Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Trans California Pol Lisa Middleton Out to Make Practical Progress

Lisa Middleton

Lisa Middleton, seeking to become only the second out transgender state senator in the U.S., will always speak up about LGBTQ+ issues, but she has plenty to say on other subjects as well.

If she is elected to the California Senate, Middleton wants to bring what she calls “pragmatic leadership” to the state on infrastructure, renewable energy, education, and more. It’s the kind of leadership she says she’s provided since she was elected to the Palm Springs City Council since 2017.

“I believe that I can make a difference, and I believe we have made a difference here in Palm Springs,” she says.

Middleton, who announced her state Senate candidacy early this month, got a boost Thursday toward making that difference, with endorsements from Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, and the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect out officials throughout the U.S. “I’m absolutely thrilled to have the endorsements of Equality California and Victory Fund,” she tells The Advocate. The former has assured that California has great LGBTQ+ civil rights laws, she says, while the latter has empowered her and many other LGBTQ+ officials.

The nation’s only out trans state senator to date is Delaware’s Sarah McBride, elected in 2020, and there are just a handful of out trans people in state legislatures or other elective offices around the U.S. Middleton was the first out trans person elected to a nonjudicial position in California.

Middleton is so far the only Democrat to announce a 2022 run in California’s Senate District 28, which covers an area in Riverside County, east and south of Los Angeles, including such desert cities as Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Indio, and stretching to the Arizona border (California is in the process of redistricting, so the boundaries may change). One Republican, La Quinta City Council member Steve Sanchez, has announced as well. The incumbent, Republican Melissa Melendez, cannot seek reelection due to term limits. The primary election will be held in June.

Palm Springs is something of an LGBTQ+ mecca, and that’s reflected in the City Council, which after the 2017 election had all LGBTQ+ members (there’s now one straight ally on the council). Middleton, who was reelected in 2020, is now mayor pro tem, a position that, along with mayor, rotates among the council members. The mayor is bisexual Christy Holstege, who is believed to be the first out bi mayor in the nation and recently announced she’s running for a position in the other house of the state legislature, the California Assembly.

During Middleton’s tenure on the council, she and her colleagues have addressed issues ranging from hyperlocal concerns to the global pandemic. “We have repaved almost half of all the streets in the city, and we have responded really well, I believe, to the COVID emergency,” she says.

The city put strict measures in place early in the pandemic, and now, with vaccines widely available, it requires proof of vaccination or a negative test for admittance to restaurants. The pandemic was of particular concern because of Palm Springs’s large population of older people and those with compromised immune systems due to HIV or other factors. Most of the eligible population is vaccinated, Middleton says.

Also, having heard concerns from older residents who found it hazardous to cross the street from their trailer park to a shopping center, Middleton was named to the California Department of Transportation’s Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force. The group fought for state legislation, now passed and going into effect in January, to give cities more flexibility in setting speed limits, previously under state control.

“That is the kind of legislation I want to be part of in Sacramento … pragmatic, practical legislation,” she says.

She’s likewise an advocate for better public education, daily rail service between Los Angeles and the desert cities, and improvements to infrastructure, including an energy infrastructure that will provide carbon-neutral power, such as solar and wind farms. That kind of power will fight climate change, of which she says simply, “It’s real.”

But while she’ll be busy with these and other issues, she promises, “I will never be bashful about talking LGBTQ equality.”

California has some of the best LGBTQ+ civil rights laws in the nation, but there is room for improvement in enforcement, Middleton notes. She heard from a gay man in Shasta County, a conservative area in the far north of the state, who said he called a dozen medical providers in the area to see if they’d be comfortable with an out gay man as a patient and didn’t get one affirmative answer, she says.

Middleton has seen the situation of transgender people improve in some ways since she transitioned in the early 1990s. She was a state employee then — she is retired after 36 years with California’s State Compensation Insurance Fund, which provides workers’ comp insurance and seeks to make workplaces safe — and at the time her transition-related care wasn’t covered by insurance, something that has changed due to legislation.

Now she’s on the board of administrators for the California Public Employees Retirement System, which provides pensions and health benefits to millions of people, and its medical director is an advocate for culturally competent health care for trans people, she says.

Despite the lack of insurance at the time, her transition was largely smooth, she says. There were some challenges, but her loved ones were supportive. “With my family, I am unbelievably blessed,” she says. She has a grown son and daughter, both “accomplished educators,” she says, and they were witnesses at her 2013 wedding to her longtime partner, Cheryl.

“I’m a big believer that God wanted us all to be a little bit different,” Middleton says.

There have been great advances for trans people and LGBTQ+ people in general in recent years, but Middleton recognizes that difficulties remain, with the rash of legislation targeting trans young people in states around the nation and the continued violence against trans people, especially women of color.

Noting that some state lawmakers are seeking to deny trans youth health care that those young people’s parents support, she says, “That is abominable, it is irresponsible, and it is arrogant.” She also observes that many trans people, particularly those of color, lack access to stable employment and housing. Economic empowerment is a must, and trans activists are working valiantly to uplift their community, but attitudes outside the community must change too, she says.

Middleton’s most recent endorsers say she’s helped advance the cause of trans empowerment and will continue to do so. “Lisa Middleton is an accomplished leader who has made her region more inclusive, just and equitable,” Equality California Executive Director Tony Hoang said in a press release announcing the endorsement. “That’s why Equality California is thrilled to announce our early support for Lisa’s campaign for Senate. The 28th District needs Lisa’s courage, innovative thinking and unique ability to build coalitions in Sacramento, where she will be a trailblazing champion for full, lived equality while delivering critical resources to her community. We’re with Lisa 100 percent and look forward to helping her make history once again as California’s first transgender state legislator.”

“A victory for Lisa will shatter a long-standing political barrier in California and will be a milestone moment for the state and the country,” added Victory Fund President and CEO Annise Parker. “Yet Lisa is not running for state Senate to be a trailblazer. She is a passionate public servant who brings solutions-oriented optimism to challenges big and small — from filling potholes to health care access to climate change. Her constituents’ quality of life will always be the priority, but Lisa’s election will also inspire a new generation of trans leaders to follow in her footsteps.”

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