Alexandra Chandler—a Democrat running for a House seat in Massachusetts’ third district who, if elected, would be the first out transgender woman in Congress—just took up a battle cry on behalf of transgender kids.
Despite the state’s progressive reputation, last month, Massachusetts announced that its November ballot will include a question asking voters to decide whether to revoke an anti-discrimination law protecting trans people in public spaces. It will be the first time a statewide population will directly vote on trans rights.
Recent polls suggest there could be a lot to worry about for those who oppose overturning the law. A WBUR poll in late May found that just 52 percent of voters would vote to oppose repealing the current legislation, which allows people to use the facilities that align with their gender identity and access public spaces like parks and restaurants without discrimination. Thirty-eight percent of people would vote to scrap the law. A separate Suffolk University/ Boston Globe poll in June found that 49 percent of people oppose the repeal and 37 percent favor it. A significant 13 percent of people were still undecided on the issue.
In response to this news, Democratic congressional candidate Alexandra Chandler launched a campaign ad on Thursday defending transgender rights and specifically focusing in on trans children, who, as public school students, tend to receive the brunt of the blow when such protections are lifted.
“I’m running for Congress to be a voice for the trans kids out there,” Chandler says in the 30-second clip. “I want our country to be a place where you can live, and learn, and where you can be proud of whoever you are.”
The spot features a seven-year-old transgender girl named Ellie, a daughter of one of Chandler’s personal friends. “This is about a kid who represents many kids like her,” Chandler tells Broadly. “[They] in turn represent, more broadly, those of us who feel that vulnerability right now—feel that sense of something that has just gone so wrong.”
Chandler is the first openly transgender congressional candidate to make it on the ballot in Massachusetts, and if she wins her primary on September 4 and then emerges victorious in the November election, she’ll become the first openly transgender person elected to Congress. At the same time, her own rights and dignity are being challenged in her own home state.
Chandler says her latest campaign push talks about the trans access debate in a more personal way, highlighting the effects of trans-exclusionary legislation on young children and adults alike. “ My right to go to a park or grocery store [safely]—that is on the ballot here too,” she said. “I am in that block with the vulnerable.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed the state’s bill protecting trans people from discrimination into law in the summer of 2016. Although the bill was forged through a series of bipartisan compromises, religious and other conservative advocacy groups launched into action to overturn the legislation and were able to gather enough signatures to secure the referendum by October 2016. Accordingly, both supporters and opponents of transgender rights have turned their attention to the state as a litmus test to see whether similar measure could potentially pass elsewhere.
“We are taking nothing for granted,” a spokesperson for Freedom for All Massachusetts, a coalition working to protect transgender rights, told Boston. “Our opponents have said that, if they can win here, they will use that momentum to try and roll back protections for transgender people across the country.”
“I’m optimistic that we will do the right thing in the end, but it’s gonna take a whole lot of work. And the stakes do not stop at the border of Massachusetts,” Chandler says of the upcoming vote. “Because if they can pull it off in Massachusetts, they can pull it off anywhere.”
Even if elected, Chandler will have minimal sway over what happens with state law. As a member of Congress, she says her main strategy for bolstering the LGBTQ community would lie in broader social measures. “Trans rights and opportunity are the rights and opportunity of women, communities of color, working class people. It’s a lot of the same issues, only magnified,” she says. “It’s, yes, increasing the federal minimum wage, because trans people, much like the other groups that I’ve mentioned, are disproportionately at the bottom. Ditto in terms of health care access and health care costs.”
Even in 2018, an election year experiencing a “rainbow wave” of hundreds of LGBTQ candidates running for office, running an advertisement directly addressing transgender rights as a primary campaign issue is bold. Ads on the subject—both from successful trans politicians like Virginia’s Danica Roem and egregiously transphobic candidates like Illinois’ Jeanne Ives—have been met with intense scrutiny and public response from both sides of the issue. Chandler’s new push could potentially set her apart from the other nine primary contestants in the crowded MA-3 district race; many frontrunners, like State Sen. Barbara L’Italien and former U.S. Ambassador Rufus Gifford have not placed much of a priority on addressing issues focusing on trans communities.
Chandler’s website and public statements frequently reference her identity as a transgender woman and openly discuss her experience transitioning while working for the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Naval Intelligence as a senior intelligence operations specialist. Her platform itself chiefly focuses on economic and health care issues: namely, institutionalizing a living wage, lowering health care costs, and taking on “big money” politics. (The median donation to her campaign is $27.)
Chandler says her trans identity “validates and amplifies” her strength as a leader and representative across the board.
“I’m someone who has had half an auditorium full of my colleagues—fellow employees—cheer for me to be fired,” Chandler tells Broadly. “I’m someone who has been without health insurance, and then when I had health insurance, because I was trans, I had to pay out of my own pocket. So I’m someone who’s had to take on those kind of struggles and keep going. After that auditorium cheered for me to be fired, I showed up to work the next day. And the next day, and the next day, for 11 years.”
As both a candidate and, if elected, a congresswoman, Chandler says she sees standing up for transgender rights as part of her responsibility.
“If I’m not going to, who will?” she says. “By dint of fate, I’m the first openly trans candidate for Congress in Massachusetts. This is an issue right now in Massachusetts. I can’t be silent. If I’m silent, it gives space for others to be silent.”