In 2017, Danica Roem made history as the nation’s first out transgender representative elected to a state legislature and ran alongside a group of 20 other trans candidates. Now, five years later, the number of trans and nonbinary people running for office has nearly quadrupled to 72, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
Leigh Finke is among this historic group and if elected, she will become Minnesota’s first out trans person in the state legislature. She is running to represent District 66A in Minnesota, which encompasses part of Minneapolis. Finke is a journalist, and filmmaker who focuses largely on civil rights and LGBTQ issues.
Finke said her desire to run for office built up steadily as she watched politicians around the country attack LGBTQ people through legislative proposals and harassment campaigns online. One of things that pushed her decision was the 2021 proposed bill that would ban trans girls in youth sports in her state.
“I realized that we’re just one election away from having the whole legislature flip and this legislation becoming law,” Finke said in an interview with the Washington Blade. “That really scared me and made me nervous, not just for myself but for the community.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 191 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed in state legislatures around the country in 2022. 168 of these bills specifically target trans people.
Victory Fund spokesperson Albert Fujii said in an email that the political attacks have fueled a “record-breaking Rainbow Wave” for the midterms.
“These candidates showed tremendous grit in the face of unrelenting bigotry on the campaign trail from transphobic bigots like Ron DeSantis,” Fujii said. “While we are confident they will perform well on Tuesday, their impact is already visible — we are seeing a new wave of trans and nonbinary candidates considering a run for office themselves. Voters’ voices are loud and clear: enough is enough.”
Alicia Kozlowski, a two-spirit and nonbinary candidate for Minnesota state house district 8B, said they are standing on the backs of other history-making figures like Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.).
“When you elect queer folks and people of color to office, you change entire conversations, which leads to different results,” Kozlowski said in an email. “As a state representative, I won’t leave my powerful identities at any door to make others comfortable.”
Jessica Katzenmeyer, a candidate for the Wisconsin state Senate, said seeing trans people win elections creates a snowball effect, encouraging others to run. Roem’s 2017 victory inspired her own run for office.
“When you see other trans folks who are successful, it kind of makes you go ‘oh, maybe I can do this too’ and it just brings more encouragement to the rest of the community,” she said. “Even if I don’t win my race, I hope people see me and realize that they can do this too.”
Katzenmeyer, a longtime Wisconsin resident, Teamsters leader and LGBTQ activist ran in 2020 for the State Assembly but fell just short of winning. This time, she is running for state senate with the chance of becoming Wisconsin’s first out trans legislator and the nation’s second out trans person elected to a state senate.
“It’s been hard to really consider it because I’ve been so busy,” Katzenmeyer said of her historic run. “But to be the first trans person in the legislature would mean a lot to me and a lot to the community, not just in my district but also statewide. So, there’s a lot of responsibility with that.”
Another candidate who has been driven by the increase in anti-LGBTQ legislation is Emily Dievendorf, who is running to represent Michigan’s 77th House District. As attacks have ramped up from Republican politicians, Dievendorf said she has become increasingly frustrated at how members of her own party are responding.
“In Michigan, trans and nonbinary people are the butt of the joke for Republicans. We are also the community that is taking the blame for supposed threats to children and the public,” Dievendorf said in an interview. “And we have the other party whose main strategy seems to be silence.”
If elected, Dievendorf would become the state’s first nonbinary state legislator and said she wants to be a voice to call out bigotry in both parties.
“We’re seeing that Democrats in general want to stick to mild conversation to make sure that no one feels pushed out but what that actually does is condone extreme hate towards marginalized folks, making it easier to pass legislation that furthers the disposal of human lives,” she said. “So I’m excited — and a little scared — to be able to stand on the house floor and make my colleagues across the aisle see me be my authentic self.”
As an example of trans representation working to stop discriminatory legislation, Finke pointed to an anti-trans bill in Utah which was vetoed by the governor after he met with trans people and their families.
“I don’t think [representation] is enough to change the trajectory of the country right now but it means something to have a voice in those rooms and make them at least have to look you in the eye when they say they’re taking away your healthcare or punishing your kids because they’re trans,” Finke said.
The “Rainbow Wave” in the 2022 midterms will only be the beginning as communities push to change the demographic makeup of their leaders, Kozlowski said. If elected, they said they plan to fight for the civil rights of every community.
“Everything we do is interconnected — LGBTQ rights, climate justice, reproductive freedom, economic justice, racial justice — our liberation and sovereignty on all these issues are braided together,” they said. “This is more than one person stepping up to run for office, more than one election cycle, it’s about a movement about having a government that has our backs, it’s a movement for our shared future that’s at stake.”