Fight Night

It’s Trans vs. Gay in This Maryland Election

Dana Beyer is trying to become the first trans woman in Maryland’s state senate—by unseating the first openly gay state senator.

06.24.14 9:45 AM ET

It’s 2014 and in blue state America, two candidates can argue about which one is “gayer” than the other. This is the case in Maryland, where Dana Beyer, a trans woman, is trying to unseat incumbent openly gay state senator Richard Madaleno.

Beyer is a former eye surgeon. She’s met Michelle Obama, who she describes as “down to earth.” And she’s potentially going to be the first transgender woman serving in a state legislative position in Maryland’s history. (The first woman in the United States to hold this honor is Althea Garrison, who served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the early ’90s.)

Breathless and verbose, Beyer says she doesn’t dwell on her gender identity as a tenet of her political mission, despite—or perhaps because of—her official job title as executive director of Gender Rights Maryland. Rather, she alleges that Madaleno has made it a point of heated contention throughout the campaign. In some respects, as Beyer has acknowledged herself, she follows in the footsteps of his own history, as Madaleno was the first openly gay state senator in Maryland.

“When a gay person runs against another gay person, it gets some people upset because they have their preferences, but it neutralizes the whole issue,” Beyer said. (Unlike many trans people, Beyer also refers to herself as gay.)

“It’s almost as if that’s the ideal. I mean, when was the last time that anybody complained that a heterosexual was running against another heterosexual? That stuff doesn’t happen. It’s almost laughable.”

Welcome to “the new normal,” as Sharon Brackett, board chair for Gender Rights Maryland, referred to the race.

Beyer grew up in New York City, but she may have shirked any remnants of the accent after moving to Maryland. She was raised Jewish and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Beyer now lives in Chevy Chase, one of the most expensive residential communities in the United States, something her opponent frequently cites as a conflict with her image as a fighter for income equality. Madaleno, her rival in Tuesday’s primary, is the incumbent senator for the 18th district in Maryland’s Montgomery County, an area which includes Wheaton, Kensington, and parts of Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

According to Beyer, her trans status has not been an issue to the citizens of her community, not to say it isn’t well publicized through her activist work and frequent Huffington Post blog updates. And as much as she downplays it as an auxillary feature of her narrative, she concedes that her presence alone is of monumental importance.

“I’m the only candidate who can change the world by simply showing up for work,” Beyer said.

In the midst of the campaign, things got chippy between Madaleno and Beyer as they argued about which candidate was more progressive in a televised debate in May—a point of contention that describes the political climate in Maryland perfectly. Beyer describes herself as “gayer” than her opponent, which is ironic given the fact that she also says her sexual orientation is not a key feature of her candidacy.

“Dana, your desire is to be the Ted Cruz of the state Senate,” Madaleno said to his opponent during the debate. “You just want to stand up, let it go, and shout from the rooftops about ideas, as opposed to someone like me, who is concerned about actually governing.”

This is a line that still resonates with Beyer, the day before her primary, something she recalls with ease in conversation. But she doesn’t want to believe that she’s ruffling Madaleno’s feathers because of her gender identity and rather that comfortable politicians want to remain as such: comfortable.

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“A lot of it has to do with the fact that he’s never been challenged before and incumbents get a sense of entitlement,” Beyer said. “We’re not friends. We’ve never been friends.”

Besides, she says, her concerns lie with what she calls “economic justice,” a crusade hinged on raising the minimum wage, reinstating the Earned Income Tax credit, and closing the gender gap in payment discrepancies. She believes that Maryland, under the leadership of governor and potential 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, has progressed well in the realm of social justice but that it is high time to change the economy for the better.

“Everyone has become aware, including from the President on down, of the growing income inequality in this country,” Beyer said. “If the government doesn’t create equity, there will be no thriving middle class.”

Governor O’Malley endorsed Madaleno in the race but Lis Smith, a spokesman for the governor’s office, was quick to also mention to The Daily Beast that O’Malley signed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act into law, a piece of legislation that bans discrimination against individuals who identify as transgender. O’Malley did not respond to an additional request for comment on the historic nature of Beyer’s candidacy. Madaleno has yet to respond to a request for comment as well.

Even as Beyer balances the lofty weight of being a part of history with her goals as a local legislator, a purveyor of the neighborly government, another woman over 2,500 miles away is jockeying for a spot in the annals of history as well.

Lauren Scott is a trans Republican woman running for a seat in the Nevada Assembly. She has already won her pre-summer primary and is now gearing up for the early fundraising stages of the general election in November. Scott recognizes that her gender identity and political approbations seem to be at odds at first glance, an oxymoron of the highest degree, but she—like Beyer—navigates the waters in her unique political climate.

“In a district that leans Democratic, it’s actually a huge advantage,” Scott said. “Because, I have lobbied and supported a lot of pro-civil rights, pro-equality issues so I’m not a far-right, pro-life, kind of person where I’m going to take away people’s rights and use the government to constrict civil rights. I’m actually going to encourage more diversity, more openness in government, more openness in business and make Nevada more welcome for everyone.”

Scott, like Beyer, is well versed in the economic challenges of her district. A former member of the U.S. Air Force with time served in Operation Desert Storm, Scott says her sales pitch to Southwestern Republicans is predicated on reducing unemployment, lowering energy costs and encouraging rural development. She quickly dismissed any notions that her gender identity was a barrier for entry for Republican support in her district.

“If I go to Republican events, there are some really conservative rural Republicans, and we shake hands,” Scott said.

As is to be expected, Scott and Beyer are well aware of each other. They both mentioned actress Laverne Cox, and her recent Time magazine cover, as a common reference point to the shifting trans culture in the United States, one that they both say is becoming normalized. But their individual stakes in the history books are not at odds with one another, both happy to represent a sea change in American politics, without only being “the” trans candidate.

“I know people who know her out in Nevada and they told me that she is a strong advocate for civil rights,” Beyer said of Scott. “She’s a Republican and she’s running in a D +25 district so she’s not going to win. I don’t agree with her politics. I would work for her opponent but I do believe it’s important that women on the Republican side run. I’m glad that there’s a trans woman willing to stand up anywhere and run for anything. But she’s a Republican, so I wouldn’t support her.”

Beyer’s role model from “that part of the world” is Amanda Simpson, who ran for the Arizona House of Representatives in 2004 and subsequently became the first transgender woman to become a presidential appointee. Scott was similarly dismissive of wholeheartedly supporting Beyer’s candidacy but said that she wished her the best of luck. Yet, she’s ready for the potential of bearing history’s weight on her shoulders.

“If for some reason Dana loses her primary, and I become the tip of the spear as it were, I’m happy to take that on,” Scott said.

Before November rolls around, she hopes to get some financial boosts from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization devoted to promoting LGBT candidates into elected office.

In the twilight hours of a difficult campaign, Dana Beyer is promoting mailers she distributed in her district in final efforts to sway the electorate.

“This Tuesday, June 24, it’s time to move forward in the fight for economic justice and equal opportunity,” the mailer reads.

Whether or not she does indeed move forward, Beyer likes to think that she made a difference.

“I’m very pleased and honored to mentor the next generation,” Beyer said. “Yeah, it’s historic and it’s important for the community that this is possible. I’d like to believe that, win or lose, I am inspiring other trans people or other gender nonconforming gay people who would have thought they couldn’t do this, that it would simply be too hard. I honestly believe that it is possible. But being the first is never easy.”