While the visibility of transgender people has blossomed in the media, a new report by the LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US shows that transgender leaders remain close to invisible in public office. After an exhaustive search, the Initiative found that 126 transgender and gender variant candidates from 30 countries had run in just over 200 races since 1977. Forty-eight candidates were elected, and with re-elections they won 72 times.
To some, the numbers may sound higher than expected, but they are a drop in the ocean when compared to the hundreds of thousands of cisgendered candidates who run for office globally every year. For comparison, today there are around 10,000 female incumbent members of parliament out of approximately 45,000. There are 166 out lesbian, gay, or bisexual MPs. The only sitting elected trans MP in the world, Anna Grodzka, lost her re-election bid in the Polish elections of last weekend. Belgian Senator Petra de Sutter remains in office, but she was appointed, not elected. There are only twenty transgender elected officials currently in office at any level across the globe.
In recent years, the visibility of transgender people on television and in the media has grown dramatically. Laverne Cox, a transgender woman of color, stars in the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. The Amazon TV show Transparent won multiple awards. Its creator, Jill Soloway, drew on her experience of having a trans identifying parent, and performance artist Zackary Drucker ensured the show’s realism. Olympian Caitlyn Jenner caused a media whirlwind when she came out as transgender in the spring. In Britain, the cisgendered Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne stars in The Danish Girl about the life of a transgender pioneer in the 1920s. Politically significant was the journalist Paris Lees’s appearance on Question Time in 2013.
But these breakthroughs for trans people in the media are not reflected in everyday society. Very few people say they know someone who is transgender. Given the staggering rates of violence and discrimination faced by trans people throughout the world, it is unsurprising that reports suggest that the majority of trans people are not out beyond a very select and trusted circle. Given the power of presence, and the paucity of role-models in the workplace, school or home, the potential influence of having a transgender-identifying representative, who can stand in the public spotlight and demonstrate the legitimacy, value, and dignity of trans peoples’ lives and political claims is huge.
Indeed, such political visibility for gays and lesbians has been key to progress in gay rights around the world. Openly gay representatives—members of parliament, senators, state legislators, mayors, and councillors—have a dramatic impact. Of course, other things matter as well, including evolving social norms and values, democratizing trends, increasingly savvy and strategic advocates for change, and the rise of positive role models in the spaces where we live. But in this mix, the payoff of a few nationally recognized political leaders, who happen to be LGBTQ and open about it, is crucial.
Do transgender candidates stand any chance of being successful? Of the few trans politicians running for office, 40 per cent were elected. A survey released this week by the European Commission (EC) showed increasing voter comfort with the prospect of having a transgender Prime Minister or President in 21 of the 28 EC nations. Comfort levels reached as high as 77 per cent in Sweden and 66 per cent in Britain and the Netherlands. But few communities are ever given the option of voting for a candidate who happens to be transgender or gender variant. Simply getting to the point of running for office is the largest hurdle.
How many trans people considered running for office but decided or were persuaded otherwise? How many could never imagine politics being a place for them? The gatekeepers to candidacy—political parties, donors, incumbents—are not inclined to back trans candidates or believe that they are electorally viable. In the British general election of 2015, there were only four transgender candidates out of a record high 155 out LGBT candidates.
We might expect that trans candidates who do run would be attached to progressive parties that embrace marginalized communities, especially parties of the left. But in fact, transgender candidates are relatively spread between parties of the left, center, and independents. Politically crosscutting, but internally the group is less diverse. Ninety percent of all candidates are trans women, not trans men.
Politics is just one piece of the puzzle of how change happens, but it is a crucial piece. The presence of transgender people in public office does more than give the community an authentic voice in decision-making. It incorporates trans people into established governance structures and offers role models to inspire future generations. It opens doors for further visibility and representation of transgender people, not just in the formal halls of government, but also in the daily lives and fabric of a society.
Lesbian and gay politics advanced on the shoulders of courageous trailblazers like Harvey Milk, Barney Frank, and Chris Smith. Georgina Beyer allowed trans people to dream big dreams when she was elected the first transgender national parliamentarian in New Zealand in 1999. Who will be the first out transgender person elected to high office in America and Britain? Sarah McBride has all the right credentials in the United States—former student body president at American University, staffer for Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, White House intern, campaign director at the Center for American Progress. In Britain, it might take someone with an equally high profile, like Paris Lees, to break through the ceiling. But whoever does it, that ceiling needs to be shattered.
Standing Out: Transgender and Gender Variant Candidates and Elected Officials Around the World (Logan S. Casey and Andrew Reynolds) is available for free download here. Casey and Reynolds will be discussing the report – along with Bemz Benedito, the leader of the Filipino LGBTQ Party – at a seminar hosted by the LSE International Inequalities Institute on Wednesday 4th November, 4-5.30pm at Clement House 2.02, LSE Campus.