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Big strides for transgender candidates

Danica Roem of Virginia, center, is the first

Danica Roem of Virginia, center, is the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a U.S. state legislature. Credit: AP / Jahi Chikwendiu

Through the more than eight months of campaigning in her Virginia district, Danica Roem spoke with thousands of voters about moving traffic lights to ease congestion, filling vacant office buildings and reducing class sizes. It was a race destined to be a blurb buried near the classifieds of a local newspaper. But it wasn’t.

That is because Roem was running against a 25-year incumbent who proudly declared himself “chief homophobe” of the Virginia State Legislature, and she is an out transgender woman focused on local issues and equality. The storylines wrote themselves. And when she won on election night in November — becoming the first out trans person to win and serve in a state legislature in the United States — her victory received international attention.

Roem made history that night, yet she is one of eight trans candidates who won races in November — more than doubling the total number of out trans elected officials in the country. The 2017 election cycle was a revolutionary moment for a community long accustomed to transphobia sending trans candidates to defeat, and more often preventing them from running in the first place. The unprecedented number of trans candidates and trans victories is forming a virtuous cycle, with trans leaders inspired by last year’s wins now considering runs for office in 2018 and beyond.

In fact, 2018 will see more out trans candidates run for office than ever. Numerous candidates will soon announce runs for city councils, state legislatures and even a few higher offices. Trans woman Andy Marra is expected to announce Tuesday that she will run for a New York State Senate seat from Queens. If elected, she would be the first out trans woman to serve in the New York State Legislature.

A community long politically marginalized is preparing for a breakout year that could surpass the wins of 2017.

Best of all, America is proving it is ready. While many voters do not fully understand trans issues, the willingness of trans candidates to speak openly about their lives translates into an authenticity that most politicians only dream of. That authenticity helps them connect with voters from a wide spectrum — voters who also experience marginalization, are targets of partisan politics, or are made promises during election season but then quickly forgotten. Trans candidates’ very existence signals an unwavering commitment to equality, allowing them to instead talk about the issues that most affect people’s lives: employment, health care, housing and transportation. Attention to bread-and-butter issues is what led Roem and the other trans candidates to victory in 2017 — and is the blueprint for winning in the future.

While the future is bright, a long road remains. Just 14 of the 520,000 elected positions in the United States are filled by openly trans officials. This severe underrepresentation is why trans people become victims of bigoted politicians looking to score political points. The voiceless are always easy targets. But these attacks on trans equality are also motivating trans people to run like never before — and will inevitably result in some of these anti-equality politicians serving with proud trans legislators. Their voices in the halls of power will humanize trans lives, change the debates and lead to more inclusive laws and policies.

Roem and the slate of 2017 trans candidates were just the beginning, and America is a better place because of it.

Annise Parker is the former mayor of Houston and the president and chief executive of LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates to public office.

Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect that Andy Marra is expected to announce Tuesday that she will run for a New York State Senate seat.