From the Classroom

‘We’re not going back to zero’ Transgender politicians are challenging the status quo

As transgender rights become an increasingly polarizing political wedge, transgender public officials and political candidates seek to change the narrative.

Photo of two femmes taking selfie with campaign poster.

Transgender people are regularly made the subject of polarizing political debates. From bathroom bills to legislation banning gender-affirming healthcare for trans youths, they are being forcefully wedged between Democrats and Republicans as a theoretical problem to be dealt with in American politics.

Less often are they seen as people who have to deal with the effects of such legislation, let alone allowed to weigh in on discussions of their rights from a position of power. According to the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, there are just 33 transgender people among hundreds of thousands of elected officials across the United States, and none of them reside in either chamber of Congress.

A number of trailblazers are changing this narrative, slowly but surely. Since Virginia Del. Danica Roem’s election deemed her the United States’ first transgender state legislator in 2017, a number of states have given trans officials a chance to serve. Sarah McBride became the highest-ranking transgender official in the country when she won a seat in Delaware’s state Senate in 2020. Honey Mahogany became the first Black trans woman elected to serve in California that same year. Most recently, Rachel Levine was confirmed by the Senate as Joe Biden’s assistant secretary of health.

Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone, a transgender woman elected to office in 2018, says this domino effect wouldn’t be possible without the visibility that Roem laid the groundwork for.

“I saw Danica Roem win her race, and I thought, ‘Oh, she got tons of support. She got lots of financial donors, this should be easy.’ Well, it wasn’t,” Titone said, laughing during a phone interview with Annenberg Media. “We went out, we talked about the issues, I didn’t make it about me being trans. It wasn’t about that — it was about the work. And we were able to convince the voters that I was the right person for the job. But it was difficult.”

Roem, who announced in early May she would be running for the Virginia state Senate, has been one of the most proactive members in the House of Delegates. Thirty-two bills she wrote have been signed into law and she has been reelected twice.

“I’m demonstrating that regardless of party, I’m finding ways to succeed, and I’m doing it as an out trans woman in the South,” Roem explained over the phone. “It just goes to show you that we can succeed because of who we are, not despite it.”

On top of the regular difficulties legislative hopefuls face when they file to run for office — like raising money and developing an image constituents want to support — transgender people face a number of additional obstacles. For instance, they are burdened with proving that they have an agenda beyond advancing rights for LGBTQ+ people. A common critique of trans candidates is that they will only focus on legislation that directly affects them, letting other issues fall by the wayside.

Officials such as Roem and Titone have proven this couldn’t be further from the truth: Roem has substantially contributed to the alleviation of traffic congestion on Route 28 and Interstate 66 in Fairfax County, Va. Titone serves as chair of the Joint Technology Committee in addition to her work in the Health & Insurance, Agriculture, Livestock, & Water and Energy & Environment committees.

“Nobody gave me a chance; I had to make my own chance,” Titone said. “The deck is stacked against trans people from Day One when they even sign up to run, because most of the time, unless you have a track record and you know people and you have like an inside scoop on who someone is, they’re not going to believe in you.”

It’s about far more than just proving themselves worthy public servants, as a growing number of constituents simply disagree with their existence as trans people. A Pew Research poll from 2021 found that only four in 10 Americans personally knew a transgender person, let alone supported one. This makes it even more difficult to make gains in races, and transgender candidates have to work significantly harder to win people over.

“It’s difficult to be in politics,” said Jess Herbst, former mayor of New Hope, Texas. “Now you throw in the inherent fear of being a trans person. If trans people weren’t afraid of the way society treats us, then we would have way more trans people out than we do right now.”

Herbst came out while she was in office in an open letter to her constituents. She says the reception was overall very positive. When she lost reelection, she believes it suggested hateful beliefs and remarks were exchanged about her behind closed doors.

“The conservative people who don’t understand about being trans… they didn’t say anything, not at that point,” Herbst said in a phone interview. “It really wasn’t until 2018 [in] the next election and I lost pretty poorly that I realized that there were a lot of people who just weren’t saying anything.”

Current trans candidates echo these concerns but nonetheless remain hopeful. Wendy Ella May, running for North Carolina’s House of Representatives, has run for various offices 10 times in her life and her enthusiasm has only grown despite the disapproval she has faced.

“Prior to me, there had never ever been an LGBTQ, two spirit, nonbinary, gender nonconforming candidate in all of North Carolina,” May said. “I’ve broken a couple of glass ceilings, and now I’m breaking one more, because I am going to be the first nonbinary [person] ever elected to the North Carolina General Assembly.”

May is the Democratic nominee in the district, which is strongly Republican. She will face an uphill political battle against either Rep. Larry Strickland or his Republican primary challenger Jim Davenport in November.

Kimi Cole, a candidate for Nevada’s lieutenant governor, would also make another historical first: if elected, she would be the first transgender person to win a statewide race.

Cole and other candidates want to make one thing perfectly clear, though: they are more than just transgender people. They are aspiring public servants who want to make a difference.

“I am not here to prove a point to anybody else. I’m here to represent Nevadans,” Cole said. “We’re going to talk about LGBTQ rights, we’re going to talk about the economy, we’re going to talk about the environment, we’re going to talk about our roads, we’re going to talk about our health care. It’s not just about one aspect of anybody’s life.”

According to the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, more transgender individuals are running for office in 2022 than ever before. Maebe A. Girl, a congressional hopeful up in a top-two primary June 7 against Rep. Adam Schiff in California’s 30th District, says that such representation is essential if transgender people are to defend their rights.

“There has never been a trans representative federally elected to our government.” Girl stated in a campaign video on her Instagram. “How can we fairly discuss trans issues and implement laws affecting trans people when there are no trans people at the table?”

“People hate what they don’t understand,” Herbst echoed. “And that’s why the more we can do to make people understand us, the better off we’re all gonna be.”

The sentiments of hope are potent amongst these candidates: Each looks to the future of politics, one where they can see themselves and the 2 million transgender adults in America adequately represented.

“We went from having the one out and seated trans state legislator, when I was sworn in on Jan. 10, 2018, to now having eight,” Roem said. “We’re not going back to zero. We’re only going up from here.”