The historic wins by transgender candidates on Tuesday are being widely interpreted to have nationwide implications, although LGBT political observers have different takes on what those conclusions are.
The most high-profile win Tuesday night was transgender journalist Danica Roem’s victory in Virginia over Del. Bob Marshall, who has a decades-long history of anti-LGBT views and this year introduced a bill that would have banned transgender people from using public restrooms consistent with their gender identity. She’ll be the first openly transgender person elected and seated to a state legislator in the history of the United States.
Other highlights include Andrea Jenkins, a poet and activist, and Phillipe Cunningham, a former special education teacher, winning seats on the Minneapolis City Council. Both are the first openly transgender people of color to win election in the United States and the first out transgender candidates elected to a city council in a major U.S. city.
Meanwhile, Tyler Titus won election to the Erie School Board in Pennsylvania, Lisa Middleton won election to the Palm Springs City Council and Stephe Koontz won a spot on the Doraville City Council in Georgia.
Logan Casey, who’s transgender and a research associate at the Harvard Opinion Research Program, said the wins are important on their own for transgender visibility.
“With so few transgender people in office, everyone is important,” Casey said. “And so, there’s one level on which these wins are really important just for trans people and the LGBTQ community generally, saying that we can win elections. We can be out, and be proud and be ourselves and be successful.”
But combined with other wins for diversity, such as the election of a Sikh mayor in New Jersey, Casey said the transgender victories demonstrate identity politics might not be a losing ticket as critics have claimed.
“We’ve heard a lot of conversation in the last year in particular about the idea that too much focus on identity politics loses elections for Democrats in general,” Casey said. “I think that this is a really strong signal that this is probably not the case. We’ve seen lots of different types of candidates — not just trans candidates, but other ones running all across the country — being successful yesterday and speaking openly about the various aspects of their identities, and winning their elections.”
But with many anti-trans lawmakers in state legislatures introducing legislation that inhibit transgender people’s access to the restroom, do the wins — particularly Roem’s over Marshall in Virginia — send a message those policies will lead to defeat at the ballot?
Sean Meloy, political director for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said he thinks the transgender wins should serve as a wake-up call to lawmakers planning anti-trans policies.
“People from the White House down to school boards have been pushing anti-trans legislation, and I think that they’re going to take a moment to pause and think that the author of anti-trans legislation was just beaten by a transgender woman, and I think that’s going to give them pause,” Meloy said.
Casey, however, cautioned a lot of things were in play in the election for the 13th district seat in Virginia and the result on election night might not be about bathroom bills.
“I am inclined to say Danica didn’t win because she was trans and Marshall had introduced these bathroom bills,” Casey said. “I think Danica won because she was able to connect with constituents on local issues like transportation and things that are really important to her district, and she had a really solid ground game and was successful in fundraising. She beat Marshall because she got back to the basics and was able to connect with her voters.”
Nonetheless, Casey said the defeat of Marshall at the hands of Roem may “give caution to lawmakers about how much of an issue to make about trans issues in particular during a campaign.”
“It may not change their voting behavior, or even what bills they introduce, because that’s a very different type of legislative behavior, but in terms of how they actually go about campaigning come next year, it might provide some caution to folks who are on the ticket,” Casey said.
The wins could be a precursor for transgender victories to come. Among the winners could be Dana Beyer, who’s running for the seat in the Maryland State Senate being vacated by Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery) in his bid to become governor.
Beyer, whose attempt to challenge Madaleno for the seat proved unsuccessful, said the lessons from the transgender wins are many, but include knowing to run during a Democratic wave year.
“We’ve created enough acceptance over the past 15 years in both America, in general, and within the Democratic party, in particular, that being trans (or any of the other smaller minorities, such as Sikh) is no longer a liability, but may actually be an asset,” Beyer said.
The Democratic wins in Virginia and New Jersey were widely viewed as a stinging rebuke to President Trump and LGBT rights supporters are hopeful the trans victories carry the same message to the White House over his anti-LGBT actions.
Among the Trump administration’s policies that have undermined transgender rights are seeking to bar transgender people from the armed forces, undoing Obama-era guidance ensuring transgender kids have access to school restrooms consistent with their gender identity and dropping support for the idea Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination against transgender people.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, said in a statement the transgender victories are symbolically important in the Trump era.
“For too long, transgender people were not involved in policy decisions, including making laws that impact us,” Keisling said. “These victories demonstrate not only the strength of democracy, but the value placed on strong candidates who stand with the people on issues of local, state and national importance. With transgender people targeted by the current Administration, it is critical that our community be represented in elected office, to ensure the progress we’ve made advancing equality is not rolled back.”
But observers aren’t holding their breath in anticipation of a change from Trump.
When asked if the transgender victories would be a signal to Trump over his anti-trans policies, Casey responded succinctly, “No.”
“I don’t think that he responds really to any individual piece of information like this, or even larger patterns,” Casey said. “I think he speaks very freely about his opinions and doesn’t seem to be much persuaded by information like this, so I think it’s less the case that Donald Trump will be persuaded or moved in his behavior as a result of these elections.”
Meloy also expressed doubt the victories would mark any change with Trump in how he treats transgender people.
“Honestly, I hope it does,” Meloy said. “I think the results from around the country last night also send a message, but this message is distinctly important for our community that while he masquerades as an ally, his policy and practice clearly shows that he is anything but, and we’re going to take the fight to people who are actively working against us.”