Even with a pandemic shutting down much of American life, elections must still happen. Oregon is moving ahead with its primary on May 19, with officials hoping voters cast their ballots by mail.
This is not the campaign Paige Kreisman thought she would be getting into. The trans Army vet is running to represent District 42, in Portland, in the Oregon House of Representatives; Kreisman is the first trans woman to even run for that state's legislature. A Democratic Socialist, Kreisman is a longtime activist who proudly places her LGBTQ identity, as well as her embrace of the working class, front and center (she's already been endorsed by the Portland Democratic Socialists of America). Kreisman is also a member of the largest tenants union in Portland, a position that will become increasingly important as renters struggle against eviction amid the COVID crisis.
A statewide Green New Deal, rent control, and school funding are Kreisman's priorities as a candidate, where she's challenging a more moderate Democrat, Rep. Rob Nosse.
We caught up with the North Carolina-reared Kreisman before the pandemic took hold, and then followed up as the disease infiltrated the world. The weight of political responsibility seems heavier than ever, but Kreisman is keeping a cool head and planning for life after COVID-19.
The Advocate: How has Oregon been faring during this health crisis?
Kreisman: (At the time of our interview) Oregon has the lowest hospital bed count per capita of any state in the nation. It's crucial that we take actions now to increase bed count before our hospitals become overwhelmed.
Last year our state government cut the pensions of the brave public healthcare professionals who are now risking their lives on the front lines of this crisis, and that was in a good economy! It's more important now than ever that we elect leaders who will fight for public healthcare workers, just as hard as they fight to keep our communities safe every day.
The failings of our institutions to adequately respond to this crisis are the failings of capitalism and neoliberalism. It's now more clear than ever that we must build a world not built on profit, but built on ensuring that every human being has access to healthcare, housing, a living wage, and basic human rights. We can build that world together.
On your online bio, you place your trans identity front and center. Did you or any of your advisers have reservations about that?
No. I make no apologies for who I am, or what I am fighting for. It’s true, presenting my identity in this way most likely costs me votes, and leaves me at a disadvantage out of the gate, but that does not scare me. The forces that keep trans people out of elected office are not going to be dismantled by hiding who we are.
There are 7,384 state legislators in the U.S. Only four are trans, despite us making up somewhere between 1-3 percent of the population. This voicelessness, powerlessness, and marginalization have left us with a political climate where trans narratives are entirely shaped and formed by cis people, for cis consumption. It means that cis people decide what trans person they want to uplift, what trans voices they want to give power to, and what trans issues they want to center. That’s why cis people have chosen the likes of Caitlyn Jenner, Charlotte Clymer, and Christine Hallquist to represent our community. Because these trans people are the least threatening to cis hegemony, and do not challenge other power structures, such as white supremacy, and capitalism.
My campaign itself is also an example of this to some degree. It’s great that I’m the first trans person to run for the state legislature in Oregon. But why? Why me, specifically? I’ve had to fight incredibly hard just to be taken seriously, even among progressives, but I was able to make it this far, farther than any trans person in Oregon politics. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I am white, a veteran, or cis passing. It’s not that I sat down in a room with trans women of color, or visibly trans people and told them that they can't run until after I do. It’s that those trans people were never given the same chances I was. Nothing I’ve said hasn’t been said before by black trans women. It’s simply far more threatening to cis-het white people when the truth is spoken by a black voice than when it’s spoken by a white one.
Our campaign is one step in the direction to solving this problem. We are 100 percent people powered, so I am not accountable to any corporate influence, or the Human Rights Campaign, or the Victory Fund, like many of my trans predecessors in office often are forced to be. This gives me the freedom to make the choice to not hide or temper who I am, to unapologetically fight for the material improvements that trans people need to not just survive, but thrive in this deeply transphobic country. But it’s only one step in the right direction, it’s not the destination. That’s why I will always look for opportunities to center and empower voices less privileged than mine, because those voices are here. They are screaming for justice; cis people just can’t hear them.
Can you tell us more about your military life and how it was affected by the trans military ban? How was it revealed to you that you'd have to leave the military?
I served as an Infantrywoman in the U.S. Army from 2014-2017. I was on active duty when President Obama lifted the ban on trans military service. This was huge for me, and it probably saved my life. Growing up in rural North Carolina, in an evangelical baptist home, I did not have the opportunity to come out, or seek gender affirming healthcare during my childhood. I joined the Army because it was my only option. When President Obama lifted that ban it changed my life. It was the first time I felt hope for my own future. It was the first time I could imagine a future that included me in it.
Unfortunately, once the policy from the Obama administration’s Defense Department came out on trans service, the reality was very different from what I was hoping. The DoD went through three or four policies in almost as many months. The first iteration restricted trans people from living in the barracks, but also didn’t give us housing allowance to live off post, as they did for cis people. This briefly left me houseless while I was on active duty. The policy also included strict medical gatekeeping, making it very difficult for trans people to access gender affirming healthcare. I had to sit through hours of interviews with psychiatrists as they analyzed every aspect of my life, from my sexuality, to the toys I played with as a child, to my relationship with my parents, looking for any excuse to invalidate my gender identity and deny me healthcare.
I was able to give them the answers they wanted to hear to finally get access to hormone therapy after months of fighting their bureaucracy. All the while the words “dignity and respect” were echoed to me by my chain of command. Those words were the one thing that was always consistent with Obama’s many policies. The policies would all say “Trans service members will be treated with dignity and respect” just before the many paragraphs outlining how we were to be treated as second class soldiers, and what rights we don’t have.
Once Trump was elected things got much worse. They changed overnight. Big Hitler-esque portraits of Trump went up on office walls behind desks (where portraits of Obama were never present before), and people started losing their jobs, getting pulled from their platoons. For Infantrymen, getting pulled from your platoon and placed behind a desk is a career killer. It implies that you can’t be trusted to lead soldiers in a line unit.
Before Trump was even sworn in, I was pulled from my platoon, where I served as an Indirect Fire and Control Non Commissioned Officer for 120mm mortars. I was placed in the Human Resources Office. I wasn’t alone either. People of color, gay and bi people, Muslims, and anyone else that didn’t fit Trump’s ideal image of a solder all received the same treatment in my unit. I know, because I met them all in the human resources office, the training office, and the intelligence office. Soldiers whose regular jobs were Infantrymen, Tankers, Artillerymen, etc. This is how the Army ends people’s careers — with bureaucracy.
Over the next six months, my unit’s campaign of harassment and intimidation quickly escalated against me. I received rape and death threats. The paperwork to legally designate me a woman in the DoD’s personnel database was constantly lost or rejected, I was selected for frequent “random” drug testing, and forced to urinate in front of a male observer, “as required by Army policy.” My unit forced me to shave my head, and forced me to use the men’s restroom and changing facilities, which I didn’t of course, because of the high risk of violence, so I simply didn't use the restroom at all while at work.
I really didn’t think I would survive to the end of my contract, but eventually it expired, and I was honorably discharged without the option to reenlist. Although, I certainly wouldn’t have. Something good did come from all of that though. The abrupt nature to the end of my service left me suddenly a civilian, with no relevant job experience and no education. Naturally I chose to use my GI bill to attend college somewhere, but I was discharged late in the year, and only a handful of schools were still accepting applications. Oregon State University in Corvallis was one of them. I googled it, and the internet said it was nice, so I loaded everything I owned in my 1995 Saab 900 that I paid $1,000 for and drove to Oregon. What I found here was a community that accepted and welcomed me in a way that I had never before experienced. That’s why I’m running, to serve the first community I’ve ever been able to call home.
What are your top priorities as a candidate?
I’m running because working class people are not reflected in our democracy. Because our voices aren’t being heard in Salem. That’s why we are fighting for: an Oregon Green New Deal, that not only meets our climate goals, but does so while centering justice and equity for workers and front line communities. Because we only have one planet to live on.
Comprehensive campaign finance reform. Oregon is one of only five states with unlimited corporate campaign contributions, and we have the most corporate spending in our elections per capita of any state in the country. We’re going to get big money out of our politics, and that starts by electing representatives not accountable to corporate interest. That’s why we are 100 percent people powered, because my only constituent is the working class people of this state.
Defending our public employees and unions. I got into this race after the incumbent successfully led an effort to cut public employee pensions. We have a Democrat supermajority in both chambers of our legislature, and a Democrat governor. It’s unacceptable for that supermajority to turn it’s back on the firefighters, teachers, and nurses that serve our communities. That’s why I’m proud to be endorsed by the Portland Association of Teachers and the Oregon School Employees Association. We’re going to restore the Democratic Party of Oregon as the party of the working class.
You mention in your online bio you moved to Portland because you wanted to live in a place that welcomes trans individuals. Is the city as progressive for LGBTQ folks as you imagined?
Portland isn’t perfect; we definitely still have many challenges to fight for justice for trans people in this city, and in this state. But here we can actually have that fight. Here, cis people in my community are willing to not just accept and welcome me, but fight with me. That’s not something that I’ve experienced anywhere else I’ve lived. It’s why Portland is the first place I’ve ever been able to call home, and why I’ll always fight so hard for the community I’ve found here.