By Gwyneth Dunsford, Opinions Contributor
Liz Malette is interested in politics. But the transgender teen from Eastern Passage has had few role models in civic life until this week.
On Nov. 2, Victoria Kowlakowski became the first transgender judge in the United States, after winning the position in Alameda County, just outside of San Francisco.
Last Tuesday, news coverage of the American mid-term elections focused on the Democrats losing their majority in the House of Representatives. Under the cacophony of coverage, a landmark occasion was left mostly unheralded. Kowlakowski’s campaign also focused on her experience as a patent and copyright lawyer, rather than as her status as a trans woman; this may have contributed to the quiet surrounding this historic moment.
Across San Francisco Bay, another trans woman was poised for victory. In the same city where Harvey Milk made his mark as a gay activist, Theresa Sparks is hoping to set an equally significant precedent. Theresa Sparks was running for supervisor in San Francisco. The vote was so close in her district that votes were still being counted three days after the election was over.
But the liberal bastion of San Francisco is a far cry from Halifax, and transgender candidates have yet to make an impact in municipal or provincial politics here. “Liberal-minded communities,” says Malette, “will elect trans officials long before it happens here.”
Liz Malette is a nineteen year old trans woman who has campaigned for Premier Darrell Dexter and MLA Becky Kent. She says people’s misunderstanding her status as trans would stop her from getting elected to public office. Malette thinks that most trans people would have difficulty being scrutinized by the public.
Once trans people have completed their transition, some of them ‘live in stealth,’ without disclosing or making public their physical sex at birth.This would be impossible for a politician. Under public and media scrutiny, their trans identity would be exposed. The Canadian public feels a certain privilege to the identities of their politicians. Elected officials are meticulously examined and exposed under the watchful eye of the press. It is unthinkable that transgender candidates would be allowed to keep their identity private. Being displayed on a public stage is likely a deterrent to political life for trans people.
Transgender people are also less accepted than gay or lesbian people and face more obstacles in seeking office. Kowlakowski ‘s landmark win only happened last week, while the first gay judge in the United States, Stephen Lachs, was elected in 1979.
Traditionally, trans people have also often been excluded from the gay and lesbian community and don’t have the same health, social and activism supports.
One might ask if the residents of HRM are ready to elect a transgender person to public office. For this to happen, voters need to understand the realities faced by trans people in order to accept them as public officials. Transgender people live in a society where gender is only recognized in a binary: male or female. This binary reduces folks who are born into a sex different than the one with which they identify at best to the status of “confused.” At worst, this binary enforces pathological implications, implying that folks who don’t fit into such a binary are somehow ill. Our gender, however, actually has a variety of both biological and cultural possibilities. Cultural theorist Judith Butler, for example, argues that the gender binary itself is a construction rather than a fact.
Even finding gender neutral bathrooms are daily struggles for trans folks. Alternatively, when using the sexed bathroom that fits their identity, they face harassment and assault. The attack Houston trans man Lance Reyna faced in a college bathroom in June is not a unique incident.
Ultimately, voters should examine a candidate’s policies over their background. Transgender people are certainly capable of running and holding office. They are adept communicators, advocates and active community members.
Deep-seeded prejudices and a lack of awareness about trans issues make the electorate blind to trans candidates’ suitability for public life. Malette, however, remains hopeful. “Because of the rights and awareness movement,” she says, “we should see a trans candidate in office in ten years.”
Malette and the transgender community will not launch into public life in leaps and bounds, but the American mid-term election represents them inching towards equality.