April 1, 2016 at 4:16 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Clinton, Sanders conduct trans outreach ahead of N.Y. primary
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, gay news, Washington Blade

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (Photos by Gino Santa Maria; courtesy Bigstock)

With weeks remaining before a major Democratic primary contest in New York, both Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders are conducting outreach to the transgender community.

Andrea Zekis, policy director for Basic Rights Oregon, introduced Sanders on stage at an April 25 rally in Oregon. Meanwhile, on the Transgender Day of Visibility, the Clinton campaign made public a Q&A with 12 transgender advocates who support the candidate.

Zekis, an Arkansas native, spoke at the rally about the difficulties she faced coming out as transgender, noting discrimination in her home state is legal under state law.

“Seven years ago, I took the bold step to live in my truth,” Zekis said. “I accepted myself as a transgender woman, and for that I received a lot of support. But I was scared. At the time, I lived in a state where I could be fired from my job, denied housing, denied health care. In essence, I lived in a state where I could be denied an opportunity.”

Zekis said she took comfort in knowing there are lawmakers seeking to put an end to anti-trans discrimination, which is why she’s supporting Sanders.

“We need a leader who is committed to economic justice for all people, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity,” Zekis said.

Sanders is a co-sponsor of the Equality Act, a federal bill that would prohibit anti-trans discrimination in all areas of civil rights law, and pledged in an interview with the Washington Blade to be a transgender advocate.

On Thursday, the Clinton campaign published a Q&A titled, “Meet 12 transgender Americans who are proud to support Hillary Clinton.” Written by Sarah McBride, a transgender Clinton supporter, the introduction to the Q&A says Clinton “has a record of results for the trans community and has outlined the most detailed plan for trans equality ever proposed by a presidential candidate.”

McBride is among the 12 transgender people in the Q&A and explains that she supports Clinton for president because of her record as secretary of state and the proposals she has outlined to advance transgender rights.

“She’s the only candidate running to have delivered tangible progress for the transgender community when she reformed passport policies at the State Department and added gender identity to the department’s employment policies,” McBride writes. “She’s laid out a detailed and life-saving platform on LGBT equality, and has routinely and proactively spoken about our needs as a community to LGBT and non-LGBT audiences alike. More than anything else, I’m supporting Hillary because, like she says, she’s not a single issue candidate, because we do not live in a single issue country.”

In a policy paper on LGBT rights made public in December, Clinton pledged to help protect transgender people from violence, streamline the process for changing identity documents for transgender people and invest in law enforcement training on interactions with transgender people.

Others who took part in the Q&A are Blossom Brown, a Jackson, Miss.-based transgender advocate; Barbra Siperstein, a New Jersey activist and member of the Democratic National Committee; Meghan Stabler, a board member of the Human Rights Campaign; and Diego Sanchez, director of policy for PFLAG.

The trans outreach comes weeks before the New York primary on April 19, when a mother lode of 277 delegates will be up for grabs. According to a Quinnipiac poll published on Thursday, Clinton leads Sanders, 54-42, in the state where she served as U.S. senator.

That stands in contrast to an Emerson College poll last month that showed Clinton with a 48-point lead in the state, prompting speculation that Sanders is now surging.

Melissa Sklarz, a New York-based transgender advocate and Clinton supporter, said she thinks trans outreach will benefit Clinton in the Empire State’s primary in addition to rallying transgender and gender non-conforming people.

“It will remind New York voters that Hillary Clinton has been the face and voice for gay and lesbian and transgender civil rights around the world as secretary of state,” Sklarz said. “She has seen first hand how trans women are subjected to poverty and violence, and I believe, as president, Hillary will stand with trans and GNC people as strongly as Barack Obama.”

Given his deficit in delegates, Sanders would need a whopping victory in New York much like his wins in Washington State, Alaska and Hawaii last weekend to overtake Clinton in reaching the 2,383 delegates to win the Democratic nomination.

Pauline Park, a New York-based transgender activist and Clinton critic, said transgender endorsements are unlikely to benefit the candidate because endorsements in general aren’t influential and too few members of the transgender community vote.

“The outreach to the transgender community from the Clinton and Sanders campaign is also not likely to be effective, simply because it’s extremely difficult to reach members of the community, and all too many of those who can be reached do not vote,” Park said. “At this point in time, it is extremely difficult even to measure the size of the transgender community let alone the proportion of it that is politically active, and no activist or celebrity, no matter how prominent, should be believed if s/he claims to speak for the entire community, especially when it comes to electoral politics and party primaries.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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