Trans Mainers plan runs for office as representation grows

Trans Mainers plan runs for office as representation grows

Last week at the Democratic National Convention, between speeches by presidents, senators, mayors, and cabinet secretaries was a brief address by Human Rights Campaign national press secretary Sarah McBride. It wasn’t long, it didn’t frame some huge aspect of the campaign to come, but it did mark the first time an openly transgender person took the stage at a national party convention.

“My name is Sarah McBride,” she began, “and I am a transgender American. Four years ago, I came out as transgender while serving as student body president in college. At the time, I was scared. I worried that my dreams and my identity were mutually exclusive”

Sarah is a leader among a new class of firsts. The next few years will see the beginning of trans representation in state and national elected politics. Pioneers like Kristen Beck, Misty Snow, Misty Plowright and Danni Askini will likely claim the titles of first openly trans US Congresswomen, senator, and state legislator.

But for those aiming to break through the glass ceiling of political representation, barriers of discrimination, poverty, and misunderstanding abound.

According to LGBTQ+ media organization GLAAD, as of 2015 only 16% of Americans reported knowing a transgender person. This leaves most Americans, including most elected officials, to base their understanding of trans people off of hyped media figures like Caitlyn Jenner, and the punchline roles of trans women on TV series like the Jerry Springer Show.

That’s part of why Danielle VanHelsing, a transgender women from Dover-Foxcroft, is planning to run for the Maine State House in 2018.

“The community needs to be heard and seen by the officials that pass laws about us and represent us without ever knowing anything at all about any of us,” said Danielle.

Danielle hopes to be a vocal advocate in the legislature against the anti-trans legislation Maine is likely to see in coming years, and wants to advocate for fair financial policies that will affect her local community as well as trans people around Maine.

For Danielle, who says she grew up “living in a very financially-suffering family” and has “lived the results of a failing economy,” those financial policies have a direct impact on her life and potentially on her ability to run for office.

Danielle’s situation is not uncommon. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey 15% of transgender people live on $10,000 or less a year, twice the national average, and 19% are or have been homeless.

Daria W. of Eliot Maine was among the first class of openly trans delegates to the Maine Democratic State Convention this past May. She acknowledges the often difficult fight for trans people in gaining representation, saying “it’s hard to participate in the deliberations of a community of equals when we are specifically excluded from the full spectrum of legal protections afforded every other citizen.”

There are, however, support systems to help, like the Victory Institute, which trains transgender people and LGBTQ+ people of color to run for office, or Emerge America affiliate programs, which train self-identified Democratic women. Programs like these provide tools for overcoming these kinds of personal and institutional barriers.

Emerge Maine, for example, provides extensive training in campaign management, fundraising, and Clean Elections ethics during its seven-month program, as well as access to a growing support network of alumna and supporters in the Party and around the state capable of opening doors. Emerge Maine started using the term “self-identified women” in 2014 in an effort to make clear that Emerge programs are for all women.

Executive Director Jill Barkley emphasizes that the Emerge programs never explicitly banned trans women, but understands that many women’s organizations do.

“I’ve heard from listening to the voices of trans women that this discrimination is often anticipated,” she said.

Emerge Maine graduated its first transgender alumna this year (me). Danielle is hoping to be next.

This year’s trans candidates will likely serve as role models for those who come after them. Despite the barriers, progress in representation is happening. The Democratic National Convention welcomed 24 openly trans delegates this year, double that of 2012. Maine saw at least three trans delegates at its convention, and Danielle is likely to be joined by several more trans people on Maine’s ballot in upcoming years.

Sarah McBride concluded her speech to the DNC: “Today in America, LGBTQ people are targeted by hate that lives in both laws and hearts. Many still struggle just to get by. But I believe tomorrow can be different. Tomorrow, we can be respected and protected.”

Tomorrow, it seems, we could also be represented.

Watch Sarah McBride’s DNC address:

About author

Quinn Gormley
Quinn Gormley 3 posts

Quinn Gormley is active through Maine’s queer and trans communities. She organizes with the Maine Transgender Network and works as an Outreach Coordinator with the Health Equity Alliance. This past year, she had the honor of being the first openly trans person to graduate from Emerge Maine. She lives in Portland with her partner, cats, and an abnormally large rabbit.

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