Amidst rising hate crime, death tolls, and virulent, transphobic legislative attacks across the United States, having trans representatives in the government is more significant than ever before.
There is perhaps no better example of this than in Washington State, where hate crime stats are rising and activists have been fighting tirelessly against the passage of a bill that would repeal existing protections for transgender people in public spaces, such as restrooms. Danni Askini, the executive director of the Gender Justice League, has lead the movement to preserve and advance the civil rights of transgender people in Washington—and she's just announced her run for a seat in the House of Representatives
In an interview with Broadly, Askini discussed the political landscape for trans people in the United States today. She explained that certain forces are attempting "to strip away public accommodation protections" for trans people. "I've been one of the leaders at the forefront, both locally and nationally, trying to push back against those attempts by extremists," Askini said. She uses the word "extremists" carefully and purposefully: "They are extremists who want to dismantle civil rights for LGBT people."
There's a huge lack of diversity in terms of representation across the spectrum of identity, both for trans people and also LGBTQ people of color.
The Olympian has had a long career working for the rights of marginalized people. "I was the Policy Director of Basic Rights Oregon and the National Program Director at the Gay Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco," she said, adding that her work has not been solely focused on trans issues: "I have been doing a broad array of civil rights work around health care access, anti-bullying in schools, working on marriage equality issues, and then, of course, fighting homelessness in the LGBT community, working with and for homeless LGBTQ youth."
Askini is committed to tackling homelessness in Washington, in part because she once lived without a home. "I was a homeless youth, and I was in foster care when I was younger," she said. "Washington State foster youth have the highest dropout rate of any young people in schools, and that's a huge problem."
There have been very few other transgender people to have been nominated to state legislature in the US. One of them is Althea Garrison, who transitioned in the 1970s and was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1992. But Garrison wasn't out about being trans when she was elected. According to GQ, the fact that Garrison was transgender was a well-known secret in Boston political circles, and she was viciously outed by Eric Fehrnstrom, who was then a writer at the Boston Herald and would one day become top advisor to Republican president–wannabe Mitt Romney.
"As far as I know, there currently aren't any openly trans people sitting on state legislatures in the country." Askini said. "I would say there's a huge lack of diversity in terms of representation across the spectrum of identity, both for trans people and also LGBTQ people of color." This lack of diversity has major consequences; without representation, marginalized groups are increasingly vulnerable to the political machinations of the conservative right.
LGBT people, people of color, and other marginalized populations are systematically shut out from access to leadership.
"Having a seat at the table means a great deal," Askini said. "Other people respect you [because] they know that you have a district or community behind you, that you're not just representing yourself but you're representing a host of people." Having a representative elevates issues that may be easily dismissed otherwise. Askini mentioned the high murder rate of trans women in 2015 and further explained that the intense violence plaguing trans populations is the result of systematic discrimination that cannot be resolved without diligent political efforts. "It's going to take an immense amount of work for us to continue to tackle the structural reasons why that's happening," Askini said.
The lack of diversity represented in US government is indicative of structural inequity. "The money that is involved in politics is very daunting to a lot of people," she said, adding that the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to win or be competitive in a race effectively eliminates candidates from marginalized groups—the population that has suffered oppression at the hands of unjust politics. "There's a huge class barrier," Askini said.
It's not just the money. Askini explained that there are multiple factors that coalesce to homogenize the political sector. Running for office also "requires you to have a broad base of issues and experiences in terms of policy," she said. "LGBT people, people of color, and other marginalized populations are systematically shut out from access to leadership, or the work that they do is not necessarily seen as leadership work."
Because of this, Askini underscores the importance of identity. She says that because we're living in a time of such inequality, it matters who you are. There's a power just in the fact that she, a transgender person, is undertaking this campaign. "I hope that my run will help inspire other people to get in," Askini said. "We can't just sit on the sidelines anymore."
"Our culture needs to learn that leadership can come from many places and look many different ways," she said, explaining that trans people are often written off professionally or politically because their life experiences and lines of work do not always conform to traditional and accepted ideas about what constitutes a leader. Askini says there's a type of leadership that is acquired by working through the system, and sure, that can be admirable. But, there's another form of leadership—the kind that disenfranchised people are more likely to come into. These are "people who are born leaders, who are grassroots activists, who come to their leadership from struggle and who are forced to the front because they are unwilling to accept the terrible conditions in which they find themselves and the people that they love," Askini said. "That is was I consider to be courageous leadership, which is just as powerful and meaningful as academic or intellectual leadership."
But Askini is aiming to fight for more than just explicitly transgender issues. "My run is really about economic justice as it is the extremist [transphobic] attacks that we're facing." She says that wages in her state have been stagnant, and further underscores the way that broader policies impact marginalize groups. Despite the fact that Seattle raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, "trans people continue to experience horrific rates of homelessness. We are having one of the worst housing crises in the country here in Seattle, with some of the fastest rising rent costs."
Askini is committed to her campaign, and to correcting the lack of representation that transgender people have in the United States' supposedly representative government. "We need a fighter in Olympia to stand up for our community," she said.