lawmakers are the antidote,” says Elliot Imse, director of communications for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a nonpartisan political action committee. “When you have LGBTQ people in power it changes the conversation, and it changes policy.”

The number of trans people in the U.S. is estimated to be 1.4 million, or 0.6 percent of the national population, according to a June survey using federal and state data. The elected world, however, is out of step with the general population, Imse argues. “There are 520,000 elected officials and positions nationwide. Just six are held by openly trans people. We’re talking severe underrepresentation,” he says.

That imbalance, coupled with anti-trans policies in general, such as President Trump’s executive order banning trans people from military service, has lately been spurring action of a different sort. Instead of hitting the streets in protest, trans individuals are now hitting the streets for campaign signatures.

THE CASE FOR UP-CLOSE-AND-PERSONAL

“It’s purely about visibility,” says Mayor Jess Herbst of New Hope, Texas. A majority of the 600 people who live in her small Dallas suburb had likely never even met someone who’s transgender. At least, before this year.

Herbst took over as mayor in the spring of 2016, when she was still known as “Jeff.” This past January, Herbst announced her transition in an open letter to the town’s residents.

“I’m not especially sensitive to the pronoun I’m called, and I expect people to take time to make the change,” she wrote. “I will continue as Mayor and hope to do the very best for the town.”

Since then, little has changed in New Hope. Life is business as usual.

“In general, when I used to see people from my town — they wouldn’t shun me, necessarily — but they wouldn’t say hello,” Herbst tells NationSwell. “Now they do. After talking to me and getting to know me, there’s no less or more discussion around social issues.”

Since coming out as transgender, Herbst has been active in showing local support for trans issues, such as lobbying and protesting against Texas’ anti-trans bathroom bills, which have twice been voted down in the state.

But Herbst says that even in her own community, simply being visible has changed the way people view trans issues. She recounts a story about a close friend who had distanced himself after she announced her transition. He’s since become an important advocate for Herbst and the causes she supports.

As transgender visibility increases in local communities, so does support around LGBTQ issues such as nondiscrimination legislation.Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

TRANSFORMING ATTITUDES

Though the situation is anecdotal, what happened in Herbst’s small conservative town — where nearly 55 percent of voters in the county voted for Trump last November — is emblematic of what can happen when legislators are introduced to people outside of their demographic.

Research has backed this up. A 2015 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that countries with more transgender representatives had a dramatically higher track record of providing civil rights to gay people. And in a 2016 study, published in the journal Science, research showed that a single 10-minute conversation between a neighborhood canvasser and self-professed transphobic voters actually reversed perspectives to be more inclusive of the trans community.

It’s a premise that former Missouri state Sen. Jolie Justus, a Democrat and a lesbian, has seen in action. In 2013, she persuaded enough Republicans to pass a nondiscrimination bill. Nearly all of them — nine in total — happened to be seated around Justus in the senate chamber as she spoke.

As MetroWeekly, an LGBTQ publication based in Washington, D.C., put it, “To vote against protections for an abstract community was one thing, but it was much more difficult voting against discrimination protections for Jolie and her wife, Shonda.”

One of the biggest hurdles for transgender and gay politicians is keeping social issues from seeping into the debate on other topics, such as the economy, education and infrastructure.

The tactic taken by Danica Roem, a transgender woman who won her district primary for Virginia’s House of Delegates this past June, was to put economic issues on the table first and address social ones later, according to people familiar with her campaign. (Roem’s campaign manager would not comment on the details of her campaign for this story.)

“[Roem is] a historic candidate, but when she knocks on doors she talks to people about jobs and economic issues. When you’re working with a conflicted voter who’s perhaps not vehemently anti-LGBTQ, but isn’t quite 100 percent on board with LGBTQ concerns, those are the people that these trans candidates need to reach,” says Imse. “Meeting people on the issues at a human level, [like Danica did], just allows people to shine and break through.”

Victory Fund, where Imse works, has been leading the effort since 1991 to get more LGBTQ candidates elected, providing campaign, fundraising and communications support. The organization primarily focuses on local and state elections to help combat anti-equality measures.

“We’re really seeing this political backlash against trans people, and trans folk won’t stand for it,” Imse says. “The reality is that trans people are deciding to step up and make lasting change.”

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