Fullerton College alumna Sophia Alexander speaks with a campaign staffer during a photo shoot for her campaign. (Amber Baltazar/Inside Fullerton)
By Megan Showalter
In 2017, women marched across the country, the Black Lives Matter movement was in full swing and Americans couldn’t get away from politics.
Now is the time, she recalled thinking. This was the year Sophia Alexander, a transgender veteran and former Fullerton College student government president, decided to run for office.
“America was electric,” said Alexander.
Alexander isn’t the only one who decided to run. While statistics on transgender candidates seem elusive, anecdotally, there has been an uptick in California elections, according to Rick Zbur, the executive director of Equality California, a statewide LGBT political advocacy group.
Almost a decade ago, Victoria Kolakowski became the first transgender judge nationally—as well as in California. Then, in California there was a dry spell of transgender candidates, experts say.
That all changed last year when Lisa Middleton won her election as the first non-judicial transgender office holder in California, among eight other winning transgender candidates across the country on election night in 2017.
Soon after, three new transgender candidates came forward in California elections: Sophia Alexander for the 39th Congressional District, Terra Snover for the 10th Congressional District, and Ashlee Marie Preston for the 54th California State Assembly District. However, both Snover and Preston dropped out of their races in February.
“I think we’re seeing a level of community engagement and activism that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. The question is whether or not that level can be maintained,” said Zbur.
Middleton, a Palm Springs council member, believes that the future is brighter for younger generations. Middleton shared a story about a young girl who identified herself as transgender at a campaign function last year.
“It was incredibly moving. I found myself thinking back when I was 6 years old. I had nowhere near the bravery to be out, as she was. She has a life in front of her that will be full of opportunities that I could not have dreamed of,” said Middleton.
In February, the University of Minnesota released a study which found that 2.7 percent of Minnesota high school students considered themselves transgender, genderqueer, gender-fluid or unsure of their gender identification. While the study only looks at Minnesota teens, the numbers suggest that more teens do not conform to gender norms than was previously assumed. In a January 2017 study based on adult statistics in the U.S., UCLA estimated that 0.7 percent of teens were transgender.
“Youth are rejecting this binary thinking [on gender] and are asking adults to keep up,” wrote Daniel Shumer, a specialist in transgender medicine at the University of Michigan, in an opinion article which accompanied the study.
The LGBT community has gained more visibility in recent years and part of that visibility means gaining a “seat at the table,” said Zbur.
“People that are from our community speak authentically, with firsthand experiences, about the challenges that our community faces. Having LGBT people, and transgender people specifically, elected to office serves as a role model in our community… It allows an LGBT person to look another legislator in the face and ask them why they are not supporting something,” said Zbur.
Kolakowski, a judge in the San Francisco Bay area, agrees that more representation is needed in order to dispel the stereotypes.
“It’s important that we have transgender people in every walk in life and situation,” she said in an interview with the East Bay Times last year.
Zbur attributes increased political involvement to attacks on the LGBT community from the Trump Administration. He also relates it to a rise in gay and lesbian candidates in the early 90s who felt that little was being done during the HIV crisis by the Reagan and Bush administrations.
“Almost every place you look he is doing something to harm all LGBT people but with a special focus on the transgender community. When you’re under attack I think communities rally and that’s why we’re seeing more transgender people decide to run in this election cycle, at least out here in California,” he said.
Preston tweets about the political pressure her community is under.
While national politics may play a part in propelling these candidates to action, some, such as Middleton, focus on the issues of their communities rather than the gender they identify with.
Middleton once was asked during a campaign what her gender had to do with city council work, and her answer was that she never saw a pothole with a gender.
“I used the ‘never saw a pothole with a gender’ line to go back to some of the things I had focused on through the neighborhood organization, which was the importance of properly funding street repairs,” said Middleton.
With Middleton’s dedicated involvement in her community of Palm Springs prior to her campaign efforts, she did not have a hard time securing endorsements from both sides of the aisle. She stays focused on topics important to her city: tourism, road safety and a flourishing economy.
Alexander also shies away from identifying solely as transgender. She sees herself as a veteran, someone who is poor, and a student, but she suggests that people should try not to label one another.
“Being trans or being gay, I can [only] speak for myself, [but] it seems like it would be the same for people of different races. It’s just a part of who they are. And instead, we take these often times small snippets of someone’s identity, and we use that to summarize them,” said Alexander.
Alexander said she prefers to work with people from opposing viewpoints instead of against them.
“That’s an important thing to remember when we’re talking about Democrats and Republicans hating each other. We are talking about people who disagree on issues. They don’t hate each other necessarily, but they don’t agree with a solution to problems,” said Alexander.
Candidates, organizational partners and voters can agree that the political landscape is changing—how or to what degree is yet to be determined.
“When I woke up on election day last year there were seven elected transgender officials in the United States, and that night we elected eight more,” Middleton recalled. “That’s a very small step. There are over a half a million elected officials in the United States, and as of today 15 of them identify as transgender.”