The wave of anti-transgender bills is motivating trans people to run for office

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA, USA - NOVEMBER 4, 2008: Voting polling place sign and people lined up on presidential election day.
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Over 14% of trans women who ran for office in the past several years said that they were motivated by the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ+ – and specifically anti-transgender – legislation that Republican state lawmakers have been trying to get passed in states across the country, according to a new study from the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute and Loyola Marymount University.

The study surveyed 470 LGBTQ+ political candidates who ran for public office between 2018 and 2022 to find out more about their motivations and the challenges they faced on the campaign trail. The LGBTQ+ Victory Institute is a nonprofit organization that works to increase LGBTQ+ representation in elected and appointed government positions.

Most LGBTQ+ candidates surveyed – 79% – said that their main motivation when running for office was to improve their local community, showing that LGBTQ+ candidates generally run for the same variety of reasons that their cishet counterparts do. Almost half of those candidates, though, said that they were also interested in increasing LGBTQ+ representation in office.

Fourteen percent of transgender women and 10% of nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming candidates specifically mentioned anti-LGBTQ+ legislation as one of their main motivators to run, showing another way that transgender people are responding to the hundreds of bills being considered in state legislatures attacking their rights to gender-affirming health care, use of the correct facilities in public buildings, and participation in school sports.

Many of the candidates surveyed – 36% – said that they were discouraged from running for public office because of their LGBTQ+ identities. Since a majority of the candidates were running for local-level offices like city council (30%), school board (10%), mayor (3%), and other local offices (24%), being discouraged by others at an early stage in one’s political career has the potential to end it. The study only surveyed LGBTQ+ people who ran for office and not those who were so discouraged that they dropped out before they opened a campaign, so the effects of such discouragement may have been greater than what the study found.

Deja Alvarez, a transgender woman who ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last year and lost in the Democratic primary, said on a panel at the NLGJA Convention on Thursday that she even faced discouragement from local LGBTQ+ people.

“Someone who was considered one of the LGBTQ political leaders here in Philadelphia who also happens to [be a journalist],” Alvarez said, “said to me, ‘You’re not attractive enough [to run for office].’ And we had been friends, he had written about me a hundred thousand times. And I’m sitting at his desk, looking at him when he said this to me and I was like, ‘Huh?’ And he was just, ‘I’m just being honest, you’re not.'”

Alvarez said that that conversation motivated her even more to run for office. Other candidates, though, might not have reacted the same way.

Alvarez also noted that her background before politics was “working with marginalized communities, working with Black and brown folks, working with homeless folks, working with people that are facing addiction,” which made fundraising more difficult for her than it would have been for a candidate who comes from a professional background that involves working with wealthier people.

“Where was I going to raise the money? I can’t call these people [to raise funds quickly],” she said.

Alvarez wasn’t alone among LGBTQ+ candidates to find it difficult to raise funds. Forty-five percent of candidates surveyed said that raising money was a top challenge for their campaigns and 42% cited their own lack of personal finances. Over 40% said that they went into personal debt to pay for their campaigns. LGBTQ+ adults, according to a 2022 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, have less savings and lower household incomes than their cishet counterparts.

Most of the LGBTQ+ candidates surveyed – 71% – said that they faced anti-LGBTQ+ attacks during their campaigns. LGBTQ+ candidates in districts that tend to vote for Republicans were over twice as likely (24%) compared to those in blue districts (10%) to say that they faced at least one anti-LGBTQ+ attack per week during their campaigns. Black and Asian LGBTQ+ candidates also said that they were more likely to face anti-LGBTQ+ attacks on at least a weekly basis.

Most of the candidates surveyed – 85% – ran as Democrats. Four percent ran as independents and three percent ran as Republicans. Almost half – 49% – ran in safe Democratic districts or districts that lean Democratic, with around 20% in safe or lean-Republican districts and the rest in toss-up districts or non-partisan races.

LGBTQ+ candidates in the study also mostly ran in urban (42%) and suburban (41%) districts, with only 17% running in rural districts.

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