Lisa Middleton ran for city council in Palm Springs, Calif., this year, she says, because she felt the time was right for her as a civil servant.
She had served her community for nearly a decade as a neighborhood representative and then member of the city planning commission. She built relationships with residents, business owners, and local leaders. She gained campaign experience helping city councilman Geoff Kors mount a winning bid for office in 2015.
She also ran because she felt the time was right for her as a transgender woman.
“I didn’t get into this to make a symbolic statement about being a transgender candidate that got close,” says Ms. Middleton, who was among eight openly trans candidates who won state and local elections across the country on Nov. 7. “It was time for our community not to come close, but to pull it off.”
The historic number of victories highlights a paradox in the perception of and politics surrounding America’s transgender community. On the one hand, hostility against them is at an all-time high: This year 25 transgender people have died as a result of violence, two more than the record 23 killed in 2016. Advocates also point to what they say is a systemic effort among conservative leaders to strip transgender individuals of hard-won rights.
At the same time, the election results show that voters are increasingly willing to throw their support behind openly transgender candidates. And trans people are recognizing that support – and putting in the work to build coalitions and get themselves elected. That’s a remarkable step for a group that has long fought its equal-rights battles in the streets, if not in the shadows, says Juliana Martinez, an assistant professor at American University in Washington who specializes in gender and sexuality.
“The way they’re choosing to fight back is – for the first time in history – within the system,” she says. “Society is at a point where trans people can do this now. This was unthinkable 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago.”
The narrative fits into the surge in political activism among groups who have felt targeted by the Trump administration. Since the president’s inauguration in January, women, racial and religious minorities, and even scientists have stepped up in unprecedented numbers to run for office. That broader push helped set the stage for folks like Virginia state delegate Danica Roem, Minneapolis city councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, and Middleton to bring openly trans voices into politics.
“When people are upset with the establishment or upset with where the country is heading, it becomes amenable for outsiders to take on [the system],” political scientist Jennifer Lawless told the Monitor in April.
But for the trans community, it’s about more than President Trump. Nearly all the victors hit historic gender milestones by winning – and faced down the brand of animosity particular to the transgender experience to do so. What won them their seats, they and their supporters say, had little to do with gender.
Middleton’s years of service in Palm Springs allowed her to run a campaign that focused on advancing things like transparent leadership, public safety, and the local renewable energy industry. “I felt absolutely grounded in our neighborhoods and what the different issues would be,” she says.
Ms. Jenkins, who now holds a seat in the Minneapolis city council, spent 25 years in various public service roles in and around the city before entering the race this year. And Ms. Roem, a newspaper reporter who beat Republican incumbent Bob Marshall for his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, famously focused on fixing the traffic issues tormenting residents in Fairfax County.
“Being transgender isn’t the whole of her identity, the extent of her purpose or the crux of her mission,” Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “[H]er job as a lawmaker is to attend to the nitty-gritty that has an immediate, measurable impact on all of her constituents.”
He was talking about Roem, but he could have meant any of the candidates.
'The war is far from over'
Middleton says she won because voters believed she was the best candidate for the job. She also acknowledged that she and her longtime partner moved to Palm Springs because of its LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere. “If I were running in a community in the Deep South or in many other places where the incumbent president has done extremely well, I’m sure my campaign would have faced far more difficult odds,” she says.
Indeed, for many liberals, the excitement of the Nov. 7 elections is tempered by the fact that the victories took place at a time when minority groups feel especially vulnerable to hostility from the state. This past year, the transgender community has faced multiple attempts to pass versions of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and a bid by the Trump administration to ban trans people from military service.
“There are individuals at all levels of government who do not recognize trans people and their personhood,” says Tia Gaynor, an assistant professor of public administration at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who specializes in diversity and government. “While this is a battle win, the war is far from over.”
Still, the election results suggest that the American public is, perhaps for the first time, willing to vote for qualified trans men and women who put their names on the ballot. That could, over time, encourage more transgender folks to run – and eventually mean a greater share of representation in political office.
“Nothing succeeds like success,” says Rebekah Herrick, a political science professor who studies representation and gender at Oklahoma State University. “And once you get people elected to office, I think it can change other people’s behaviors.”
Middleton, too, recognizes that winning is just the beginning: “Those forces that have for decades opposed LGBT equality are not going to suddenly say, ‘Oh my gosh, we were wrong,’ and stop fighting us. We will be watched very closely.”
“It’s an opportunity,” she adds. “Now we have to make good on that opportunity.”