As you will likely have heard, the “first” trans woman was elected to the Virginia state legislature last night, in a profound swing to the Democrats in America. She wasn’t alone – several other trans people were also elected. This is a great thing.
Several people on Twitter are calling Danica Roem (who is a certified badass heavy metal singer and I just love that so much, by the way) the first elected trans woman to a US state legislature. She’s not. She may be the first in Virginia (and she’s definitely the first openly trans person to be elected), but she’s not the first ever.
Meet Althea Garrison, the first transgender person elected to a US state legislature. She was elected in 1992 in Massachusetts, as a Republican. That’s worth noting, because the actions of the more right-wing parties are often overlooked when popular history decides on who was “first” at something.
As an example of that for my British readers, let’s ask a question: which Prime Minister’s cabinet first discussed legislating on trans rights in the UK? Did you say Tony Blair’s, because you were thinking of the Gender Recognition Act 2004? You would be wrong. The GRA 2004 came about because of a decision of the European Court of Human Rights. The first Prime Minister to discuss with his cabinet the idea of trans rights legislation in the UK was John Major – shortly before he lost to Blair at the General Election.
Why was he discussing this legislation? Because the UK had recently only barely scraped a win in yet another trans rights case in the ECHR and Major knew it was only a matter of time before the UK was going to be forced to give trans people equal rights, so he was fielding the idea of doing that on the UK’s own terms.
But Major was a Conservative, so he gets overlooked in popular history. It seems the same is happening to the Republican Ms Garrison. It probably doesn’t help that she also wasn’t “out” when she was elected, although that news didn’t stay quiet for long. She has my sympathies on that one, it’s soul destroying to be outed by the press.
Being out is what I want to talk about here. Being out is important. It’s not enough to show up and do the job, not when you’re a minority. Yes, I know being able to show up and do the job is what you have to prove you can do if we are going to win acceptance on our own terms and that’s why it’s essential that the people we elect are actually worth electing, rather than just the first bunch of eager minorities that show up. If we elect a bunch of numpties and they screw things up, the people who hate us will be able to point at that bunch of failures and say “hey, look. They screwed up, just as we told you they would. Trans people aren’t able to do the job, don’t elect them.” We don’t need that, we need good, competent people.
But we also need people to be out as well as competent. We have to be able to point to those we elect and not only say to the bigots “hey look, those people are trans and they’re doing a good job“. Moreover, we need the trans kids, and the parents of trans kids, to see those out trans people doing those jobs and doing them well. They need to know that being trans doesn’t mean putting a barrier up that will stop you making something of yourself. They need role models; and they need them in all walks of life.
When I’ve been to Pride events, I’ve had people come up to me and say thank you for being there. Many of these people hate my politics. They think I’m bad and wrong for being right wing. They think the Conservatives don’t have the right ideas and won’t do what’s best for the country (I of course think they are wrong on both of those counts, as we are doing what’s best for the country). But they were glad I was there at Pride, marching with the Conservatives – because being seen matters. They are right about that.
If you’ve ever seen cosplayers on Twitter, you’ve probably come across the image of a black woman cosplaying as Wonder Woman. I can’t remember the name of the woman I’m thinking of in particular and I really, really wish I could link the specific post I’m talking about because it says everything I want to use as an example here. Sadly, it’s buried somewhere in my retweets (I use Twitter far too much). The gist of what I’m talking about here is that this lady was cosplaying as Wonder Woman when a young, black girl saw her. The girl ran up to her and said “Wonder Woman, you’re black like me!”. It was apparently a revelation to her that coloured girls could be Wonder Woman.
Similarly, an artist on Twitter was drawing one of the Green Lantern Corps for a commission. He was drawing Jade; who is a female Green Lantern. A young girl (I want to say it was his daughter but I can’t be certain of that) saw the drawing and said “I can be Green Lantern”. Again, it was a revelation to her.
Being seen matters. Showing the world that you’re here and that you can do whatever it is you do matters.
That’s why it’s great that so many trans people were elected last night. We need that. We need to show that trans people can be politicians. We need to show that trans people are electable when they stand as politicians.
So I wish Danica Roem and all the others all the best for their new jobs. Now they’ve got them, I hope they do well in them – because we also need to show that trans people can do the job just as well as (if not better than) the people that came before them. We need to show everyone that being trans isn’t the barrier they often think it is.