Sarah McBride made it a point to vote in person during Tuesday’s primary in Delaware. This particular trip to the polls was special: the 30-year-old voted for herself.
“I’ve never voted for someone like me before,” McBride said.
McBride overwhelmingly won a two-person Democratic primary for a state senate seat. And the makeup of her district, with its large base of registered Democratic voters, all but assures that McBride will win the seat in November, making her the nation’s first openly transgender state senator.
McBride ran a campaign focused on issues like health care, infrastructure and schools. But she recognizes the historic nature of her win.
“One thing that I do think about is that in Delaware or North Carolina, or in Texas or Montana, there will be a trans kid who wakes up on Wednesday and … sees that the sky’s the limit for them,” she said. “That their dreams and their identities are not mutually exclusive.”
McBride is part of a surge of transgender candidates this election cycle. At least 16 trans candidates are running for statehouse seats in 2020, according to a tally by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, an organization that works to increase the number of openly LGBTQ+ candidates in office.
Annise Parker, president and CEO of Victory Fund, called the number of candidates “eye-popping.”
“Every time we elect someone, it sets a new milestone,” she said. “It’s a big deal.”
Just a few years ago, there were no openly transgender people serving in statehouses. Althea Garrison, a Black woman, was elected to the Massachusetts statehouse as a Republican in 1992, but was outed by the media against her will. In 2012, Stacie Laughton became the first openly trans person to be elected to a statehouse, but the Democrat resigned her New Hampshire House seat before she was sworn into office.
Danica Roem won a delegate seat in 2017 in the Virginia General Assembly, becoming the first openly trans candidate to both be elected and seated to a state legislature. There are now four trans people serving in state legislatures: Lisa Bunker and Gerri Cannon won seats in 2018 to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and Brianna Titone won a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives the same year.
Soon, those numbers might further increase. Some candidates may have a greater chance at success in November, depending on their respective districts. Ultimately, advocates hope to at least double the number of trans legislators in statehouses, from four to eight.
Taylor Small, a 26-year-old in Vermont, advanced in her Democratic primary on August 11 for a state representative seat. If she wins in November, as she’s expected, she would become the first openly transgender state legislator in Vermont. Small, who is one of three trans candidates who ran for the Vermont statehouse this year, credits Roem and other trans candidates (in Vermont in 2018, Christine Hallquist become the first openly transgender candidate to win a major party’s nominee for governor) for paving the way.
“We have seen openly trans legislators make it into positions of power. So a reality that we have not seen for ourselves before is actually achievable,” Small said. “We have seen history already been made and so therefore, I think of it as a mirror: Reflecting that this is an opportunity that can be presented for trans folks, or folks just generally in the LGBTQ community, that hasn’t been there.”
Transgender candidates are also running for Congress, city council and other local races. A handful of candidates who identify openly as gender non-conforming, nonbinary or two-spirit are also seeking elected office. There are 28 openly trans people serving at any level of government in the United States. The bulk serve in local government seats.
Victory Fund estimates there are 864 LGBTQ+ people in elected offices nationwide. The organization counted at least 540 LGBTQ+ people who will be on the ballot in November, the most ever (they tallied over 430 candidates in 2018).
Victory Fund is among the organizations that have stepped up training in recent years to support LGBTQ+ candidates. Parker said although the data is limited, transgender candidates win at a rate proportional to their presence on the ballot.
“If you’re a good candidate and you do a good job and you’re a right fit for your district, you have just as good a chance as anybody else of winning. And the trans candidates who are running absolutely know that. They see Danica, they see Brianna, they see Gerri and Lisa … they see themselves. And they know they can do it. It creates a virtuous cycle.”
The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 has spurred trans people to consider elected office instead of just local community organizing and advocacy, according to Helen Boyd Kramer, an author and instructor of gender studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. She said trans people understand the unnecessary politicization of bodies, choice, and medical care “in deep ways.”
“The threat at this point for trans people is pretty direct,” she said, adding: “I think a lot of trans people who find themselves otherwise able to are running in big and small offices all over the place. So having that representation right now seems especially important.”
Several trans candidates have expressed outrage at the administration’s policies toward the LGBTQ+ community. Small, in Vermont, said it’s important to recognize the rhetoric coming from the White House “that is constantly denigrating trans people.”
“There is this piece of, no, we are not all of these horrible things that you’re saying, but instead we are leaders,” she said. “We are change makers. We are here to uplift.”
Kramer also noted that though the increase in candidates can seem sudden, trans people have been politically active for decades. The first trans delegation came to the Democratic National Convention in the early 2000s. In 2016, McBride became the first openly transgender person to speak at a major party’s national convention when she spoke during the DNC.
The jump in candidates is the culmination of what happens when a group of people fight for their civil rights: They seek elected office. And victories like Roem’s make clear what is possible.
“The specific attack on trans people has motivated people,” she said. “And I think that that’s common in a lot of communities, like when you’ve got people basically saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna take away your rights,’ then people are motivated to actually get themselves into some kind of position where they can have some kind of change.”
McBride said a lot of candidates have seen their rights and dignity undermined by the Trump administration.
“I think that the attacks … against LGBTQ people, against women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, I think it has reinforced the need to have more diversity at the table, to have more voices at the table and to have all of our communities reflected and represented in our legislative bodies and in our government,” she said.
The bulk of openly transgender candidates are Democrats, according to Victory Fund. For Jennifer Williams, that highlights the need for more Republican trans candidates. In 2019, Williams, a Republican, mounted an unsuccessful bid for the New Jersey State Assembly, becoming the first openly transgender person to run for a legislative seat there.
But Williams, who is considering another run in 2021, recognizes that there is a tension in being a transgender Republican with the Trump administration in office.
Williams emphasized that she and other Republican trans people do not support those policy decisions — and that’s all the more reason for them to run.
“We need to have more transgender people in this party to step forward and run,” she said. “Because that’s the only way the leaders of the party are going to listen to us.”
Out of the hundreds of LGBTQ+ candidates who are elected officials, only 28 are Republicans, according to Victory Fund. Elliot Imse, Victory Fund’s senior communications director, said the nonpartisan organization endorses candidates who support equality and are viable candidates. That often precludes the limited number of Republican LGBTQ+ candidates from securing a Victory Fund endorsement. Imse added that many of the Trump administration’s policies are homophobic and transphobic.
“The goal is certainly to ensure more LGBTQ people and more trans people run for the Republican Party, because I am a big believer in change from the inside,” he said. “But unfortunately the party’s really moved in the wrong direction over the last four years.”
With the number of transgender candidates expected to increase in subsequent election cycles, many of the current candidates have talked about the balancing act of running for office while talking about their identity.
Madeline Eden, who won a Democratic primary in March for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, has tried to focus her campaign on issues like election accessibility and rural broadband. If elected, Eden would become the first openly transgender legislator in the state. She said her identity is not something she’s running on.
“There’s so many more reasons for running for office here in Texas right now than that. I think it’s important, I think we need equitable trans representation in our state legislature, especially here,” she said. “But, I think that’s not as important as things like health care, or broadband, or the pandemic response, or local control, or just the hundreds of other things that our state has screwed up over the past 20 years.”
McBride has also tried to focus on issues. She has particularly prioritized accessible and affordable health care after helping her husband, Andrew, as he battled a terminal cancer diagnosis. He died in 2014. McBride thinks about one of their last conversations a lot.
“I can hear him saying, ‘I love you, and I’m proud of you,’” she said.
Victory Fund has endorsed a handful statehouse candidates this election, including McBride, Eden, Small and Stephanie Byers, a transgender woman who won her Democratic primary on August 4. Because of the set-up of her district, Byers is on track to become the first out trans person ever elected to public office in Kansas.
Jessica Katzenmeyer has also secured an endorsement from Victory Fund. She won her April 7 Democratic primary in Wisconsin and would be the first openly trans state legislator in her state. Katzenmeyer, a first-time candidate, is a ride-share driver who wakes up around 5 a.m. each day to get in a shift before focusing on her mostly virtual campaign. A long-time community organizer, she has tried to focus on health care issues following a medical emergency in 2019.
Katzenmeyer said that trans people, who have been continually marginalized, can provide another level of empathy in the statehouse.
“Representation, it truly matters,” she said. “We need to have a more diverse legislature.”