In 2017, former journalist Danica Roem made history when she was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, making her the first out transgender state legislator in the United States. But Roem was part of a bigger, if still relatively small, wave of trans candidates: at least 20 in all, enough for the Victory Fund, an LGBTQ political advocacy organization, to dub 2017 “the year of the trans candidate.”
Five years later, a record number of trans and nonbinary candidates are vying for public office, according to data compiled by the Victory Fund.
As of July, the Victory Fund reports that 55 trans candidates are running for office, alongside 20 gender nonconforming candidates, 18 nonbinary candidates and four Two-Spirit candidates.
This wave of candidates comes at a precarious time for LGBTQ rights in the United States. Across the country’s statehouses, an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ measures have been introduced, with most bills aimed at curbing the rights of trans children and their families.
Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at the Victory Fund, believes the record number of trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming candidates is a response.
“They know that our rights continue to be on the ballot and that we are under attack,” Meloy said.
They’re also setting their sights on state legislatures — the place where most anti-LGBTQ policies have been introduced. Among LGBTQ candidates broadly, the majority (41 percent) are running for state office.
The Washington Post spoke to three trans and nonbinary candidates about why they’re running — and why it matters.
‘Our communities want us’
For Zooey Zephyr of Missoula, Mont., the tipping point came in 2021 — the year the state legislature passed three anti-LGBTQ bills in a single week. Those laws included one that explicitly bans trans girls from competing on female sports teams and another that prevents trans people from updating their birth certificates if they have not undergone gender-affirming surgery.
The latter bill, which originated in the state Senate, narrowly passed that chamber, 26-24.
“I remember thinking, if I were in that room, I could have changed that heart. I could have been the difference there,” said Zephyr, a 33-year-old trans woman who manages the curriculum and program review process at the University of Montana.
“I grumpily tweeted that I was going to run for office that day when I saw that go through,” she said.
After the legislative session ended, a conversation with a state senator helped solidify Zephyr’s resolve, she said. Zephyr is now the Democratic candidate for Montana’s House District 100.
The anti-trans legislation that was pushed through Montana’s statehouse in 2021 does not reflect Zephyr’s own daily experience in Missoula, where she has been embraced by her community, she said. She teaches the Lindy Hop, a swing-era dance, in town, and when she played on intramural soccer teams at the university, “no one batted an eye,” Zephyr said.
“[Missoula] took care of me when I was going through my transition,” she said. “The sense of community here is magical.”
Although Zephyr hopes to sway the state’s lawmakers from passing more anti-trans bills, she also wants to do more than play defense in the statehouse. The biggest issue facing people in Missoula, she said, is its housing crisis. KPAX Missoula reports that a 2022 housing report found that the median price for a home in the area is now $500,000. The median income in Missoula County in 2020 was $56,247, according to the U.S. census.
If Zephyr wins in November, she would be the first trans person ever elected to Montana’s state legislature. It would send an important message to other lawmakers, as well as those in the trans community, Zephyr said: “It is important to recognize, one, we’re here. And two, our communities want us and our communities care about us.”
It would mean, Zephyr continued, that “there are 20,000 people out here in Missoula who thought, ‘We want trans people. We care about them, and we want them representing us.’ ”
‘We deserve someone worth voting for’
Tucked into Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner’s backpack is a copy of one of the first pieces of legislation they drafted. According to Turner, when they presented the bill to one of their colleagues in the statehouse, he returned it to Turner with “some suggestions.”
Across the document, Turner’s colleague had simply written, “kill,” they said.
“I take it with me everywhere I go, because it serves as a reminder that for 2SLGBTQ+ folks, being in office is not just about the policy that we get passed, but it’s also about the representation that we provide,” Turner said. “It’s also about being here at a time when the Oklahoma legislature continuously tries to tell us that we don’t have a place here.” (Advocates in Oklahoma have moved to adopt the 2SLGBTQ+ abbreviation, which is inclusive of Indigenous Two-Spirit identities.)
The last two years in the Oklahoma Capitol have been a “wild ride” for Turner, a Democratic state representative who made history on multiple counts when they were elected in 2020: They were the first Muslim elected to state office and the first out nonbinary legislator in the entire country.
But being a historic first can feel like “trying to hold back this avalanche [of bigotry] while also trying to pull a community with us,” said Turner, a criminal justice advocate representing Oklahoma’s 88th District.
There were times when Turner doubted whether they were doing the right thing being a state lawmaker. This year, the statehouse passed a law banning nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates. The year before, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) issued an executive order barring trans residents from changing their gender on those documents.
“I believe that people are created by God to be male or female,” Stitt said when he issued the executive order. “There is no such thing as nonbinary sex.”
Turner called it “a dark time” and even wondered whether they had anything to do with the gender marker law being proposed: “If I wasn’t here, would this be an issue?”
But the millennial lawmaker has been buoyed by their supporters within their community — and outside it: Turner said they’ve heard from LGBTQ people who have left Oklahoma and feel a newfound hope for their home state because Turner is in the legislature.
If reelected, Turner plans to continue their work “reimagining and rebuilding” the state’s criminal justice system and advocating for affordable housing. But the last two years have also taught the junior representative how to pivot, how to always be ready for the unexpected, Turner said.
The slogan for Turner’s 2022 campaign is a phrase popularized by disability activists: “Nothing about us without us,” which speaks to the idea that policy should be decided by the people most affected by it. It’s the kind of community-focused approach to government that Turner believes will lead to real change.
“We deserve to see ourselves in politics,” Turner said. “We deserve to have someone worth voting for.”
‘Every issue is a trans issue’
Leigh Finke, 41, had already decided to run for office when she heard about the baseless claims coming from some Minnesota Republicans this past April.
As the Minnesota Reformer reports, a handful of state lawmakers shared debunked stories about schools providing litter boxes for “students who identify as cats” during a floor debate over an education bill. Conservative lawmakers argued that a student survey that included questions about gender and sexuality were “absurd” and had gone too far.
“It was extremely alarming,” Finke said about the rhetoric, which LGBTQ and education advocates said dehumanized and mocked trans and nonbinary kids. “It creates an extreme sense of urgency in my community for things to change.”
Finke, a multimedia storyteller with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, is running to represent District 66A in the Minnesota House of Representatives. If elected, she would be the first out trans state legislator in Minnesota, a state widely considered among the most LGBTQ-friendly in the Midwest. In 1993, it was the first state to enact a law banning discrimination against trans people.
But the state isn’t as liberal as it might appear on the outside, according to Finke.
“I think that we’re one bad election from being a state like Wisconsin,” which has been marked by deep political divisions, she said.
While Finke believes Minnesota has done a good job on some policies — such as enacting robust anti-discrimination laws around housing and employment — there is still a lot of work needed to be done, she said. She would like to help the state pass more protections for trans people using gendered facilities, like bathrooms, and help remove obstacles to gender-affirming care.
“Accessing trans health care is extremely difficult,” Finke said. “People don’t really have any idea how hard it is.”
But it’s also important to remember that policies not explicitly directed at trans and nonbinary people will affect those communities, Finke said. And in many instances, they are most affected by these policies: Gun rights advocates have noted, for example, that LGBTQ people are more than twice as likely to be the victim of gun violence than their straight, cisgender peers.
“The trans community is ingrained in all communities,” she said. “Every issue is a trans issue.”