Trans lawmaker Brianna Titone tried not to stand out. Then a gunman killed 5 at Club Q.

This session, she wanted to do more than outvote the Republicans. She wanted to win them over, too.

A photo illustration of Titone.
(Natalie Vineberg/Washington Post illustration; Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
20 min

DENVER — The Colorado legislative session had opened two weeks earlier, but business was light, so state Rep. Brianna Titone headed across the Capitol to talk to the House minority leader.

Titone, a Democrat, was the co-chair of a caucus that now held more power than ever before. Democrats controlled 46 of the House’s 65 seats, but Titone often reminded herself that a supermajority did not constitute a dictatorship. The real work of legislating, she thought, included far more than blocking and passing bills.

She knocked, and a couple of Republicans in cowboy hats nodded. Minority Leader Mike Lynch waved her in.

Lynch was a U.S. Military Academy graduate who kept horses and made belt buckles for a living. Titone was the state’s first transgender lawmaker. Neither had run for office expecting to befriend the other, but they’d built a connection that worked, in part, because Titone had done her best not to ruffle feathers. She was a geologist who knew how to talk farm equipment, and she focused her legislation on homeowner’s associations and other suburban concerns — nothing overtly trans.

Still, she was good at teasing, and as the Republicans wondered where the shoe shiner was, Titone eyed Lynch’s dusty boots, then stuck out her own foot.

“What do you think of my shoes?” she asked him.

They were patent leather Fluevogs with pink accents, polka dots and a tall heel. For a woman who spent most of her life trying to disappear, the shoes were a bold move, a sign that Titone, 45, intended to be brave this year.

She’d decided months earlier to introduce her first trans-specific legislation — a bill that would turn Colorado into a sanctuary state for trans people fleeing conservative edicts elsewhere. That alone would have marked a turn in Titone’s career, but then, seven weeks before the 2023 session began, a gunman killed five people in a Colorado Springs gay bar, and Titone knew even a good bill would not be enough. She had to be braver.

Nationwide, Titone is one of just eight transgender state legislators. She’s the only one who leads a party with a supermajority, and because of that, she holds more power than perhaps any other trans lawmaker. After the Club Q shooting, Titone realized she could do something few others could. She could meet with Republicans. She could show them trans people were not weird or threatening. They could be fun and easygoing, the kind of colleagues you talk shoes with.

Titone twisted her foot, and Lynch considered the orange laces. He said he liked the shiny toe.

“I tell you what,” a Republican from rural Colorado said, “if they made those in a pull-on, I’d wear ’em. Do they make those in ostrich skin?”

The men laughed, and Titone did, too. The interaction was short and surface level, but research suggests the connection might eventually shape the men’s political views. Cisgender people who know a trans person are far more likely to support legal protections against discrimination, a Washington Post-KFF poll conducted last fall found.

Titone knew the work would be slow. Maybe she’d exhaust herself, and maybe the Republicans would never support her bill, but the stakes were too high not to try, she thought. This session, she had to do more than outvote the Republicans. She wanted to win them over, too.

Winning elections

Before Titone ran for office, she longed to join the FBI. It was the perfect career, she thought, for a person adept at hiding.

She’d known since elementary school that she was female, but soon after she began to understand herself, Titone saw a trans woman on “The Phil Donahue Show,” and the audience’s probing questions scared her into secrecy. For years, she sneaked women’s garments under her masculine clothes, and she told herself she was a cross-dresser, someone who could be feminine in private.

While she waited to see if the FBI would accept her, Titone “isolated herself,” her mother Jeanette remembers. She earned multiple degrees, and she traveled as a mining consultant to the Arctic and other far-off places.

“I’m a trans person. Who’s going to vote for someone like me?”
— Brianna Titone, Colorado legislator

Titone figured she’d never come out, then in 2015, she turned 37, and she aged out of the application process without becoming an agent. If she couldn’t spend her career hiding, she decided, she shouldn’t spend her life that way, either. She told her parents and her brother she was trans, and soon, her mother said, Titone seemed “50 million times happier.” She stopped traveling. She made friends and served as a local delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). After Titone testified against conversion therapy in 2017, the chair of her local county Democrats suggested she run for office. Titone demurred.

“I’m a trans person,” she told Jefferson County Democratic Party Chair Cheryl Cheney. “Who’s going to vote for someone like me?”

At the time, no out trans person held elected office in the United States, and Cheney admitted Titone’s suburban district had long elected officials with ties to an evangelical megachurch. A Democrat hadn’t won there since 2008.

“You may not have a lot of direct support at first,” Cheney recalls telling Titone. “But the way to overcome that is to do the work. Knock on doors. Make phone calls.”

Titone wasn’t sure she could do those things. She’d started voice therapy three months earlier, but her register still sounded deeper than she wanted, and sometimes, when she tried to talk higher, she felt phony. People weren’t going to trust her, she thought, if she didn’t believe in the sound of her own voice.

Later that year, trans women won elections in Virginia and Minnesota, and their victories emboldened Titone. She decided she’d run, and she’d do what she often does when she feels less than confident: She’d channel her pain into a joke.

“I’m a candidate for House District 27,” she told people on the campaign trail. “Let me address the elephant in the room. I’m a trans person. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s address the elephant in the district. How do we get rid of this guy?”

Titone’s chances of winning seemed so small in 2018, no one mounted a real campaign against her. She won that November, but hers was the smallest margin of victory in the entire state. She bested her opponent by just 439 votes.

Titone worried she wouldn’t win again if she pushed LGBTQ legislation, so she joined the Agriculture Committee, and she sponsored bills on menstrual hygiene products and rental application fees. She tried to lie low, but the political climate around trans people began to change her first term. In 2018, lawmakers elsewhere proposed 19 anti-trans bills. In 2020, they proposed 60.

When Titone ran for reelection, a Republican from a district northeast of hers recorded an ad that called her “​​a transsexual state representative who wants to force a radical sexual agenda.” Constituents emailed Titone using her old name and some built websites to show what she looked like pre-transition.

Still, she won by nearly 2,000 votes, and she began to build friendships with Republicans. When Lynch — the metal worker who would go on to lead his party caucus — told her he’d never met a trans person, Titone went out to lunch with him. They bonded over 3D printing while eating Southern food, and Titone left feeling optimistic.

A few months later, Titone heard that Lynch had joked about her genitals at a fundraising event. Lynch admitted he said “something I probably shouldn’t have,” something he regretted. Titone forgave him. He’d faltered, she thought, but who would she help if she stopped talking to him?

Titone won a third term in 2022 by more than 8,000 votes, but she knew her success had coincided with a dark chapter for trans people. Over the previous two years, conservative lawmakers had introduced about 280 anti-trans bills nationwide. (In 2023, they would file more than 400.) Colorado hadn’t passed any anti-LGBTQ bills, but one of its representatives in the federal house, Lauren Boebert (R), regularly criticized drag queens, and she called trans women “groomers” and “transvestites.”

Titone told herself to keep reaching out to Republicans, but three weeks after the 2022 election, a gunman killed five people at a Colorado Springs gay bar.

When Titone logged onto Twitter the next morning, she lost her resolve. The right-wing account Libs of TikTok was after her, and Boebert had expressed what Titone saw as disingenuous sympathy for the victims, at least two of whom were trans.

“You spreading tropes and insults contributed to the hatred for us,” Titone tweeted at Boebert. “There’s blood on your hands. Just resign.”

‘It’s not personal’

The 2023 session opened a month and a half later. People had sent Titone so many hateful messages after the shooting, the Colorado State Patrol offered to guard her home. Still, as the legislative committees began to meet, Titone brainstormed ways she might connect with the state House’s most conservative figures. She didn’t regret the tweet she’d sent Boebert, but at night, Titone, whose family is Sicilian, made cannoli and told her wife she planned to give them to her colleagues across the aisle.

“I don’t know how she rationalizes this in her head,” Elysia Hassebroek Titone said. “But she feels like other people just need more time or more education or more exposure, then of course they will change their mind. And in some ways you can’t argue with that because isn’t that what happened with the gay rights movement?”

Titone’s signature bill in the 2023 session aimed to allow farmers to repair their own equipment, but it wasn’t up for a hearing until February, so she filled January with meetings. One Tuesday evening, at a Press Club event, she met state Rep. Lisa Frizell, a Republican from Castle Rock, and the women bonded over their shared love of Italian cooking. When Frizell showed up at Titone’s office the following afternoon, Titone greeted her like a friend.

Frizell was new to the legislature, and she was quiet as she took a seat in Titone’s corner office. Titone had decorated the space with flags and art she’d made herself, but Frizell barely scanned the room.

“I really have a huge respect for you,” Frizell said. “I appreciate that you are a strong woman and a strong legislator. I’m an old White chick. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life fighting against being marginalized.”

Frizell paused.

“I’m saying all of this because I have a bill,” she said. “It is protecting women’s rights in athletics.”

Titone’s shoulders sank, and she sat back in her chair. Conservative lawmakers across the country had been passing similar bills all year, and though lawmakers framed the bills as protecting women, what they really did, Titone thought, is ban trans kids from participating.

“It’s not personal,” Frizell said. “For me, it’s an issue of safety for girls. I have a niece who has gotten a great education because she’s really good at field hockey, and her sister’s going to be the same way. It’s important to me that they are protected.”

Titone listened, then she thanked Frizell for giving her a heads-up. She tapped her hands on her desk.

“Do you feel unsafe when I’m in the bathroom with you?” she asked Frizell.

Titone rarely lingered in the restroom, and she hardly ever spoke in there because she worried her voice would make other women uncomfortable. The year before, at a Harvard Kennedy School executive leadership training, a Democrat from Michigan had pulled Titone aside and told her she felt uncomfortable when Titone used the women’s bathroom. Maybe, Titone thought, Frizell felt the same way.

“No, no,” Frizell said. “I … That’s … It’s not about …”

Frizell mentioned Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer who’d won the NCAA 500-yard freestyle a year earlier. Titone shook her head.

“She’s not in Colorado,” Titone said. “Tell me where it happens here. Lia Thomas is always brought up. She won once at a tournament, and she’s lost a whole bunch of other times.”

“I get a lot of bills suggested to me by constituents. But if I don’t agree with them, I don’t run them.”
— Brianna Titone, Colorado legislator

A similar bill had died in committee two years earlier, and Titone knew Frizell’s bill would do the same. Still, Titone sensed an opportunity. Both the NCAA and USA Swimming have spent considerable time researching whether trans women have unfair advantages, she told Frizell, and both have decided to allow trans women to compete as long as they meet certain hormonal guidelines.

“I could introduce you to someone trans who plays on a girls soccer team here,” Titone said. “She’s a great kid, and she gets a lot out of playing sports. She’s not going to play sports at all if she’s not on a girl’s team because she’s a girl, and she doesn’t belong on a boys team.”

Frizell nodded. She said she appreciated the opportunity to learn.

“I have …” Frizell said, pausing, “constituents who really want me to run this bill.”

Titone knew Frizell had only barely beaten her primary opponent. Frizell represented one of Colorado’s most conservative districts, and her opponent, a Christian activist named Bill Jack, had once asked a baker to make a Bible-shaped cake with “homosexuality is a detestable sin” written in icing. Titone suspected Frizell had to appeal to Jack’s base if she wanted to stay in office.

“I get a lot of bills suggested to me by constituents, too,” Titone told Frizell. “But if I don’t agree with them, I don’t run them.”

“I understand,” Frizell said. “I would like to have more of a conversation.”

Titone glanced at her calendar. She was 10 minutes late for a meeting, and she needed to work with a bill drafter on her farm equipment measure.

“I have some time at 3,” she said. “Do you want to go on a walk?”

Making it harder to say hurtful things

By early March, Titone’s farm bill had passed through committee, and her trans bill was nearly ready. Frizell had introduced the sports bill, but Titone hadn’t talked to her since it died in committee.

Multiple polls, including one by The Post and KFF, have found that the majority of Americans do not support trans women competing against cisgender women. But people who actually know a transgender person are more likely to say they think trans women should be allowed to compete in women’s and girl’s sports. (The Post-KFF poll was conducted in November and December, before state lawmakers introduced a record number of anti-trans bills this year, compared with about 150 bills in 2022, according to a Post analysis of ACLU data.)

Maybe, Titone thought, all Frizell needed was time and a stronger friendship. She told herself she’d reach out, but new challenges kept arising. A few weeks after Frizell’s bill died, a handful of Republicans turned a symbolic resolution on the Equal Rights Amendment into an anti-trans rant. A pastor from Colorado Springs introduced an amendment to protect “the right of women … to use a single sex restroom and shower facilities without being intimidated or assaulted by biological male.”

“There is such a thing as XX and XY,” Rep. Scott Bottoms (R) said as he explained the amendment. “And no matter how much you lie to yourself and change it, and frame it in any way whatsoever, there is XX and XY.”

Titone sat a few feet from the lectern, and as Bottoms spoke, she pointed to her eyes, then whispered, “Look at me,” but Bottoms never did.

The minority whip endorsed Bottoms’s amendment with an anti-trans speech of his own, and when it came time to vote, Titone looked at the tally and felt uneasy. The Republicans didn’t have enough ayes to pass it, but Lynch had voted for the amendment, and Frizell had, too.

When the session opened the next morning, Titone asked to speak. Every Democratic lawmaker in the legislature stood behind her as she addressed the Republicans.

“Whether you believe me or people like me should exist, I do exist, and I am your equal in this chamber,” she said. “I believe in respect for people, despite our differences. Yesterday, I felt disrespected and diminished.”

She knew some Republicans didn’t understand her, she said, but she did her best to treat them with empathy. She asked questions. She got to know them.

“But very few people bother to ask me about me,” she said. “Many of you think, ‘What could I possibly have in common with that person?’ Many of you don’t care to know or want to learn about people different from you, because if you did, I think it would be a lot harder for you to say the hurtful things that were said yesterday.”

Another mass killing and more hate

As winter ended, Titone allowed herself the slightest bit of hope. Three Republicans came to talk to her after the speech, and Lynch said he wanted to ensure future debates would be respectful. Titone began to think those small wins might add up, but then, in late March, a 28-year-old killed three children and three adults at a Christian school in Nashville, and rumors spread that the shooter had been transgender.

By the time Titone’s trans sanctuary bill came up for a vote later that week, a wave of anti-trans rhetoric had escalated into something that felt dangerous. The vote fell on Transgender Day of Visibility, but online, conservatives warned without evidence that trans people intended to use the day to inflict violence across the country. Hundreds of people attacked Titone online with hateful comments and pointed death threats.

While her colleagues debated the sanctuary bill, Titone copied a link to some of the online threats, then texted them to Roger Hudson, the Colorado House Republicans deputy chief of staff.

Hudson is a self-proclaimed “unicorn” — a gay Republican who grew up alongside trans people. He often told Titone he felt for her, but he worried she took some parts of the political process too personally. The trans bill was a complex piece of legislation with an abortion tie-in and what Hudson considered to be immense fiscal ramifications. Republicans weren’t going to like it, no matter how many times Titone went out to lunch with them.

“I hope you are remaining safe,” he texted. “Is there anything I or we can do to help?”

Titone asked him to publicly denounce the hateful rhetoric, but no one in the party did. Instead, later that Friday, a Republican from Littleton seized upon the recent tragedy to urge lawmakers to vote against Titone’s legislation. Colorado Democrats might think gender-affirming care is safe, Rep. Brandi Bradley said, “But I will tell you, the people in Nashville will beg to differ.”

Colorado already allows trans adults and young people to access hormones and other transition care, but at least 17 states have banned it, and Mississippi’s bill allows officials to go after anyone who helps its young residents transition elsewhere. Titone’s bill aimed to protect Colorado doctors who might treat those out-of-state patients.

Titone testified multiple times during the bill’s debate. She read from a binder of scientific studies, and she offered to pass out a packet from the National Center for Transgender Equality. Still, several Republicans dismissed her evidence, left the room, or read from their own articles instead.

As the debate stretched into April, Titone looked at her phone. Commenters had made fun of her voice. They’d called her a groomer and a pedophile, and they’d suggested over and over again that trans people were violent. The fight felt impossible. Facts didn’t seem to sway her detractors. Neither did speeches. (A few weeks later, Republicans in Montana would banish a trans lawmaker from the House floor for the rest of the term after she criticized them for supporting a ban on gender-affirming care for minors.) The only option that worked, she thought, was the slowest. She had to reach people one at a time.

She copied the link, then texted the thread to Bradley.

“Many references to the Nashville shooter,” Titone wrote. “Do I deserve this?”

“No,” Bradley wrote, “you absolutely do not.”

Bradley said none of her friends would say anything like those comments. She told Titone she had prayed for God to “silence” the “ugly ugly people” who’d written them. It wasn’t much, but as other Republicans took the podium to rail against a bill they knew would become law, Titone texted Hudson, the Republicans’ deputy chief of staff. She told him she’d talked to Bradley.

“I hope that I can eventually reach her,” Titone typed. “I’ve been trying.”

The Washington Post-KFF Trans Survey was conducted in English and Spanish from Nov. 10 to Dec. 1, 2022, among 1,338 U.S. adults, including 515 who identify as trans and 823 who are cisgender. Sampling, data collection, weighting and tabulation were managed by SSRS. Trans adults were reached via three survey panels recruited using random sampling methods: The Gallup Panel, NORC’s AmeriSpeak Panel and the SSRS Opinion Panel. Additional trans respondents were recontacted from previous randomized telephone interviews. Cisgender adults were recruited through the SSRS Opinion Panel, and both trans and cisgender samples were weighted to the groups’ estimated size in the population. Results among the sample of U.S. adults overall have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; the error margin is seven points for results among trans adults and four points among cisgender adults.


This article has been revised to more clearly state the Washington Post-KFF poll was conducted in the fall of 2022.