Yesterday the New York Times ran an article highlighting transgender candidates for office in this election cycle, asking if more trans candidates will translate into greater tolerance for the community. While there are a handful of transfolk running for office, there are also out lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men who are knee-deep in their own campaigns, and then there are the few LGBT members of Congress who are looking to hold on to their jobs. And although the Times may find some choice quotes from people that seeing transgender people in positions of power will generate greater acceptance, there doesn’t seem to be any actual cause and effect at play.
Three incumbent Members of Congress are openly queer—Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Jared Polis of the historically anti-gay state of Colorado—and two more are running, namely Steve Pougnet in California, against Chaz Bono’s stepmother, no less, and David Cicilline in Rhode Island, for the seat vacated by Patrick Kennedy. What would five openly queer Congresspeople mean for the community?
Some say that it would mean direct testimony on the floor of Congress when legislation like ENDA or the Hate Crimes Act is deliberated and debated. But if that were the case, how do we explain Barney Frank’s reistance at including transgender people in ENDA as a protected class? Donna Milo, running for Florida’s legislature, is pro-gun and against same-sex marriage. Certainly many female candidates and officeholders espouse conservative values that some feminists would argue are anti-women, or at least not in keeping with second or third wave feminist goals. If identity doesn’t dovetail all of the time with a political bent, why does The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund give sound bites that imply that mere representation will equate with acceptance, especially when some transgender candidates have been referred to by their opposition as “it”?
Many openly queer candidates for office ask the electorate to look past their identity and focus on their qualifications, their ability to govern. This is the avoidant political stance, as if voters and campaign messaging will ignore a candidate’s orientation or gender identity. Depending on one’s community though, I can see the appeal of wanting to reframe one’s candidacy to that of their curriculum vitae, especially if one has the strong background of a Theresa Sparks. But that may cut off some avenues for advocacy later—if someone was elected for their fiscal discipline and not their trans identity, can they then lecture others about the need to support LGBT youth in schools? Or have we all agreed somehow to punt “relevant” social issues because we elected them for reasons other than identity politics?
Maybe there’s a third space, somewhere other than presuming marginalized identity will equal progressive politics, and pretending to be blind to people’s lived experience. A paradigm that harkens back to the very phrase of “representative government.” That the rich tapestry of people who live in a democracy can be reflected in the individuals who comprise its legislatures, at the Federal, state, and local levels. And that we can acknowledge the differences between us while respecting that collectively, we need to remember our distinct backgrounds so that we can attempt to support all of them. To me, that is what real representation means.
I know, I know, I’m an idealist.
For other ways in which queer has met the 2010 midterm elections, watch this: