Imara Jones: Hey fam, welcome to the TransLash podcast, the show about news, politics and culture from a trans perspective. I’m your host, Imara Jones, and you’re listening to our–drum roll… Election special. Bring down the balloons. For many of us, politics feels pretty bleak right now. Gee, I wonder why. We’re anxious. We’re scared. We’re not sure what next week will bring. And we’re getting so much stressful news everywhere, right now.
One way, of course, to deal with all that anxiety is for all of us to vote, but because of immigration status, or past incarceration, not everyone can. There are of course, reasons to be fearful. But there are also reasons to be hopeful. In this episode, we’re going to explore the light in all the darkness. Today you’re going to hear about trans resistance and mobilization in red states this election cycle. To get into that we talked to Samantha Allen, a PhD, journalist and author of Real Queer America.
Samantha Allen: I think that there’s this amazing groundswell of change happening in this country in a way that can’t be stopped.
Imara Jones: Plus, you’ll hear from Honey Mahogany, the first Black out trans person to be elected to a political party position in California. She’s going to talk about what it means to push for meaningful change at the local level.
Honey Mahogany: I am very gender non-conforming when I go to work, and I think like for people to see me like in City Hall with my shoes clacking, like that must shake things up for them.
Imara Jones: And we’re going to start as always, despite all this fear and bleakness with a moment of Trans Joy.
There are so many exciting races the cycle. Most exciting, however, is that there are more out trans people running for office than ever. One race in particular is drawing a lot of excitement. That’s the State Senate race in Delaware, where Sarah McBride is practically guaranteed to win. And when she does, she’ll become the first out trans state senator ever anywhere in US history. Here’s what Sarah soon-to-be State Senator McBride says about why trans and other marginalized communities need pressing change right now.
Sarah McBride: The urgency of the issues that we face was driven home for me through my relationship with my late husband, Andrew Cray. A year into our relationship, Andy was diagnosed with cancer. When Andy found out that he didn’t have much time left he asked me to marry him. We married on the rooftop of our apartment building. And then just four days after that he passed away. Knowing and loving Andy left me profoundly changed. He taught me how to love and be loved.
But more than anything else, my relationship with Andy underscored for me that change cannot come fast enough. And for me, I am reminded that every time we ask a person to sit back and allow for a slow conversation to take place before we treat them with dignity and ensure them opportunity, we are asking that person to watch their one life pass by without the respect and fairness that every person deserves. And that’s too much to ask of anyone.
Imara Jones: Sarah, we know that you will help to bring about that change. Sarah McBride, you are Trans Joy.
Now, turning to the news, we of course are all anxiously awaiting to see what happens on Tuesday. (What’s on Tuesday? Honestly, if someone does ask you that just push them off a cliff.) And the outcome of Tuesday will have a big impact on the lives of trans people. Incidentally, Joe Biden put out a plan for trans people last week, you can read it for yourself in our show notes. However, this year, like every year, is being depicted as a contest between red states and blue states. We have stereotypes about these parts of America.
But the fact is that half of queer people in the United States live in states which we call red. Next year, no matter who wins, they will face an onslaught of laws pending in state legislatures targeting them. But in the face of these challenges, trans and queer communities are resisting and thriving. Here to help us unpack why trans people in red states should be top of mind this year is Samantha Allen. She’s author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States and is the memoir author of M to (WT)F: Twenty-Six of the Funniest Moments from My Transgender Journey. Samantha was a senior reporter for The Daily Beast, and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone and CNN, among others. And on top of it all, she holds a PhD in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from Emory University in Atlanta.
I wanted to start out, before we talk about politics, to talk about the personal first. Of course the personal becomes political, especially as trans people. But our journeys often are super private. And you were raised a Mormon, a tradition which emphasizes discretion further still. So I’m curious when you decided that you would make your life by telling your own story. And not only doing that, but also telling the stories of trans people in general?
Samantha Allen: Yeah, so I came out as a transgender woman, in 2012 when I was attending graduate school, in Atlanta, Georgia. I was born into a Mormon family, and so you know, Mormonism sort of teaches you that your gender is like fixed and eternal. You know, like, we talked about gender being assigned at birth, Mormonism teaches that gender is, you know, assigned before you’re even born in the premortal existence. Right.
So, to me, I was coming out under pretty interesting and challenging circumstances. I think this was also a few years before, what became known as the transgender tipping point in 2015. Time Magazine said, like, this is it, it’s here, it’s the big transgender moment. So a few years before the term “transgender” started becoming a kind of a household term. And that’s kind of the milieu in which I was coming out, and I was blogging about my experience, and that turned into freelance writing. And that turned into a career in journalism, because I found telling my own story felt rewarding, and being seen in that way felt rewarding. But what felt even more rewarding to me was telling stories about other trans folks and other LGBT folks, drawing light to those experiences as well.
Imara Jones: Yeah, talk about, as you say, challenging circumstances, I think that that is a euphemism, when you say that you were taught that your gender was eternal, capital “e,” that just speaks to the character and strength that you have as a person. And that perspective is really important, because I think it explains the insights that you have about trans and queer people across the country, also facing challenging circumstances.
We often stereotype the red states. And we know from your reporting across the South and Midwest and plains, that trans people are facing really difficult circumstances. What are some of the misconceptions that we need to fix both about those places and about the queer and trans people that are in them?
Samantha Allen: Yeah. So you know, a lot of that reporting is born out of that personal commitment. My adult life since I transitioned has mostly taken place against a red state backdrop, I came out in Atlanta, I met my wife in Indiana, I found my chosen family in Johnson City, Tennessee, I got married in Florida. So you know, I’ve had all of this beautiful first hand experience building and finding community in these places. And what that exposed me to was the amazing organizing work that LGBT and trans folks are doing in these places, they’re helping get nondiscrimination ordinances passed, they’re helping ban conversion therapy at local and county levels.
There’s this amazing work happening, but it’s hard to kind of break through and show that it’s happening because of all these, you know, stereotypes about LGBT experience in, in red states, when when you see it covered in national media, you almost exclusively hear the bad stories about state legislatures trying to pass an anti-LGBT laws or an anti-trans bill making its way through the state legislature.
You know, sometimes you’ll get like a nice fluffy little human interest piece about, like the trans prom king or like, stuff like that. But by and large, it’s just like, oh, look how worn down and like discriminated against trans people are in these places. And those stories are true. Those stories are real, they’re very much worth drawing attention to. But I think what gets missed often is trans resilience in these places.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think that that’s absolutely right. You know, I grew up in Atlanta and the trans community there, queer community there, is really strong and politically active and visionary. It’s re-envisioning through an organization called Snapcode down there, for example, a totally different way of thinking about incarceration that’s trans-led. And as you say, those stories of resilience and progress and community, don’t get told. In so many ways they may teach us things about how we move forward.
I want to pick up on something that you just mentioned, which is the anti trans-legislation that’s pending in 23 state legislatures across the country, mostly in red states. Do you find that the trans and queer communities that are organizing and resisting, and all the things that you spoke about that we need to focus on, are those communities hopeful or despondent, you think about their futures and their possibilities?
Part of my motivation for asking this is that in our last podcast, Debi Jackson, who is a former Southern Baptist and mother of a trans tweenager, Avery, said that we shouldn’t give up hope on Conservatives as an Alabamian herself, that we shouldn’t give up the idea of support from Conservatives or southerners or people across the country for our issues, to communities that are trans and queer in the state share that or not?
Samantha Allen: I feel the same way. And that’s largely the sentiment I’ve encountered in my reporting career and researching and writing my book. I think that there’s this amazing groundswell of change happening in this country in a way that can’t be stopped. It’s people talking to their friends, their family members, their coworkers, people they go to church with. Once people get to know trans folks, it’s hard for them to like, close their hearts again. You can open somebody’s heart, and it’s rare that someone’s gonna snap it back shut again. And I think what gives me optimism and hope, specifically, is when these anti-trans bills get proposed, when they come to the state legislature, what’s happening is trans people themselves, we’re telling our stories.
I think we learned from the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance getting repealed that, you know, LGBT groups used to kind of get skittish about putting trans people and trans faces in front of trans issues, there was this idea that the public was going to be afraid of trans folks and not want to hear our stories or our pleas for our rights coming out of our mouths.
And we realized with the repeal of that legislation in Houston, kind of what a bad strategy that was. And ever since then, LGBT groups have been giving trans people the floor and the platform to actually talk about our stories and experiences. And that’s helped get a lot of anti-trans bills killed before they could become anti-trans laws.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think of Danica Roem, who is a state legislator in Virginia, who rarely speaks about being trans in politics. And when one of those bills came up last year gave incredibly moving and effective speech that killed it. And I think that you’re absolutely right, the way that you put it that when people open their hearts to us, it’s hard for them to, to close them.
I wanted to have a sense of why you think then in these states, there is so much anti-trans legislation, given these areas and ideas around progress and change. What are the other dynamics that are at work? Because when I hear you I’m extremely hopeful, and I’m like, it’s really important that we’re in red states, and we have to live everywhere.
And we have to have people get to know us. But then I suddenly think, oh, but there is also this other reality that exists there. And so I’m wondering if you can just talk about the way in which the people that you have spoken to see those kind of forces that are trying to take away their rights, like how do they kind of square that circle in their mind?
Samantha Allen: Yeah, so there’s kind of a disjuncture between where Americans are in terms of hearts and minds on LGBT issues, you know, overwhelming majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, they want to see LGBT non discrimination protections. They support the humanity of trans people. But then on a political level, what we see is that maybe about a good third of the country does have very strong negative sentiment toward LGBT and especially trans folks. And unfortunately, the way in which our political reality is constructed, especially in places like the American South, that wing of the public has a disproportionate amount of control over how politics happen.
Because to get elected state legislators have to go through a primary process, which often means appealing to more extreme elements of a base, which means taking extreme anti-LGBT positions. You know, so you’ll hear from folks who work in state legislatures in or around the right side of LGBT issues say that they know, like, Republican colleagues who personally are on the right side of LGBT issues, but don’t feel like they can say that out loud, because of what it would do for their campaigning or what kind of, you know, political money they can accept or that kind of thing.
And I cry crocodile tears for that predicament right? Because I think it’s some point, you need to have some political courage. And we’re not seeing enough of that. But I think especially in the South, that’s still what you’re facing, you’re facing a vocal minority of anti-LGBT people still retaining that control over state legislatures that, that’s kind of been broken and in more coastal, or, more established blue states.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think disjuncture is the perfect way to put it, it is where our politics is, in general. I mean, even if you look at the values that people say that they teach their children versus the values that they allow our president so far, to be able to exhibit without any penalty. There are all these disjunctures in American politics right now, which I think is the perfect word for it.
So let’s go back and end in the place where trans and queer people in red states find themselves, which is in a place of hope. One of the things that is really hopeful, and that helps to bridge this dynamic that you mentioned between where people are in LGBTQ issues themselves and where the politics is, trying to bridge and make that be more consistent and more human and loving is the presence of so many trans people running for political office this year, a record breaking number.
And I’m wondering for you how this pushes our political system to be more rational, right in this disjuncture that you’re talking about? And also how it fits into this narrative and idea of resilience and hope that is there, because so many of these candidates are in places like West Virginia, and Utah and all these other places. So can you just talk a little bit about what it means for trans people to be running for office in this environment that you’re describing?
Samantha Allen: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, only a few years ago, we had no transgender people on any state legislature in the US and now we have four transgender state legislators. And I’m, you know, as the author of Real Queer America, I’m tremendously gratified to see that, like, our first trans state legislators are coming out of states like Colorado and New Hampshire and Virginia, not you know, necessarily New York or California, right off the jump, right? They’re starting in these places where trans people have had to display this, like, incredible amount of resilience and survival. And I love that it’s trans folks in these places who are kind of charting the way and leading us to see what’s possible.
Danica roem, who I believe you mentioned earlier, you know, she was elected to the Virginia state legislature in 2017. And, and that has just had this like, lightning bolt effect on trans people running for office. She became the first transgender person elected and seated to a state legislature. Now we’ve got four transgender state legislators serving openly nationwide and after this election cycle, that number could double I don’t know what the mathematical term for something that doubles every cycle is, some Fibonacci sequence or something like that.
Imara Jones: Exponential growth.
Samantha Allen: Yeah it’s, it’s on real strong curve upward. And the people that we’re seeing running this cycle are in places like, you know, New Hampshire, again, Kansas, Texas, Delaware, Wisconsin. Trans people are running everywhere, because they’ve seen that it’s possible anywhere.
Imara Jones: Well, on that note of hope in red states, and the possibility for change, and the ability for trans people to find a space in all of that, what a wonderful way to end our interview. And I want to thank you so much for your insight, for your brilliance, for your ability to be able to report and tell these stories. And I hope that you will come back and speak to us again, and I’m so excited for all the work that is in progress for you in the way in which you’re just going to contribute to our understanding. Thank you so much.
Samantha Allen: Thank you for having me.
Imara Jones: That was Samantha Allen, a journalist and author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States.
And now it’s time for transform, the part of our show where we elevate changemakers in our community who innovate and create a better future for us all. Transform takes us into their world. Joining me today is the one and only Honey Mahogany. You might also know her from the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
When honey isn’t shining bright on stage or screen with stunning performances, she’s pushing for meaningful change through politics. Earlier this year, Honey was elected as a Vice Chair of the Democratic County Central Committee in San Francisco. This makes her the first out Black trans person in California to be elected to a political party post. She’s also a co-founder of the Transgender District, which is the first ever trans historic district in the world. Honey Mahogany, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m so so appreciative.
Honey Mahogany: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Imara Jones: Thank you. I wanted to just start out a little bit with the intersection of your biography, you are Black, and an immigrant and trans. And I’m wondering if these overlapping identities are what propel your interest in politics, and what you feel is personally at stake for you this year?
Honey Mahogany: I think that they do. For myself coming from an immigrant family and my parents, my entire family mostly immigrated from Ethiopia, to the San Francisco Bay Area, at least on my mother’s side. And growing up as the child of refugees, like I was keenly aware of how a government could oppress people and how they could be powerless and forced to leave their country because it is unsafe to be there.
And living in San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities in the country, I grew up with this idea that everybody’s equal, and that it’s what’s different, that makes us stronger, and a more vibrant community. And to see then, administrations and policies as I grew up, change and you know, more conservative regimes take control of the government and start denying people rights and people, you know, arguing about whether diversity was a good thing or a bad thing, or people should be shamed or deported. I mean, like all of these things just seemed so inherently wrong and kind of forced me to get involved with politics and with local government more specifically.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think our lives are inherently political, right, especially as trans people, especially as trans people of color. And the greatest impact on our lives, we forget this, is actually local politics. That’s what decides so much of how we’re able to exist. And so I think all of what you said, makes complete sense and ties together.
I’m wondering why you decided to participate in party-based politics, because that’s such a controversial area for so many in our community. There’s a lot of skepticism of traditional political institutions, as you know, resistance. So what made you decide to go that route?
Honey Mahogany: Well, the Trump administration is part of it. Right? I mean, it was so clear to me that there was a very direct attack on the national level, and in a way where it really felt like there was a top down attitude of we’re going to roll back the progress that we’ve made at the federal level, and that how that impact was going to sort of trickle down to everybody else, and how it sort of seemed to infect and sort of slide into in a very insidious ways.
I’m a part of the the local San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, right. So that body is really involved in endorsing local ballot initiatives and candidates. And so that’s an opportunity, again, to endorse progressive candidates and the different legislative policies that can help with things like preventing displacement, providing services for the homeless, health care, minimum wage, all these different things can happen on the local level.
So that’s why I got involved with the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee is to really make sure that we were electing people to local office that embody that my community’s progressive values. That being said, I think when you move into the role of politics or being a legislator or working from the legislators office, all of a sudden, you’re not just representing one community anymore. You’re representing all of your constituency. And everyone has differing views. And yes, this is true even within a community like the trans community, for example, is definitely not a monolith.
Imara Jones: I mean, I think what you’re describing is at the heart of probably a lot of our community skepticism, which is that inherently in politics, there are trade-offs. Because no one gets exactly what they want. It just doesn’t work that way. Because democracy is about mediating all of these differences, which means that everyone’s going to have to give up something. And I think, though that a part of that the skepticism that we have is that trans and gender non-conforming people, people who are historically marginalized, feel that in that mediation, that we’re always going to be sold short, right, that somehow we’re never going to be included.
But I would argue: the process that you’re describing, is that why it needs to be us who’s in the room actually participating in negotiating right that our solution can’t be well, we’re not going to participate, because that’s a surefire way to not get what we need, what we have to do is to be kind of in the room, how does that strike you?
Honey Mahogany: No, exactly, exactly. And I don’t know why this is coming up for me right now. But I also feel like, it is very hard to do that. And I see like, there’s certain people in our community who are able to do that and then who are also, as you mentioned earlier, seen as sort of betraying the community or selling out, and are sort of attacked for filling that role, even as they are doing it on behalf of the community. And so I think that part is hard, right? Because then you start to doubt yourself, and you’re like, “Well, why am I doing this? Like, am I actually doing what I think I’m doing?” And it becomes a very, I think you’re in a like a tenuous position.
But like you said, you know, the facts that we are Black people of trans experience, right? It’s not just anybody who’s doing that it’s people who, at a very basic level, have an understanding of what it means to not just be oppressed, but to not have a seat at the table, and have to fight to get that seat. And not everybody is necessarily able to do that, right? And so making it easier for those folks that come after us.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, you have to do politics, not because you want to be popular or because you want to be loved, but because you want to make a difference, right? Like it’s a totally different orientation. And that’s the only thing that you can use to guide you, right, is, are you making a difference? And are you doing the right things for the right reasons? And then people are going to perceive that how they perceive that, you know, that, that’s that you’re not going to have any control over that. And I do think that what you are describing is just political life, right?
It’s different than a life of, you know, being an Instagram influencer, right, where your whole job is to literally to get as many likes as possible, right? Politics isn’t like that. It’s a totally, totally different thing. And that’s one of the things that you’re, you’re learning. And I think it’s important for people listening to this podcast to understand that. On the flip side, can you just talk about how you feel now that you’re in these rooms? What are the possibilities for us? What’s the possibility for our space and talents in these traditional halls of power?
Like, you’ve spoken about what it’s like for the trans community to see you are part of the trans community see you in these roles and the challenge of that, but reverse it? What is it like, you think, for traditional political people to see you in this role? And how are you feeling about space and possibility?
Honey Mahogany: Yeah, I guess it’s exciting for me, because I am very gender nonconforming when I go to work. And so I think like for people to see me, like in City Hall, you know, with my shoes clacking, like that must shake things up for them. And it’s also interesting, because again, like going back to the constituency, like it’s completely diverse, and we have people from all spectrums, all religions, people who are relatively conservative people who are very liberal, and I am in a position of power. And so they have to come in to me and deal with me, like, we can’t get around dealing with me. And so I think it’s empowering in that sense that, like, I realized that, yes, I can do this.
And people can’t go around me, and they have to deal with me like, that is an incredibly powerful thing. I think that a lot of us, especially if you’re Black, especially if you’re trans, like, are very familiar with what it is to be ignored or looked over or people not wanting to deal with you because of who you are. And here we are in a situation where they can’t ignore me. And then I think for other politicians or other people who are working at City Hall, it’s definitely a learning experience. I mean, it hasn’t always been smooth. Even in San Francisco, it’s been a little bumpy. Pronouns are always you know, tricky or an issue. I don’t know if that’s going to maybe in the next decade, it’ll change, but right right now, I think that’s how it is. But other than that, I have to say like, I think maybe because I am in San Francisco, I think people are mostly very respectful.
Probably because they’re afraid of what would happen if they were labeled as transphobic. So it’s been overall very empowering and exciting. And then also sometimes tiring, because you don’t always want to have to be the one to like, educate people. But I think that’s something that we all do in our everyday lives anyway, especially if we’re working sort of outside of our own community. So I feel blessed to be able to do that.
Imara Jones: That is so interesting, because one of the things that you’re talking about is just how your presence makes a difference. You know, when you’re talking about like, I’m walking down the hall and city hall, or I’m in these places, and just me being there is forcing people to have to shift, forcing people to have to behave differently and to think about us differently. And so I’m wondering if you can share, this just occurred to me, what’s the overlap between you as a performance artist and you as a political actor, right, because to some degree, what you’re describing, it’s not a performance, but it is a performance art, right, I walk in looking a certain way, and knowing that my presence is forcing people to deal with the image that they are interacting with in a certain way. And that’s shifting things. And what’s the overlap you think, or the interaction between, as I say, your performance, artists, self and your political self?
Honey Mahogany: I mean, I think that politics is probably 70% theatre. And I, I mean that with real true respect for the work of politicians. I mean, I work for supervisor Matt Haney, who is just tireless, and I think as an aide for him, like we’re all working to our bones, it’s a tremendous amount of work. And a lot of it is theatre, because what you’re doing is you’re basically projecting people’s own views back at them, right, and you are fighting to make things happen for people. And you have to do that by negotiating.
I also think that being an entertainer and performer has allowed me access to community members in a way that I think maybe a lot of politicians don’t necessarily have access, because it’s given me a certain level of name recognition. And I think that it’s definitely given me skills that maybe not other politicians have, whether it be being able to do fundraisers and events pretty easily because that’s what we do, right?
So I think that the two kind of do go hand in hand quite a bit. And I continue to be a part of nightlife. I haven’t distanced myself from it. But I feel like I’ve grown into this new world, where I now feel very comfortable.
Imara Jones: Yeah. Well, it makes total sense that you would do well in politics and gravitate towards politics, the fact that you understand the intersection of it as theatre and as substance. And it’s probably why this is just the beginning for you of your political career. And I’m so thrilled to be able to talk to you at this stage in your journey. And I know that there’s so much more to come.
Honey Mahogany: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I’m super excited to have the opportunity to talk to you. And I hope we can do it again. Because this has been really fun for me.
Imara Jones: Yeah, absolutely. Anytime, whenever you run for office, just knock on our door. We’ll be happy to have you back.
Honey Mahogany: I will.
Imara Jones: Thank you so much. And I know that I speak for so many of us. We’re so glad you’re in the room.
Honey Mahogany: Thank you. Appreciate it.
Imara Jones: That was Honey Mahogany, who is a performance artist, and a Vice Chair of the Democratic County Central Committee of San Francisco.
Thank you for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now listen all the way through, and I mean all the way through, to the end of the show for something extra. I’m Imara Jones.
If you like what you heard, please go to Apple podcasts to rate and review us. Yes, do that, it makes a difference. You can listen to TransLash wherever you get your podcast. Check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter.
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at translash media, like us on Facebook and tell your friends. TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media by Futuro Studios.
The TransLash team includes Ruby Fludzinski, Oliver-Ash Kleine, Montana Thomas and Yannick Eike Mirko, and the Futuro Studios team includes Nicole Rothwell, Jess Alvarenga, Stephanie Lebow, Leah Shaw, Julia Caruso and Sophie Davis. Our digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano with support from Sean Watkins.
The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records.
All right, so what am I looking forward to, drum roll?
That was a bad drum roll. So I am looking forward to the end of the elections, sort of, right? I feel that it will be both an end and the beginning. That’s just a general feeling that I’m having. I think it’s going to be kind of bumpy afterwards. But I’m really hopeful that we can make the changes that we need to beginning on November 3.
But what I’m super excited about more than that is the fact that we’re going to have a special drop of this podcast, we normally do it every two weeks, as you know, but we’re going to release one on November 5, just two days after the election in just what six days from now, because we know that there’s going to be so much to unpack and so I’m going to be speaking with Katelyn burns, who is a trans woman and political reporter at Fox. So make sure that you keep your eyes peeled for that, regardless of what happens.
We’re going to unpack it for you. We’re going to be there, you know, hold your hand and embrace you. And we’re going to keep moving and we’re going to keep surviving no matter what. So make sure you look out for our special podcast on November 5th.
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