Written by Sarah Ondak
The LGBTQ community has taken major strides in the past years. Representation is on the rise: GLAAD reports there are more LGBTQ characters on TV than there have been at any point in history. Disney had its first explicitly gay scene in Beauty and the Beast, and Power Ranger’s nod to a potential bisexual yellow ranger shows that small steps are being taken in the right direction. There’s still so much room to improve, especially when it comes to politics.
Since 1974, openly gay Americans have been serving in political office. The 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay office holder in California, brought much-needed attention to the LGBT community’s attempts and struggles to be represented in government, and in the years since, openly gay politicians have served in every one of the 50 states. Six openly gay or bisexual House representatives co-chair the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, which includes another 77 non-LGBTQ representatives as members. Most recently, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly lesbian senator in America when she was elected in 2012. The LGBTQ community has slowly but surely worked their way into the political conversation, but one voice is missing. Transgender individuals have close to no representation in government, but hopefully, that is about to change.
When interviewed for Esquire, Logan Casey, a Research Associate at the Harvard Opinion Research Program, noted a record number of trans people are running for public office this year. At least 29 transgender politicians have announced their candidacy, which is more than three times the amount in 2016. New political action committees and activist groups are rallying behind candidates to #Transthevote. Monica Roberts, the national co-chair of the Trans United Fund, which according to their website is a group “committed to building the political power of trans and gender expansive communities and our allies to advocate for trans equality,” said in a correspondence with Vice News that they “endorse candidates who are committed to breaking down barriers and creating solutions to the challenges not just faced by trans people but by all of us who face barriers, discrimination, and violence simply for being who we are.”
The surge in trans candidates is impressive and courageous; they take a lot of risks. From being labelled a one issue candidate to having their personal identities picked apart by political opponents, these candidates can attract hateful rhetoric and unwanted attention in their personal lives. However, one woman, Andrea Jenkins, who is running for city council in Minneapolis told Esquire that she’s received “more hate for being a liberal” than for begin transgender. Many of the candidate’s goal is in fact to keep the focus on issues that voters can relate to rather than identity politics.
A 2016 study by the Williams Institute revealed there are 1.4 million trans people in the United States, and in a country of more than 323 million people, no candidate will be elected by appealing only to trans voters. Jenkins observed, “You have to appeal to a broad base of people. That does not mean that you run from your identity, but I don’t think you run on your identity. I’m running for political office because I believe that politics is one way to really help people live their lives.” Another transgender contender for office in Minneapolis, Phillipe Cunningham, echoed Jenkins. He said, “Folks do see me as a full and complete person, even though there’s a national conversation about really basic things like where we go to the bathroom.” Mel Wymore who hopes to become New York City’s the first transgender council member, commented,“People’s notions of otherness start to diminish […] People have the opportunity to connect to each other as human beings.”
The prospect of more trans representation is exciting and necessary. This year, attack after attack has been aimed at the trans community from the White House to statehouses around the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states have considered bills that would restrict access to restrooms on the basis of biological gender, and 14 states have considered legislation that would limit transgender students’ rights at school. Pennsylvania Senate Republicans want to restrict funding for trans kids to get gender reassignment surgery. The Trump administration and other states have been making attempts to limit transgender people’s access to publicly funded health care, and it was only on October 30th that a judge blocked President Trump’s transgender military ban. In the past, just like the gay community, trans groups have relied on activism to get the attention and the rights they deserve. In her piece for Vice, Katelyn Burns observed, “While advocacy can build strong campaign skills and needed political contacts […] in order to build a solid base of political power, the trans community must put representatives in elected office.” Hopefully, by the end of this year, the possibility of transgender elected officials will become a reality.
Update: 11/7/2017 Danica Roem of Virginia became the first openly transgender state representative in the United States