The Rise of Trans People in Politics

Burning a bright light through the shadow of the 2016 elections, Tuesday night’s inspiring election results proved a major victory for the transgender and other marginalized communities. Minneapolis voters elected Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham, both transgender people of color, to seats on the city council. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, beat out a 13-term conservative incumbent to take her seat as a representative of Virginia’s 13th district.

And, the shadow the 2016 elections cast has been very dark. The new administration was quick to reverse Obama’s directive permitting transgender students to use the bathroom of their choosing. Trump announced via Twitter that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military. And, the rates of bias-related homicides against transgender people, particularly trans women of color, have continued to increase.

However, while these developments have been devastating, they have also ignited a fire in the community that has empowered transgender people to enter the political sphere by running for office.

Jenkins and Roem are two of this election cycle’s most inspiring victors, having turned their careers that focused on community involvement into successful candidacies. A respected artist and activist in Minneapolis, Jenkins brings a 25-year career in roles as a policy aide, an employment specialist, and a consultant and executive director for non-profits. Roem worked as a local journalist for over 10 years prior to her election victory.

So, what encouraged Jenkins, Roem, and the myriad other transgender candidates to run now and not before?

This year, we’ve seen just how flimsy the protections for transgender people that were enacted by the Obama administration truly were, and how easily we were stripped of them. We’ve watched as national and state legislatures have argued about transgender people’s right to dignity and equity. With Republicans controlling the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, we’ve had to accept that attempts to block anti-transgender legislation or enact laws that would empower or even simply protect trans people are futile at best.

Which is not to mention the fact that our representatives at the top are cisgender people whose investment in justice for transgender people always seems to be wrapped up in whether or not supporting trans issues will benefit their political career.

That is perhaps one of 2017’s biggest reality checks. That big government is indifferent to us. That the Democrats at the very top of the heap will not save us.

But, that’s where people like Jenkins and Roem come in. The failures of our legislators have encouraged us to focus our energies on the local. We’re increasingly asking these crucial questions: What can we do in our daily lives to make the world a safer place for all marginalized people? How can we make small, actionable changes at the local level that can empower all people to live, work, and thrive in the best possible ways?

These are just the kinds of questions that Jenkins and Roem are asking. Jenkins ran on a platform that incorporated her own experiences working and living in her community as a long-term resident of the Bryant neighborhood in Minneapolis. She vowed to address anti-black police brutality, to fight for more affordable housing, to improve access to public transportation for communities of color, and to combat climate change in a way that centers on low-income communities and communities of color.

Roem also ran on a platform that prioritized the needs of her district’s constituents. Much of her campaign focused on fixing Route 28, a highway notorious for its unbearable rush hour traffic. She also promised to fight for greater access to Medicaid for her constituents, higher wages for public school teachers, and more jobs for her community.

And, as transgender women, both spoke up for rights, respect, and equity for people of all backgrounds and identities.

It was that spirit, that investment in every member of their local communities that made both Jenkins and Roem successful candidates. Collectivizing the energies of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, demonstrated just how much power we have when we band together. With a focus trained squarely on those issues that were most pressing to their constituents, Jenkins and Roem were able to channel that grassroots energy into the momentum necessary to get them elected.

That momentum felt truly palpable on Tuesday night. When asked by a reporter whether she felt she’d made history with her victory, Roem responded, “No, no. We made history tonight.”

Roem’s victory in particular demonstrates just how powerful grassroots campaigns can be. She ran as a Democrat against a long-term incumbent often hailed as the state’s most conservative representative and won handily. Her campaign team knocked on 75,000 doors and raised over half a million dollars in support of her candidacy.

Tuesday night’s elections have proven that focusing in on how to fix our most immediate, pressing local concerns is a model that works.

It’s a model that can be repeated again and again. People are becoming increasingly fed up with politics at the highest levels with both Democrats and Republicans experiencing incredibly low approval ratings. That feeling of frustration can be easily channeled into building movements, whether they’re aimed towards fixing a community issue or electing a candidate to office.

It’s a model with tremendous potential for growth. As more and more people of different backgrounds become involved in local politics, we’ll start to see policies shift. With each new successful candidate, from the school board to the statehouse, we’ll see elected officials gain experience in politics that can potentially catapult them into higher positions.

And, that’s the future Jenkins wants to see. In an interview following her historic victory, she said, “I look forward to more trans people joining me in elected office, and all other kinds of leadership roles in our society.”

This is the future of politics. It’s a future of investing in our immediate communities and not relying on insider politicians who don’t share our vision of justice to make changes for us. It’s a future of centering the people most impacted by a given issue in the process of developing and enacting policy. It’s a future of both committing to making conditions better right now and establishing the base necessary to ensure a brighter and more just future.

Jenkins articulated that very future perfectly on Tuesday night.

“We don’t just want a seat at the table, we want to set the table.”

Photography:PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images


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