Opinion

Welcome To The Age Of Trans Political Power

“Following the recent years of increased trans visibility, these electoral wins signal greater possibilities for trans folks of all ages.”

When I saw the historic wins of Danica Roem and Andrea Jenkins permeate through social media on Tuesday night, I felt a surge of joy. Their victories signaled the shift of trans people from political fodder to political leaders. For so long, the plight of trans people has hinged on the conscience of the cisgender majority, but now we are taking matters into our own hands and asserting the political power that we’ve always possessed.

Roem and Jenkins ran as openly transgender candidates, and served a slap in the face to the Trump Administration (and a complicit and ineffective political establishment) after a year of direct attacks on our community. From targeting trans students’ dignity and safety by rescinding the guidance on their bathroom use, to a disgusting attempt at banning trans service members from the U.S. military, Trump has stoked the flames on a hostile environment for transgender citizens. The results of Tuesday’s elections offered a respite, when “resistance” moved from a buzzword to an action item.

Roem’s legendary defeat of “Chief Homophobe” Robert G. Marshal for the 13th District seat on Virginia House of Delegates Roem showcased that we are in a political climate where authenticity and a desire for collective liberation is beginning to outpace transphobia. In January 2017, Marshal notably proposed the Physical Privacy Act, a bill which would have restricted use of bathrooms and changing facilities for transgender people. Roem’s audacious run for his seat resulted in cutting off bigotry at the source.

The race for Jenkins was a bit smoother as she was elected to an open seat on the Minneapolis City Council, but there’s no denying the deep waters of stigma she had to wade through. Historically, Black trans women have been quickly thwarted upon interacting with the U.S. Government. There are forgotten pioneers like Frances Thompson, a former slave who was believed to be the first trans person to testify before a congressional committee, and Lucy Hicks Anderson, who fought for marriage equality long before it was a wedge-issue for politicians had their identities used to discredit their fights for justice.

The stigma on being an openly trans Black woman hasn’t just been a struggle relegated to the distant past. In 1992, Althea Garrison was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, but soon after a reporter at The Boston Herald outed her as transgender. Garrison has declined to discuss her gender identity on the record, and was never elected to public office again after the outing. Though she is the first documented instance of a transgender person being elected and holding office, Jenkins is the first to carry all of her Blackness, queerness, transness, and womanhood on her shoulders through the narrow door of the U.S. political system.

Following the recent years of increased trans visibility, these electoral wins signal greater possibilities for trans folks of all ages. No longer do we have to look for acceptance in the slim scopes of entertainment or advocacy. There’s another arena open to us. The morning after the election, transgender and gender-nonconforming citizens of all ages were able to wake up knowing that serving in political office — as their full selves — is a real possibility, if you do the work of understanding.

As a Black trans woman, Jenkins’ win has affected me the most. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone with so many of my identities excel in the political arena. The only times I’ve felt something similar was when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and when marriage equality became the law of the land in 2015. But this time felt different. This time I didn’t have to wonder where my transness would fit in the aftermath of the win.

What’s even more exciting is that Roem and Jenkins are just two figures in a wider moment of trans political resistance. Phillipe Cunningham, also representing Minneapolis, became the first trans man elected to a major city’s council. Lisa Middleton, Tyler Titus, and Raven Matherne all made firsts in their respective states of California, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, while Gerri Cannon and Stephe Koontz carry their own important banners for trans representation in politics. As a cohort, they prove that the “winning trans candidate” isn’t just an anomaly. Trans folks can win and we can win big.

We are no longer hypothetical dangers to the general public, but formidable threats to a stale political establishment in need of radical transformation. We have proven, as we always do, that authenticity continues to be our greatest superpower.

For anyone to reduce these wins to “identity politics” ignores that openly identifying as transgender is still like wearing a scarlet letter to many in our society. 2017 has been the deadliest year on record for trans people in the U.S. with 24 murders, mostly of Black trans women. In employment, the stigma is so great that nearly 50 percent of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported not being out in their workplaces. It is a major feat to be openly trans and demand your life, experience, and leadership be taken seriously.

Neither Jenkins nor Roem just waltzed into their races carrying only their identities. For twelve years, Jenkins worked as a policy aide with the Minneapolis City Council, serving on the teams of two different councilmembers. During those years, she built relationships with the local community and was instrumental in establishing the city’s Transgender Issues Working Group in 2014. She has never shied away from her identity and, in fact, used her unique lens as a strength.

Roem was no stranger to the politics of Prince William County, Virginia. As a lifelong resident of the county, Roem was an acclaimed journalist for nine years, regularly writing on the issues of transportation, politics, and the economy. These later became major planks of her platform and served as ammunition against the attacks on her identity by her opponent. Like Jenkins, her consistent work on behalf of her community proved why her future constituents should trust her.

With these wins, trans people are no longer being seen as a negligible subcommunity of the greater society. And the competence of trans electeds should not come as a shocker to anyone. We have been leading movements for decades. Our blueprint is transcestors like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major who sparked the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement with a deep capacity for empathy. They never shied away from acknowledging trans people who experienced the greatest threats of violence.

Instead of downplaying the identities of elected trans politicians, we should be asking how these candidates will continue transforming the relationships of marginalized communities to political power. After these “firsts,” the doors must be left open for more diverse representation in our political leadership. We can’t afford to allow the Age of Trans Political Power to be short-lived. This must be an enduring era.

Another task ahead for the rest of the approximately 1.4 million transgender people who don’t hold public office is to push our newly-elected officials to have a deeper analysis on justice. We are in a unique position to be more progressive and radical in our visions of liberation than ever before. That means we can’t allow them to neglect trans people who are incarcerated, detained, living in poverty, jobless, sex workers, or disabled. We must move into with a deep commitment to uniting every portion of our community and amplifying each other’s voices.

Being trans has often meant being on the defensive. We’ve been relegated to proving our worthiness to live our lives as we deserve or that we’re just like cis people. With these historic wins, we are officially on the offense and it’s clear that assimilation and respectability aren’t the keys to success for our people. We can show up in our full selves and own our destinies. We are no longer hypothetical dangers to the general public, but formidable threats to a stale political establishment in need of radical transformation. We have proven, as we always do, that authenticity continues to be our greatest superpower.

Raquel Willis is a Black queer transgender activist and writer dedicated to inspiring and elevating marginalized individuals, particularly transgender women of color. She is also a National Organizer for Transgender Law Center based in Oakland, CA.

Original Article – Them

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