TRANSCRIPT: Lives At Stake, Samantha Allen on ‘Trans Day of Remembrance 2020’

Imara Jones: So, this Trans Awareness Month marks a historic set of breakthroughs, especially electorally for trans people. And here to help us unpack how this happened despite a year in which so many trans people were murdered, and a year in which so many trans people specifically in red states are facing a slew of anti-trans legislation is Samantha Allen, who is the author of “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States”. Samantha is not only an author of books, but also a journalist and has a PhD from Emory University. Samantha, thank you so much for joining us.

Samantha Allen: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Imara Jones: Of course, of course. So besides everyone needing to buy your book, and it’s entering holiday time, so it’s a great holiday idea. I’m wondering if you can just help set the stage for what happened on Election Day with the number of trans people that had all of these electoral wins in places that are not only where you would expect such as blue states, but also in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

Samantha Allen: Yeah, so, you know, while everyone was anxiously watching for that big presidential result, I was busy documenting all of the transgender wins on Election Night. And what happened was transgender representation i state legislatures nearly doubled on Election Night. So we saw, if you think back just three years ago, Danica Roem in Virginia was the only out transgender state legislator in the United states.

And now as of 2020, we’ve got Danica Roem in Virginia, Brianna Titone in Colorado, Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker in New Hampshire, both won reelection. And then as you mentioned earlier in the show, Sarah McBride is now the highest ranking transgender public official in the country. Taylor Small won in Vermont, Stephanie Byers won in Kansas, Mauree Turner, who you mentioned earlier in Oklahoma. We’re just seeing these transgender victories in state legislatures nationwide, not just in the expected places, you know, the blue states, but in places like Kansas and Oklahoma too.

Imara Jones: What do you think is behind these victories? I mean, as you say, it’s a dramatic explosion in representation in all these places that you expect and not expect. What’s driving these victories?

Samantha Allen: So I’ve interviewed probably about 65% of these candidates over the course of my journalistic career, and what almost all of them tell me is that when they saw Danica Roem win in Virginia, they realized they could do this too. And I think this is a dynamic that’s gonna be familiar to any trans person, whether you have aspirations to run for office or not. If you just see another trans person doing something that you didn’t know is possible for you, it unlocks potential for you. And so that’s how you get this like almost domino effect of Danica Roem winning, and then three years later, the number of transgender state legislators is almost doubling. It’s almost that simple to just see someone else chart out a path for you.

Imara Jones: Right, and it’s why representation matters. And we forget that representation can have an exponential impact on a situation or a group of people. I’m wondering if you could just dive a little bit deeper given the fact that you’ve spent so much time documenting the stories of queer people, trans people across the United states, particularly in red states. If you can just dive in and explain some of these wins like Mauree Turner in Oklahoma. I mean, who would ever think that, or as you say wins in Kansas, or even Brianna Titone, she had a really tough race, I think in an area that it needs Republican. And so what do you think is helping trans people win in these places that are not necessarily trans friendly?

Samantha Allen: Yeah, so, I think often trans folks in these places have witnessed attacks on trans people in their state legislatures. They’ve they’ve been sitting at home like not in the halls of government, watching legislators try to file bills that attack our restroom rights or our rights to change our identity documents to be more in accordance with our identity.

And at some point I think people are just saying, “Enough, like I guess the only way to stop that is “to go stop it myself.” And I just think that’s so inspiring to see. When I talk to NGOs, PACS that work on getting LGBTQ people elected, they all have this saying, they say, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” If you’re not there to make the decisions, your rights are gonna be up for grabs. And I think increasingly, we’re seeing trans people in these places that have been thought of as being more traditionally hostile to LGBTQ folks say, “No, I’m gonna be at the table to take us off the menu.”

Imara Jones: And then in that, what do you think, how do you think they’re able to get people in these places to respond to them? So, we’ve spoken really powerfully about how individual trans people just say, “You know what, I’m gonna go out and do this. “I’m sick of taking it, I’m gonna go out “and I’m gonna be a part of the process and I’m gonna win.” What do you think is happening for people, for the electorate, even in places where Danica is? I think that her district is also purple-ish. I don’t think that it’s overwhelmingly blue to be responsive to trans people in these places, what’s happening with the electorate?

Samantha Allen: Yeah, people are meeting trans people. You know, if you look at like public opinion polling, like several years ago, almost no one in the country knew an openly transgender person. Of course, they probably met transgender people who they didn’t know were transgender, but years later, that percentage keeps going up. People are meeting transgender people.

They’re realizing that their friends, their family members, their coworkers, and you can see like, again with public polling data that even in these more conservative parts of the US, the overwhelming majority of folks do support LGBTQ protections, non-discrimination protections. So I think people’s hearts and minds all across the country have been shifting in the right direction as they meet more queer folks, LGBT folks, trans folks. It’s just a matter of getting that political power now. And that there’s been a bit of a gap there that we’re starting to close.

Imara Jones: And given the fact that you’ve looked at all of these races, excuse me, from the beginning, since Danica Roem, to where we’ve ended up now, as you say, we’ve spoken to the majority of people that have run for office and who’ve won, who are trans. I’m wondering if you can just tell us what you think, or is the significance of these wins. In a broader lens of history, where do you think, where are we in this moment do you think? And what do you think is the, as I say, the significance much more broadly of these wins for where the country might be going with respect to us?

Samantha Allen: Yeah, I think it’s a moment of coming out of the shadows. I recently talked to a lot of folks in New Hampshire about the significance of having, not just one, but two transgender state legislators in the State House. And just everyday trans folks in New Hampshire were telling me like that they found that inspiring. Maybe they wanna run for office, or maybe they feel more comfortable or safer being out in their small town. I think it has this huge cultural impact that can be hard to trace because you can’t really quantify it, but you talk to trans folks on the ground and you get this overwhelming feeling of hope when you see wins like this.

I think in our LGBT movement for too long, I think sometimes leaders of our LGBT movement more broadly were kinda scared of letting trans people own our stories or meet the public or interact with the public. There was concern of like, “Oh, people are gonna be afraid “of trans people or not know how to categorize us “or not know what to do with us.” And I think what we’re seeing with these huge groundbreaking wins, these very public facing victories, that when people get to know trans people, they like us. It’s hard to stop that, it’s hard to unring that bell.

Imara Jones: Yeah, and let’s hope that that bell keeps being rung louder and harder. It’s so funny ’cause I think about things like, Lala Zannell who works at ACLU for the longest time, she’s had this whole campaign, personal campaign “Lala For President” and as she talks about it, she does it because she wants people to think that there can be a trans president. Right, like that we should be dreaming big in these places, in these moments, in terms of, as you say, like shifting the way that people think of us.

Lastly, one of the things I wanna ask you about given that we’re in a New York. New York city is liberal, lots of trans people, very strong protections for trans people across the board and services, ironically has never elected anyone trans to any political office. That could change next year ’cause there are two candidates running for city council next year, but that’s never happened. But it has happened in certain red states, right. And so I’m wondering if you can just tell us what you think that means. Why are places that are more hostile electing us and then places that are seemingly open to us that hasn’t happened?

Samantha Allen: Yeah, when I wrote my book, someone told me a quote that kind of became the thesis statement, which was, “Oppression and opposition can build “really powerful connections.” So I feel like there is something about that atmosphere of a red State where this kind of like onslaught of legislative attacks can kind of band the LGBTQ community together, make people realize the importance of getting trans people in public office. And that’s why I think you sometimes see red states showing up blue State counterparts in terms of setting some of these precedents. I think it has everything to do with people like reacting to some of these attacks. I don’t think that means we’re never gonna see a trans State legislator in New York. I think that that will come soon and I hope it does.

Imara Jones: Well, let’s hope it does too, but here’s to celebrating the powerful wins and changes this month, even as there’s so much difficulty in this moment. And thank you so much Samantha for your work, for your work as a journalist, for telling our stories, for following these races, for believing that these are important and to documenting the full range of who we are, and not just in blue states, but also in red states. Thank you so much for coming on tonight.

You can watch this full Lives At Stake event here: https://youtu.be/LXSeqrvSsVU

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Learn more about TransLash Podcast with Imara Jones.

Read transcripts from other interviews and Lives At Stake events here.

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