Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) told the crowd at a recent Capital Pride brunch that she would be delighted if someone opted to portray her in drag.
“I don’t know if that tradition is going to continue, but this member of Congress would be honored if it did,” a beaming Wexton said to hoots and hollers from a rainbow-clad crew sipping mimosas.
The cheeky request was a lighthearted nod to what has become Wexton’s signature issue six months into her first term: LGBTQ rights, with an emphasis on the transgender community, which includes her niece.
The day she took office, Wexton became the first member of her class — and the second member ever — to display the trans flag outside her congressional office. She helped introduce a bill banning LGBTQ discrimination in housing.
Wexton’s embrace of trans issues comes as the Trump administration seeks to roll back their protections in the military, schools and elsewhere.
She called Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, “inept” and demanded his resignation last month after HUD announced it would allow federally funded shelters to refuse to admit homeless transgender people on religious grounds and force transgender women to use men’s bathrooms.
“This was not my intention, to be the patron saint of the transgender community,” Wexton said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. “It just kind of worked out that way.”
The issue also sets her apart among the 67 freshman Democrats, 38 of whom are women, in a class defined by far-left members and centrists in red districts.
Wexton is neither; she defeated Republican Barbara Comstock by double digits in 2018, flipping a Northern Virginia district that had long been moving to the left because of an influx of young, diverse, well-educated families.
But her focus on transgender rights has irked some Republicans who say the issue affects few of her constituents but energizes the far left and appeals to donors as she prepares to seek a second term. Critics prefer she spend time on traffic, infrastructure and the cost of college.
“I get frustrated with the inordinate amount of time focused on those issues,” said Brian Schoeneman, a Republican from Fairfax who has written for conservative blogs. “I’m sure it looks good on a fundraising letter, but we look around, and we don’t see any changes.”
The bill to ban LGBTQ discrimination in housing was one of five pieces of legislation that Wexton has introduced since taking office in January. Two were connected to this year’s federal government shutdown, one was related to opioid research, and another — the only one to pass the House — would strengthen enforcement of laws against financial crimes.
A former prosecutor who grew up in Bethesda and is the mother of two boys, Wexton, 51, said she was aware of trans issues long before Caitlyn Jenner documented her transition on TV.
Wexton’s college boyfriend of about two years had a trans sister who transitioned in 1991, with the support of her family. “For us, it was no big deal,” she recalled.
More formative was her experience working after college as an administrative assistant at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, then a private clinic affiliated with Bethesda Naval Hospital that treated HIV and AIDS patients.
“These were my friends, and these were people who were dying,” she said.
Over Christmas dinner three years ago, Wexton’s brother and sister-in-law announced to their family that their daughter was trans.
“We were all like, ‘okay,’ ” Wexton said of the family’s support for the now 19-year-old college student.
When Wexton began to speak about trans issues publicly, her niece quietly delivered a six-page primer intended to provide a basic education about a topic that can be complicated to discuss.
It included basic definitions and a warning about “things uninformed people say but should not,” such as questions about surgeries.
Any concern that Wexton might fumble evaporated on the first day of the new Congress when she displayed the striped light blue, pink and white transgender flag next to U.S. and Virginia flags outside her Capitol Hill office.
That will always set her apart, said Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Nobody asked her to do it. . . . It was instinctual.”
Wexton says not much has changed about her LGBTQ activism since she was a state senator, but as a member of Congress, she can have a bigger impact.
In Richmond, she repeatedly sponsored a bill to prohibit LGBTQ discrimination in housing through the Senate, only to see it die in the socially conservative House of Delegates.
In a May 21 House Committee on Financial Services meeting featuring Carson, the HUD secretary, one line of questioning landed her on national television.
She asked whether he planned to eliminate the Equal Access Rule, which has barred federal housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity since 2012.
“I’m not currently anticipating changing the rule,” he said.
The next day, HUD proposed a new rule that would allow shelters to deny people admission on religious grounds or force transgender women to share bathrooms and sleeping quarters with men.
“He either lied to Congress or has no idea what policies his agency is pursuing,” she tweeted, along with video of their exchange at the hearing. “Either way, it’s unacceptable.”
After the tweet, Carson called her office. He insisted that she misunderstood; she insisted he said plainly no changes were planned, according to Wexton. The call lasted five minutes.
“I don’t need to be mansplained to about what I said and about what he said because it’s all right there on the video,” she said later.
She called him “deceitful and inept” and said he should resign.
She also introduced a bill to block discrimination against transgender people who are homeless and seeking shelter, which has passed out of committee on a 33-to-26 vote.
A few days later, Wexton convened a meeting at Bull Run Unitarian Universalist Church in Manassas to hear from trans activists, shelter directors and Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), the country’s first openly transgender state lawmaker.
Eight women sat around a long table with Wexton at the head.
One said she was troubled by the administration’s attempts to reverse Obama-era protections: “It’s very demoralizing to see your own identity disappear. . . . It’s crazy. It’s like you’re being erased.”
A photo of Wexton and Roem with raised fists, in homage to the iconic 1971 photo of feminists Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, leads Roem’s Twitter page.
“She is a champion for all of her constituents,” Roem said. “And, in particular, constituents who have been historically singled out and stigmatized, and that includes her trans constituents, and I am one of them.”
Some Republican Comstock supporters have expressed dismay about Wexton’s activism, even if they agree with her intentions.
Republican David Ramadan, a former state lawmaker who teaches at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said residents in Wexton’s district are most concerned with other matters.
“If we were to walk down the street and ask 10 people, I bet you that not a single one of them would rank this issue as one of their top five issues,” Ramadan said.
But it is top of mind for Sean Higdon, a 29-year-old constituent from Winchester, who posed with friends for photos with Wexton at the recent Capital Pride brunch in downtown Washington.
“It’s this little blue dot in the middle of the red,” Higdon said of Winchester’s place in the rural western part of the district, as rainbow jewels around his eyes gleamed. “Representation from her is very important.”