Trans Candidates Are Poised to Make History in 2018 Elections

Across the nation, transgender candidates in the 2018 races are breaking barriers as they run for higher office.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The 2018 election is full of potential transgender firsts.

Amelia Marquez would be the first openly transgender state legislator in Montana. Brianna Titone could set the same precedent in the Colorado State House. And all the way in Guam, Lasia Casil will make history if she wins her race for a seat on the legislature of the United States territory.

Indeed, one year after Virginia Delegate Danica Roem made history by becoming the first openly transgender person to be elected and seated in a state legislature, the secret seems to be out: Transgender people can win elections—they just need to run first.

“What we are are seeing is more and more trans candidates running all across the nation,” said Elliot Imse, director of communications at Victory Fund, an organization which works to elect LGBT candidates, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “And importantly, there are more trans candidates running for higher and higher positions than we have ever seen before.”

Last year, according to Victory Fund, there were more transgender candidates running in total than there are during the current cycle. But with the exception of Danica Roem, those transgender candidates were mostly running for local contests like school board elections and city council races.

Those 2017 elections are still “enormous wins,” Imse maintains—and Victory Fund has continued to endorse candidates like Danielle Skidmore, who is running for Austin City Council. But Imse is also encouraged by a wave of transgender women candidates in 2018 who are setting their sights even higher.

Melissa Sklarz wants to serve on the New York State Assembly. Kim Coco Iwamoto is seeking to be the next Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii. If Christine Hallquist wins the Vermont gubernatorial election, she will be the first openly transgender governor in United States history—and just the second openly LGBT governor to be elected behind Oregon’s Kate Brown, who is bisexual.

In all, Victory Fund has endorsed seven transgender women who still have elections or primary contests ahead of them. In addition, Alexandra Chandler is running for a U.S. congressional seat in Massachusetts, and has been endorsed by the Trans United Fund. All are Democrats—although the Austin City Council race is non-partisan.

Many of these candidates point to Roem’s 2017 win as a moment when they realized that being openly transgender would not necessarily doom their political careers.

“I had already been filed by that point,” Marquez, a transgender Latina woman running for a seat in Montana’s 52nd state house district, told The Daily Beast when asked about Roem’s win. “But I think it really just opened my eyes that I do have a chance.”

“When [Roem] won, that was kind of the aha moment,” said Titone, a newcomer to politics who is looking to replace a Republican member of the Colorado House.  “She won in a really tough district. My district is a really tough district.”

In all, Imse sees the rapidly increasing number of transgender candidates as a direct response to the vicious political attacks on transgender people over the past few years. Dozens of discriminatory bills have been filed in state legislatures and, of course, the Trump administration is currently attempting to ban transgender military service.

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The roots of Skidmore’s candidacy, for example, can be traced back to a protest against a “bathroom bill” in Texas last year. “You need to run,” fellow advocates at the capitol told her. The idea stuck—and she filed for candidacy a few months later.

Hallquist, when asked what prompted her to leave her job in the energy industry to run for Vermont governor, pointed squarely at “November 9th, 2016”—and at the subsequent national “political depression” that led her to participate in the Women’s March.

But like Skidmore and Hallquist, all of these women are running not just as supporters of LGBT equality, but on broad, fully-fledged political platforms. In fact, Casil, a progressive advocate who moved home to Guam five years ago and is now running for the legislature, says that she was once asked by a supporter after a campaign speech, “How come you didn’t mention that you are the first trans candidate on Guam?”

“You know what? I actually forgot,’” Casil replied. “I was so focused on the issues.”

Those issues, for Casil, include economic growth as well as environmental protections for the island, where nearly a third of the surface area is taken up by the U.S. military.

“For me, [being transgender] is such a huge part of me I don’t feel the need to spotlight it,” Casil said. “It’s always going to be a part of my conversation, so I don’t put it in the forefront.”

Of course, the national media is interested in significant LGBT precedents, which means that all of these candidates have to deal with a sometimes disproportionately large degree of public attention relative to the scale of their races.

Kim Coco Iwamoto told The Daily Beast that her 2006 election to the Hawaii State Board of Education went unnoticed by local media—that is, “until a national LGBT organization sent out a press release touting me as the ‘highest ranking openly transgender elected official in the nation.’”

Then, local outlets began covering her win but interest quickly faded—in part, Iwamoto says, because “the white, heterosexual cisgendered patriarchy is not as deeply entrenched [in Hawaii] as it is on the continent.” There was next to no controversy about Iwamoto’s public service.

“By the time I took office, the media attention regarding my transgender status dissipated and there was never any mention of me as being trans during my entire time on the Board of Education.”

Indeed, most of the candidates are less interested in their LGBT status than reporters seem to be. Skidmore told The Daily Beast that her gender identity is “like the fourth or fifth most interesting thing about me,” citing instead her work as a transportation engineer. And when Hallquist was informed by The Daily Beast that she would be the second openly LGBT person to be elected governor, she responded, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

“With the Vermont press, we’re clearly talking about the issues, focusing on the issues,” she told The Daily Beast. “What does Vermont need? Where is Vermont headed? At the beginning maybe I got a little bit of questions about being transgender but most of the Vermont press has been focusing strictly on that—and of course, we’ve kept them focused on that.”

Indeed, the precedent that hits closer to home for Hallquist is that, if she proves successful in Saturday’s Democratic primary contest—and then wins against current Republican Governor Phil Scott this fall—she will be the first Vermont gubernatorial candidate to unseat an incumbent since 1962.

But that’s not to say that 2018’s transgender candidates believe their personal stories are irrelevant to their campaigns. Many of them told The Daily Beast that their gender transitions—and experiences of marginalization—shaped their political understanding.

“What it’s done is it’s opened up my horizons to see difference and the depth of issues that are out there,” Sklarz, who is running for the 30th New York State Assembly District in Queens, told The Daily Beast. “Because of my struggles during the 1990s—I really transitioned 25 years ago—I have a much better grasp on things like poverty, housing problems, health care, and all of these issues, some of them very firsthand.”

“I think that the challenges that I’ve gone through help me in trying to get people to understand the challenges of being a colony, of being oppressed,” Casil said.

And Skidmore told The Daily Beast that, like “anybody who is in a marginalized community,” she has developed “a really deep appreciation for listening to all sides of a question, and very intentionally recognizing that somebody’s lived experiences inform how they view a question.”

That history of marginalization may also be why many of these transgender candidates seem unperturbed by the hate that gets thrown their way on social media—or by anti-LGBT blogs and media outlets. Iwamoto dismisses them as “the standard anonymous internet trolls.” Marquez believes that “you have to outweigh the darkness with the light.” And Hallquist says that “the blogs get kind of ugly” when TV stations do pieces about her candidacy but “it goes in one ear and out the other.”

“The comments, I’ve heard for the past 20 years,” Casil told The Daily Beast. “I don’t even notice them anymore. I just plod ahead. I know what’s right. I know what has to be done.”

Titone joked that being transgender is almost good preparation for receiving the kind of intense criticism that all public officials face: “Being an elected official means that people are going to say bad things about you no matter who you are.” She told The Daily Beast that, of course, she’s “irk[ed]” by the messages she receives on social media, “but I’m starting to build up a tolerance for it, and I think that’s important.”

And although most of these candidates are focused squarely on forthcoming primary contests—Hallquist and Iwamoto face theirs on Saturday, with Casil’s to follow later in the month, and Sklarz’s in mid-September—they are also aware that the consequences of their candidacies will extend far beyond 2018.

“Win or lose, it’s still a win,” said Titone, citing the fact that LGBT teenagers in her district have thanked her for running. “That kind of thing just washes away all the hate, and it makes what I’m doing so much more meaningful.”