LAS VEGAS — Recent years have seen a record number of openly gay people seated in the U.S. House, the election of the first out lesbian to the U.S. Senate and the appointment of a bisexual woman as governor of Oregon. But there remains a dearth of openly transgender officials at any level of government.
The stories of the handful of elected trans officials — and the absence of any in state legislatures or Congress — was the subject of a panel titled, “Out to Win: Transgender Elected Officials,” which took place Saturday at the LGBT Leaders 2015 International Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.
Moderating the panel was Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who said finding trans elected officials to participate was difficult “not because they wouldn’t cooperate, but because they don’t exist.”
No openly transgender person has ever served as a member of Congress, nor has any openly transgender person been elected and seated in a state legislature.
As Keisling noted, former Massachusetts State Rep. Althea Garrison was outed by former Gov. Mitt Romney’s communication shop during her one term in the legislature, but she denied she was transgender.
In New Hampshire, Stacie Laughton was elected in 2012 to represent Nashua-area Ward 4 in the House of Representatives, but couldn’t be seated under state law because of her history as a convicted felon.
In 2014, Lauren Scott, a Persian Gulf war veteran, won the Republican nomination in a bid to represent Nevada Assembly District 30 in the statehouse, but ultimately lost in the Democratic district. (She’s pursuing another bid for the same seat in Election 2016.)
That same year, Paula Sophia Schonauer ran for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Although she advanced in the House District 88 Democratic primary, she came up short by 22 votes against now State Rep. Jason Dunnington in the run-off election.
On the panel, Schonauer said the Democratic leader of the Oklahoma House, Rep. Scott Inman, worked against her nomination because she’s transgender.
“He lobbied against me, twisted unions — because I was the only union member in the race, too — and leveraged pressure on them not to endorse me,” Schonauer said. “The Oklahoma Education Association wanted to endorse me, he went out of his way, ‘Nuh-uh. You can’t endorse Paula.’ And then, the AFL-CIO wanted to endorse me, and he was pulling favors to keep me away, and then he was saying if I got elected that I would break the Democratic caucus.”
Inman told the Blade he along with Rep. Emily Virgin indeed supported Dunnington over Schonauer, but they endorsed him early on based on his merits before she ever declared her candidacy and didn’t oppose her based on her gender identity.
“We endorsed Jason…in his announcement,” Inman said. “We had no idea who else was going to run. And the idea there was that we supported Jason so much that we were hoping that when we announced with our endorsement included in his announcement that it would encourage Democrats to not run, saying OK, House Democratic leadership is behind him, and that’s what we were trying to do.”
Nonetheless, Schonauer said her campaign had momentum because people were interested in her background as a transgender person, former law enforcement official, veteran and poet.
“The momentum was rolling, and I think if the campaign was one more week, I would have won,” Schonauer said.
Two transgender people were on the panel who won election to local offices, although they said they faced challenges because of their gender identity.
Vared Meltzer, who was elected to the Appleton City Council in Wisconsin last year, said the issue of presentation during her campaign was a “harrowing” experience.
“There were straight women who got very upset at me because I wear skirts from time to time and am ‘claiming’ to be trans,” Meltzer said. “Regardless of what I do with my body and my appearance, people are going to be upset.”
But Meltzer said her constituents started “policing themselves a bit” and when some became intolerant about her being transgender, said “Why do you care? Why does this matter?”
Victoria Kolakowski, who in 2010 was elected to the Alameda County Superior Court in California, said she had support from gay and lesbian people for her candidacy, but not so much from the transgender community.
“The trans folks were happy when I won, but you’re talking about people who don’t have money and don’t necessarily even have a lot of time because they’re just trying to get by,” Kolakowski said. “It’s not exactly a resource rich community that’s going to be stepping forward and giving things.”
Kolakowski added trans people are out there with resources, but are often a “stealth community” who aren’t visibly transgender and “don’t want to have anything to do with us.”
When an audience member asked about the best way to aid the election of transgender people, Keisling noted the existence of LPAC, a political action committee for lesbians, and raised the possibility of creating a “TransPAC.”
In a possible reference to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and its criteria that endorsed candidates stand a strong chance of winning, Keisling said, “There are other PACs in the LGBT space that rely a lot on picking winning candidates, and we’re still in a time where a trans candidate is going to be less likely to prove in advance that they’re going to win.”
Meanwhile, the transgender community continues to face other major problems, such as persistent anti-trans violence and murders in addition to political attacks aimed at prohibiting trans people from using the public restroom consistent with their gender identity, which were blamed for the recent loss on LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections at the ballot in Houston.
Schonauer said she’s expecting in Oklahoma the revival of a state bill raising bathroom issues for transgender people, adding “we’re going to fight to make sure it doesn’t get out of committee,” but the legislation may pass. It’s the kind of legislation Keisling said the transgender community will be fighting across the nation.
“Stay tuned for the bathroom conversation,” Keisling said. “It’s going to be huge for the next couple years. It’s going to be messy and bad and ugly. And we as a community are going to stand up and fight. We’re going to have some losses, but we’re going to win.”
At one point, West Hollywood City Council member John Duran, who was participating as an audience member, stood up and raised the possibility of localities creating transgender advisory boards similar to one in his city that would enable the election of transgender people in the city.
“I think in order for us to conventionally elect a trans man or woman in the city of West Hollywood, they’re going to have to serve on public safety, on human services, on rent stabilization, because people are going to have to know about the ideas behind the person,” Duran said.
Phillipe Cunningham, senior policy adviser on youth development and racial equity for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, was on the panel and responded by saying localities should just appoint transgender people to positions in the administrative branch of governments.
“My recommendation would be to skip the advisory council and just start plugging trans people on to boards and commissions,” Cunningham said. “While it may humanize us, it also delays us from being involved directly in the decision-making process. So, I do appreciate that, but I also want to pull back on that a little bit because it’s on the periphery, it’s not quite plugged in all the way in the decision making.”
Logan Casey, who’s transgender and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said even with additional transgender people elected to public office, challenges will continue to remain for the community.
“Even when we achieve sort of benchmarks of formal representation, rates of violence and discrimination remain incredibly high in our communities,” Casey said. “Structural inequalities and prejudice are really, really slow to change. This is all just first steps. There’s still so much to be done.”
The number of openly transgender people who’ll seek elected office in the 2016 election cycle remains to be seen. One candidate who filed early this year is Kristen Beck, a transgender Navy SEAL who’s challenging House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for the Democratic nomination to represent Maryland’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House.
Schonauer told the Blade after the panel when asked if she’d run again for the state legislature, “I’m biding my time.” Because the seat she once pursued now has an incumbent lawmaker, Schonauer said she won’t run in the 2016 election cycle.
“It depends when the House district I live in opens up again because I’m competitive in a very narrow area,” Schonauer said. “And so, I’m going to bide my time and see what happens.”
But Schonauer said she wants to pursue another run because she feels a call to public service and, as a former law enforcement official, she thinks she can offer perspective on community policing in Oklahoma, which she said isn’t getting enough discussion in Oklahoma. But Schonauer said she also needs to fulfill a personal obligation.
“My daughter had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and during her treatment, she asked me to promise to run again,” Schonauer said. “She’s cancer-free now, and she keeps reminding me of my promise. So, there’s a personal promise there.”
CORRECTION: An initial version of this article omitted the candidacy of Kristen Beck when discussing transgender candidates running in Election 2016. The Blade regrets the error.