Last week, Tamara Adrián became the first transgender person elected to office in Venezuela, and the second trans person elected to national office in South America. She becomes only the fifth transgender person ever elected to a national office, following Georgina Beyer of New Zealand, Anna Grodzka of Poland, Vladimir Luxuria of Italy and Michelle Suarez of Uruguay. Petra de Sutter joined the Belgian Senate in 2014, but she was appointed and not elected.
For that reason, Adrián’s election was symbolically important beyond her native country.
Being represented and visible in the government can make a critical difference in creating policies affecting transgender people. Having open lesbians and gay men in government has been key in making progress in gay rights around the world, as the LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative has found in its other research.
Considering the staggering rates of violence and discrimination faced by transgender and gender non-conforming people around the world, having trans* people in office is critical. (Trans* is an intentionally broad and inclusive term for a wide range of diverse gender identities, including but not limited to transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, hijra and more.)
For now, trans* people are not well represented in public office. Fewer than 20 openly transgender or gender-variant people currently hold elected office at any level of government around the world. That’s a drop in the ocean out of the hundreds of thousands of people who are elected to office globally every year.
Consider the fact that currently, national parliaments include around 10,000 women out of a total of approximately 45,000 parliamentary seats. That means that women make up only 22 percent of national parliaments.
Current estimates suggest that 3.5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as gay, lesbian or bisexual, while 0.3 percent identify as transgender. If these numbers hold true for the rest of the world, then proportionate representation would mean we would see nearly 1,600 openly LGB members of national parliaments. That’s not the case. Only 172 out lesbian, gay, or bisexual people today are currently serving – barely 0.4 percent of all parliamentary seats.
For trans people, if those numbers hold up worldwide, parity would mean roughly 135 transgender representatives in national parliaments. Currently, only two are serving, comprising 0.004 percent of all parliamentary seats.
How successful are openly trans* people when they run for office?
Our research discovered that, since 1977, a total of 139 transgender and gender-variant candidates have run more than 200 races in 31 countries. Around the world, 52 transgender candidates have been elected to offices ranging from local school board to national parliament. Nearly 90 percent of the candidates in our dataset were transgender women. Transgender candidates in our dataset were successfully elected approximately 34 percent of the time they ran (including reelections). Of those elected, more than half serve on their local city council.
You might expect trans candidates to affiliate with parties that embrace marginalized communities, particularly left-leaning or progressive parties. But we find that transgender candidates are fairly spread between parties of the left, center and independents. Additionally, we find that trans candidates are as likely to run in rural areas as they are in urban areas. Our initial impression is that they run where they grew up as often as they do in the areas where they moved as adults.
Will we see more openly transgender people in public office?
Looking forward, how likely are we to see more transgender people elected to office? A survey released in November by the European Commission (EC) showed that, in 21 out of the 28 EC nations, more and more voters say they would be comfortable voting for a transgender prime minister or president. Reported comfort levels went as high as 77 percent in Sweden and 66 percent in Britain and the Netherlands. But so far, few communities are ever given the option of voting for a candidate who happens to be transgender.
In the U.S. we found only six transgender people in office today, and none at the national level. Those include two judges, one civil rights commissioner, one councilor and two school board members. Two of these officials were appointed.
Who might be the first transgender person elected to national office in the United States? Sarah McBride has all the right credentials; she was a student body president at American University, staffer for Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, White House intern, and campaign director at the Center for American Progress. In 2013, she also led successful efforts in her home state of Delaware to pass the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act. McBride is young and has time to lay the ground. If she chooses to run, she would no doubt find considerable support both at home in Delaware and around the country.
Although the U.S. has yet to see a transgender candidate elected to national office, trans people and issues are becoming more and more culturally visible. Laverne Cox, a transgender woman of color, stars in the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and was featured on the cover of Time. The Amazon show “Transparent” won a number of awards for its portrayal of a trans woman coming out to her adult children and transitioning later in life. Olympian Caitlyn Jenner received a whirlwind of media attention when she came out as transgender this year on the cover of Vanity Fair. And since May, the New York Times has been running an editorial series entitled “Transgender Today.”
Those cultural breakthroughs aren’t yet reflected in the daily lives of most Americans, including trans Americans. In some ways, the trans movement is where the lesbian and gay movement was in the 1990s (if not earlier); a few celebrities have “come out” — but most Americans’ daily lives don’t yet include someone who is openly trans. In 2015, barely 16 percent of Americans said they personally knew someone who identifies as transgender, a low number, despite marked recent growth. By comparison, nearly 90 percent of adult Americans say they know a gay or lesbian person – up from 39 percent in 1999. Reported murders of transpeople are at an all time high, with transgender women of color particularly at risk.
That gap between trans individuals’ daily lives and the visible breakthroughs at the level of elections and celebrities is significant, and isn’t unique to the U.S. Just last month, voters in Houston, Texas rejected anti-discrimination protections for transgender people by 61 percent to 39 percent, following a particularly transphobic campaign. Similarly, though Adrián was successfully elected in Venezuela, that nation’s laws forbid trans people from changing their names or legal gender – meaning Adrián was forced to campaign under the name on her birth certificate rather than the name under which she lives.
Rates of violence and discrimination remain remarkably high, and structural inequalities and prejudices remain resistant to change. These elections, while important milestones in visibility and representation, are only one step toward changing the material, lived realities of transgender people around the world.
This post draws from a new report, “Standing Out: Transgender and Gender Variant Candidates and Elected Officials Around the World.”
Andrew Reynolds is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the director of the UNC LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyReynoldsUNC.