Tuesday was a historic night for the nation’s transgender community, which watched as at least six transgender people won elections and paved the way for others to join them in leadership positions in the coming years.
In Palm Springs, Calif., Lisa Middleton won a seat on her city council as the first openly transgender person elected to a nonjudicial office in the state. Tyler Titus will be the first openly transgender person to hold office in Pennsylvania after winning a seat on the Erie School Board. And Stephe Koontz, an openly transgender woman, won a city council seat in Doraville, Ga.
The key word in these landmark wins is “openly” — these transgender candidates aren’t the first to be voted into public office.
The difference, historians say, is that Roem, Jenkins, Cunningham, Middleton, Titus and Koontz all campaigned as transgender advocates and were open with voters about being transgender. Voters then elected them into their respective offices, in theory because they were the best candidates for the job.
Twenty years ago, it was rare for candidates to display such transparency.
In 1992, former Boston Herald reporter Eric Fehrnstrom — who would later become a top aide and political strategist for Mitt Romney — outed Althea Garrison, a woman who had just been elected to the Massachusetts state legislature.
She has never publicly acknowledged her transgender status but is widely considered the first transgender black woman to hold public office.
Fehrnstrom was the first to publish Garrison’s secret, according to a 2012 GQ profile of Fehrnstrom.
“I can remember his glee when he found the birth certificate,” former Herald reporter Robert Connolly told GQ.
While Garrison has run for office several times since, including in this year’s Boston City Council race, she has yet to win again.
Experts say it’s possible that the revealing of Garrison’s transgender status affected her political career.
Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, said that while Garrison was somewhat a perennial candidate — always running for something — she was ostracized and sidelined after the reporter made the revelation. At the time, it was unlikely for transgender people to have a public career, she said.
“It totally makes sense that in past years it was considered a liability,” Stryker said. “Trans people were medicalized and stigmatized. Trans people were expected to disappear into the woodwork. They’re considered crazy people.”
Garrison could not be reached for comment. A friend, Gunner Scott, program director for the Seattle-based Pride Foundation, said that there are a variety of reasons she has not addressed her transgender status.
“I can only say she has never publicly come out as transgender,” he said. “But she has been friend to transgender people in the community during a time when other politicians may not have been.”
In 2003, Michelle Bruce became Georgia’s first transgender politician after running in a Riverdale City Council race. She hoped to bring more jobs to the struggling town about 12 miles south of Atlanta. When she ran for a second term, she was sued by an opponent claiming election fraud, charging that Bruce misled voters by identifying as a woman, according to the New York Times. It’s unclear whether voters knew of Bruce’s transgender status before her election, but she told the Times she had always identified as transgender.
In 2012, Stacie Laughton became the first openly transgender legislator elected in New Hampshire. She never took her seat in the state’s House of Representatives, however, because news surfaced before her swearing in that she was a felon, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. She pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of fraudulent use of a credit card under the name Barry Charles Laughton Jr.
More transgender people began running for office during President Barack Obama’s administration, beginning in 2008, as the transgender community appeared to receive more positive attention in the public sphere, Stryker said. She said last year’s election of Donald Trump — who in February rescinded rules on bathrooms for transgender students and in July proposed a transgender military ban — further encouraged transgender people to run for office, convinced that, as Stryker put it: “I have nothing to lose by running. This is war.”
After Roem’s election, former vice president Joe Biden called to congratulate her.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 4 in 10 Americans say society has not gone far enough in accepting transgender people, but nearly a third say society has gone too far. Another third say society has been about correct.
But Stryker said one thing is clear: The elections of six transgender people Tuesday means that voters can expect a large slate of transgender candidates to run in municipal and state elections in 2018.
“It’s a very hopeful sign that people are willing to vote for trans candidates,” Stryker said. “It’s probably just the tip of the iceberg for what we’re going to see in the year ahead.”