For the first time in U.S. political history, an openly transgender candidate won a major-party congressional primary. In fact, on Tuesday, two did.
At least one longtime LGBT rights advocate said it's a big moment for the transgender community that, frankly, comes as a bit of a surprise. The Fix could find only one other transgender candidate -- local or national -- who won their first election after coming out.
"LGBT people tend to say: 'Aren't we past all the firsts?' We've done so many firsts, but for the transgender community, this has been waiting in the wings," said Bob Witeck, a Washington-based LGBT advocate and a consultant on LGBT issues. "This is even more breathtaking considering the political climate today, the uphill curve to educate people about who transgender people are."
He's right about that: Eighty-five percent of respondents in a May CNN/ORC poll said they don't have a friend or family member who is transgender.
Another transgender advocate, Dana Beyer, ran for state Senate in Maryland -- three times unsuccessfully. She was less optimistic about what Tuesday's victories mean, given the two women won in very conservative places where Democrats will very likely lose and have little incentive to assist their campaigns.
"I have not seen anything in the LGBTQ media about either of these candidates," Beyer said. "It tells me that others did not consider these campaigns seriously."
Still, two openly transgender candidates made history Tuesday when they won their congressional primaries -- one the Democratic U.S. Senate race in Utah, the other a Democratic congressional race near Colorado Springs, Colo. Oh, and coincidentally, they're both named Misty.
Misty K. Snow is a 30-year-old grocery store cashier. (If you're wondering, the Constitution says you have to be 30 to be a U.S. senator.) According to the Salt Lake Tribune, she jumped into the primary race at the last minute to give voters a progressive alternative to the conservative Democrat expected to win. She won by nearly 20 points.
Misty Plowright is a 33-year-old IT worker who similarly beat out her primary opponent -- a single dad and an Iraq combat veteran -- to challenge Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) in one of the most conservative districts in Colorado."I'm the anti-politician," she told the Colorado Gazette shortly after getting in the race.
Neither women sought to make their gender identities a campaign issue, instead focusing on Bernie Sanders-approved progressive issues like a $15 minimum wage and getting money out of politics.
Their wins come as transgender rights have been thrust into the national spotlight after contentious debates in states like North Carolina about which bathrooms and locker rooms they can use. President Obama and his Cabinet is coming to their defense -- a surreal moment for many transgender advocates used to being in the shadows.
To place this moment in history, we have to split off the "T" from the LGBT movement.
That's because the list of openly gay political officeholders goes back decades -- all the way to Elaine Noble, who won a seat in the Massachusetts state House of Representatives in 1974. In 1999, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin became the first openly gay candidate to win a seat to Congress -- later winning that same designation in the U.S. Senate. Today, Witeck figures there are at least eight openly gay lawmaker serving in both chambers. The U.S. has it's first openly gay Cabinet member in Eric Fanning , whom Obama nominated to be the Secretary of the Army in 2015 and the Senate confirmed in May. Kate Brown in Oregon is the nation's first bisexual governor.
By comparison, the list of openly transgender candidates in politics is pretty short.
Witeck said transgender candidates have been running for federal office for several years now, but until now, no one has ever won his or her primary, let alone a national position. They've had slightly more success at the state and local level. But very few of the candidates we found came out of their own volition -- and no one ran for office for the first time as openly transgender.
Here's a quick history:
The first openly transgender member of a city council was Joanne Conte in the little town of Arvada, Colo. She served from 1991 to 1995, but she didn't come out until 1993.
Actually, Conte was kind of forced out. Her opponents had hired investigators to dig into her past and found she had undergone surgery two decades earlier to transition from male to female. Her family disowned her. She came out before the local, tabloid newspaper planned to publish her gender identity on their front page. She subsequently lost reelection. (But first she went to the Supreme Court to challenge the secretary of state for denying her a spot on the ballot after she changed her political affiliation to independent.) She moved into media next, but she quit a talk radio job after hearing the show's promos for her: "Is it a man? Is it a woman?" The Denver Post details all of this in her obituary. She died in 2013 at the age of 79.
In 1993, Massachusetts state Rep. Althea Garrison (R) became the first transgender person elected to a state legislature. But her previous gender identity appeared to be a secret until after she got elected. When the Boston Herald asked her about it, she apparently first denied she ever used to be a man, then hung up on the reporter when he asked her about it.
"A woman elected to the state House of Representatives from Boston denied yesterday she used to be a man, but court records reveal she shed a male identity several years ago," wrote Eric Fehrnstrom (later of Mitt Romney campaign fame) in 1992.
The first openly transgender person to run for state office was Amanda Simpson in 2004. Simpson won her Democratic primary for a state House district but lost the general election.
In 2008, Stu Rasmussen became the nation's first openly transgender mayor, of Silverton, Ore. He had served as mayor twice before before getting breast implants, dressing as a woman, going by the name Carla and running for mayor. (There's a great Radiolab podcast on his transition and the political fallout in this small town 40 miles outside Portland.)
Finally, we have Victoria Kolawoski, who might be considered the only politician on this list to win for the first time after coming out as transgender. Actually, she's a trial judge in California. When she won her election to Alameda County Superior Court in 2010, she became the first openly transgender person to serve as a judge. Kolawoski had been out since the '90s, when she sued to take the bar exam in Louisiana after undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
Circling back to Tuesday's victories. Despite their surprise primary wins, both Mistys almost certainly won't be serving in Congress in January. But at the very least, Beyer said, they have a chance to pave the way for others:
"They certainly now have a platform to present the transgender community in a positive light," she said.