Mayor Bernie Sanders Created an ’80s Trans Mecca in Burlington

When it was wildly unpopular politically, Sanders backed a pride parade. In the LGBT community, word got out: Burlington was a place trans Americans could be safe.

Amber LeMay, a 60-year-old, self-described drag queen, moved to Burlington, Vermont, in 1987 from Lima, Ohio.

Bernie Sanders was mayor of Burlington back then. LeMay said she fell in love with the place.

“I was impressed with the open and vocal gay community,” she said. “There was the monthly newspaper, Out In The Mountains, and there were frequent protests and demonstrations with gay themes. This was a new world for me.”

LeMay is founder of The House Of LeMay, a drag performance team she founded in the early ’90s. She is also founder of The League of Drag Queen Voters.

“From what I understand, [Sanders] didn’t do anything specific for the gay community,” said LeMay. “He just treated them like he treated everyone else. He gave opportunities and the gay community took him up on them.”

Gay-rights organizers had planned Burlington’s first pride parade four years before LeMay had arrived in 1983. Many community members and politicians had opposed it. But Sanders, who was in his first term as mayor, vocally backed the parade, citing the right to march as a civil liberties issue.

In a memo written a day before the parade, Sanders wrote, “In our democratic society, it is the responsibility of government to safeguard civil liberties and civil rights—especially the freedom of speech and expression. In a free society, we must all be committed to the mutual respect of each others’ lifestyle.”

Two years after the parade, Sanders signed a city ordinance that further prohibited housing discrimination. The ordinance gave legal protection to the gay community, as well as welfare recipients, the elderly, and the handicapped.

Alana Cleverley is a 29-year-old transgender woman who lives in Montpelier, Vermont’s capital. A few weeks ago, she got a tattoo of Sanders inked on her ankle, in part because of the work Sanders has done for the LGBT community.

“His actions show that he feels that everybody should be treated as equals,” said Cleverley. “Everybody should have equal rights regardless of their situation and regardless of their gender. He has fought for all of that and made it way easier for everybody in the community. Not just for trans people, but for everybody.”

According to Cleverley, Sanders changed attitudes and helped shape Vermont into a more accepting state. She said she feels safer in Vermont than anywhere else.

“I can easily go anywhere designed for females, even though I was not born a female,” said Cleverley. “The fact that we are such a progressive state that allows for that has made my life so much easier.”

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In 2015, Cleverley and her then-girlfriend would not hold hands or show affection when they traveled outside Vermont. Another ex of Cleverley’s, who is also trans, lives in Washington. According to Cleverley, her ex struggles with a less accepting community.

“It’s very unique to be able to walk around my own state and be able to date the people I want to date and be able to be the gender I want to be,” Cleverley said. “I know that’s largely in part to all of the work that Bernie has done in the past to get equal rights for everybody in every aspect.”

Some, like 28-year-old African-American trans woman Elena Littlebug of Burlington, argue that Sanders hasn’t done enough for the LGBT community—and for the trans community specifically.

“Neither of the remaining Democratic candidates have spoken to reforming policy that will help secure health care and public accommodations for trans people,” she said. “I’m still waiting to hear acknowledgement that the numbers of [killed] trans women of color are even alarming to these people.”

In 2015, 22 trans women were murdered in America, 19 of whom were trans women of color.

But Cleverley has hopes that if Sanders were to be elected, he would push for nationwide improvement for the lives of those in the trans and the LGBT community.

“If Bernie becomes president, he will make it so that every state views the LGBTQ community as a whole as a good thing. He will push for the rights for everybody, like he did for gay marriage. I mean, he did that in the ’90s and gay marriage just recently got legalized,” said Cleverley. “I don’t feel any other candidate will push for things that will end up benefiting people like me.”