In 1992, Althea Garrison, a black woman, became the first transgender person ever elected to a state legislature in the United States with her rise to the Massacusetts House of Representatives. (To our knowledge, the first openly transgender person to hold elected office of any kind in the nation was Joanne Marie Conte (1933-2013) who served on the Arvada, Colo., City Council from 1991 to 1995). Just before Garrison began her sole term in office, Garrison drew national attention for answering “no” when a disreputable reporter for the Boston Herald asked her if she was ever a man. The Herald's transphobic outing of Garrison stands as a prominent reminder of the knee-jerk hate toward trans people that is only now gradually abating in electoral politics.
Garrison was correct when she answered “no” to the Boston Herald reporter's question about her gender identity. Trans women like her do not, in the truest sense, ever understand themselves as male regardless of how the world may classify them. But without the literacy around trans issues that continues to grow today, Garrison’s answer and the “hatchet job” story itself resulted in the end of her political career. This was a shame. Even though she was a late entrant to the Republican Party, Garrison’s votes in her one term in office reveal her consistently outstanding advocacy for the rights of workers and disenfranchised people.
Since Garrison’s historic tenure, just a handful of trans politicians have been elected to office in the United States, and few openly trans people currently hold elected positions (Alameda County, Calif., Judge Victoria Kolakowski, for instance, is among these few). Yet there are several standout cisgender (nontrans) allies for transgender equality across the nation. In their efforts to better the lives of trans people, these politicians bear witness to Vice President Joe Biden’s 2012 contention that the battle against anti-transgender discrimination is "the civil rights issue of our time." These are 18 of our greatest allies for transgender equality currently in office. —Cleis Abeni
Last fall, Michael Makoto "Mike" Honda, a Democratic congressman from California, convened a historic congressional forum to investigate the epidemic of violence against transgender people. A leader in the Congressional Equality Caucus and a stalwart LGBT rights supporter, Honda is also the proud grandfather of a transgender granddaughter.
Last year Toni Atkins, California’s lesbian Assembly speaker, wrote an op-ed for The Advocate about her historic authoring of her state’s Respect After Death Act. The new law, AB 1577, ensures that transgender people have a right even after their death to be presented as they truly wished in life. Atkins’s brilliant, innovative trans advocacy has consistently elevated the rights of gender-variant people within California.
Since Kate Brown took office as Oregon’s first openly bisexual governor, she has consistently championed trans rights and LGBT equality. She was listed as one of the nine runners-up for The Advocate's 2015 Person of the Year. Brown is a particularly powerful advocate for the betterment of the lives of trans youth.
Tina Kotek, a lesbian Democrat and a member of the Oregon House of Representatives, served as the speaker of the House in thr 2013-14 sessions. A powerful advocate, as speaker, Kotek deftly steered the passage of historic LGBT equality legislation that highlighted protections from discrimination based on gender identity. She will prove to be an important ally when advocates within Basic Rights Oregon relaunch the Fair Workplace Project, which will increase employment opportunities for transgender Oregonians through legislative action and coalition building with businesses.
New York City Council Member Corey Johnson, a gay, openly HIV-positive Democrat, remains one of the best advocates for trans equality, gay rights, and the welfare of HIV-positive people in office. He is a facilitator of the council's LGBT Caucus. Johnson was a leader in last year’s historic push for expanded guidelines for nondiscrimination protections for trans and gender-variant New Yorkers. When the new guidelines were released to the public, Johnson spoke eloquently of their importance.
"Although we've seen success on issues such as marriage equality, the transgender community still faces unbelievable discrimination every day," Johnson said in a statement sent to The Advocate last year. "Transgender New Yorkers are due the full protections of our City's Human Rights Law, and these steps will help ensure that they receive these protections. I want to congratulate and thank Mayor de Blasio and [City Commission on Human Rights] Chair Carmelyn P. Malalis for taking these important steps. The fight for equality is not over."
When Adam Ebbin, a Democratic Virginia state senator, cosponsored a steadily advancing bill prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in public employment (among other characteristics), he and his senatorial colleague, Donald McEachin, sought to do in law what governors on only been able to do with executive actions in the state. Ebbin’s efforts earned the ire of some conservative politicians who called the historic human rights legislation a “naughty bits bill,” fomenting the usual “bathroom panics” and scare tactics about gender-variant people appearing in public. But Ebbin fought back, telling his colleagues on the Virginia Senate floor that, “We want talented workers to go to work rather than worry about how they’ll be treated and an assurance that when we attract people to Virginia they can permanently work here in a discrimination-free workplace.”
David Grosso, a member of the Washington, D.C., City Council and an independent, has been a stalwart advocate for transgender equality, helping to usher through legislation that makes the nation’s capital one of the most progressive cities for trans rights in the nation.
“[Grosso] has been an amazing supporter of the trans community, from hiring trans people on his staff to sponsoring (and passing!) bills that help the trans community, like the recent health care cultural competency bill,” says Alison Gill, a senior partner at the Parallax Group who has helped author and pass trans-friendly health care, anti-conversion therapy, and antibullying bills.
Along with calling transgender rights the greatest “civil rights issue of our time," Vice President Joe Biden has also called on the United States military to welcome transgender service members. With the exception of the President Barack Obama himself, Biden remains the country’s most trans-affirming top political leader in history.
Last October New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new regulations to assure that the state’s Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination against transgender people, making him the state’s most powerful leader for trans equality.
“The scourge of harassment and discrimination against transgender individuals is well-known and has also has gone largely unanswered for too long,” Cuomo said at the Empire State Pride Agenda 25th anniversary fall dinner in Manhattan, the New York Daily News reports. “We will not tolerate discrimination or harassment against transgender people anywhere in the state of New York — period.”
But, far more work remains to be done and many New Yorkers are still waiting for the state legislature to pass a bill barring discrimination against transgender people in the employment, housing, and public spaces.
When he signed a bill in 2011 that protects transgender individuals from discrimination in the state, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy helped make the state one of the most trans-friendly in the country. Recently, the governor went further: last June, Malloy signed a new law making it easier for transgender people to obtain updated birth certificates that reflect their authentic gender.
Despite continued violence against trans people, under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch, New York City is enjoying a renewed push to make the city trans-welcoming. The city’s expanded guidelines for nondiscrimination protections for trans and gender-variant New Yorkers testify to the city’s stepped-up efforts towards trans equality. Through de Blasio’s and the New York City Council’s efforts, New York City removed an old requirement that transgender people undergo gender-confirming surgery before they can amend their birth certificates.
But last June, Rebecca Juro argued in The Advocate that New York City’s progressive reputation can be misleading. According to Juro, after the New York City Council passed a law banning discrimination against trans people in 2002, the police department took 10 years to update its policies to reflect the legislation. Certainly, more work remains to be done, and de Blasio’s trans-friendly track record makes him uniquely primed to lead redoubled efforts.
New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, is one of the nation’s fiercest protectors of LGBT rights and a powerful ally for trans equality. In an op-ed for The Advocate last September he spoke about why a national monument honoring the Stonewall uprising is imperative, and he specifically cited the legacy of trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson in his remarks, saying, “Far too many times the story of Stonewall has omitted minorities, lesbians, and transgender people, many of whom were key actors in the rebellion and the early LGBT civil rights movement. It is vital that we preserve, protect, and retell this history in its entirety, honoring all of the brave men and women who stood up for their rights.”
Two years ago, The Advocate ranked President Barack Obama as the most trans friendly president ever. While LGBT advocates for immigration reform are displeased by the Obama administration’s policies regarding U.S. raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants, there is no denying that the president has done more than any U.S. chief executive to advance trans rights. From his historic inclusion of transgender people in his last State of the Union address to the White House appointments of trans individuals like Amanda Simpson, Shannon Price Minter, Amelie Koran, and Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, the president has been a trailblazer for the affirmative visibility of trans Americans.
The Equality Act of 2105 is Congress’s latest attempt to implement federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. Unlike the perpetually stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act that once famously excluded transgender people, the Equality Act specifically advances transgender rights. If passed, it will amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that it specifically bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex in the areas of employment, housing, public education, public accommodations, federal funding, credit, and the jury system. The legislation has a complex history and ever-expanding endorsements. Despite some advocates' lingering questions about how the bill will prosper in a Republican-controlled Congress, David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and Robert Dold, a Republican from Illinois, became the first congresspersons in their parties to cosponsor the legislation in the House of Representatives. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, and Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, became the first in their parties to cosponsor it in the Senate.