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The midterms lead to a number of firsts for transgender lawmakers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the first time in U.S. history, this election season, at least one LGBTQ candidate has run for office in every state and Washington, D.C. And that has led to a number of other firsts, including the first out trans man ever elected to a state legislature, James Roesener of New Hampshire, and the election victory of Zooey Zephyr, the first out trans lawmaker elected to office in Montana. All of this at a time when legislation targeting the rights of LGBTQ people is being drafted and passed all around the country. Here today are James Roesener and Zooey Zephyr. Welcome and congratulations.

ZOOEY ZEPHYR: Yeah. Thank you so much for having us. Excited to be here.

JAMES ROESENER: Hello. Thank you so much.

CHANG: So I want to first just start by asking you what inspired both of you to run for office this election cycle? Like, why now in particular?

ZEPHYR: This is Zooey Zephyr. In 2021 in Montana, there were several anti-LGBTQ bills brought forward. And I had been working on policy at the city level and went to testify at the legislature specifically on a bill banning trans women and trans kids from playing sports. I then went and testified to the governor's office alongside two trans kids who were begging to just be allowed to play sports with their friends. And then I watched several bills pass through the Montana legislature by one vote. And I thought to myself I could change that heart. I know representation can make that difference. And so I met with my legislator at the time and asked him, what do I need to do? And he gave me a list, and off I went.

CHANG: So Zooey, your path into politics - it started in activism. What about you, James?

ROESENER: Very much same here. I have been part of the LGBT community and advocacy for a while. I have volunteered for going on eight years now at the local clinic that not only provides, like, gender-affirming services and LGBT health care but also is an abortion clinic as well. And they're kind of a second family to me at this point. I've been seeing them for so long. Not just do I care about these issues, but then it becomes personal a little bit when, you know, laws are threatening to lock up my friends for providing very necessary health care and health services to my community. It just feels a little absurd and surreal. Understanding the weight that local politics has, especially for communities like mine, I really felt it was important to have some visibility of our own, let alone having somebody who's willing to fight the good fight regardless of identity.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you because, you know, right-wing politicians and even some in the mainstream GOP have been targeting trans people. Like, the newly reelected governor in Iowa, Kim Reynolds, she ran a campaign ad this cycle saying that Iowans know the difference between boys from girls. What do you make of the fact that this kind of rhetoric has been so prevalent from Republican politicians, people who will very likely become some of your colleagues?

ZEPHYR: The first thing I think of is the direct impact it has on trans people and those who love them. When Montana passed its anti-trans legislation, I had friends leave the state. I had friends end their lives. And that is the immediate impact of these types of bills. Beyond that, to me, the - it is a short-term strategy on the right to drum up fear, to find a target that they think is vulnerable, that they can rally their base around. What I think the right will find is that when you take away the R and the D and you bring it down to our local communities, trans people have the support of those around them. And in Montana, when the Department of Public Health and Human Services proposed a new rule about banning updating your birth certificate if you're trans, they held a public hearing, and one person came out to support that anti-trans piece of legislation and 100 came out in opposition to it. And that's across Montana. And if it's true here, I know it's true across the country as well.

ROESENER: People are very willing to show up and defend the rights of their neighbors. And that's been a lot of what my experience in this campaign has been is seeing in real time what I already believed was in people kind of organize for a better world.

CHANG: Well, despite there being a fair amount of legislation out there that you find deeply hurtful, deeply disturbing, there has been a record number of LGBTQ candidates running for office during these midterms. And I just want to know, what does that signal to both of you?

ROESENER: I feel like to see so many LGBT people being inspired to run just proves to me that all of this homophobic and transphobic and bigoted rhetoric that's been flowing in our system for, you know, a little bit now, we are taking our power back, in a sense. And I think that we're going to see a really amazing turning point in the near future here.

ZEPHYR: The first thing it signals is that we have people in our community who are willing to stand up and put themselves out there. That would have been hard to imagine decades ago that this many people would stand up and want to be visible and present. And beyond that, with the record number of people winning, it shows that our communities don't just passively support us. My friends and neighbors in my district looked at me and said, that's the person we want representing us. And I know that that's true for all of the candidates across the country who won their elections.

CHANG: So what will be your first priorities in office?

ROESENER: New Hampshire recently has experienced its first abortion ban. It's a 24-week ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. One of my first priorities moving into this next session is going to be to work to enshrine the right to abortion and reproductive services into our state because we are the only state in New England that does not have those protections in place.

ZEPHYR: The state of Montana is currently sitting on a $2 billion surplus, and both Democrats and Republicans have been putting forward plans for what to do with that. Top priorities in that and top priorities in my community and across the state are affordable housing and making sure that we have enough inventory for Montana's population. Additionally, there's big discussions around mental health in the state of Montana. My job will be to help with that. And also when it comes to human rights, make sure that we're having conversations around the way in which these anti-LGBTQ attacks, the way in which attacks on abortion, the direct impacts they have on the mental health crisis we're trying to solve.

CHANG: State legislators-elect Zooey Zephyr of Montana and James Roesener of New Hampshire. Thank you, and congratulations to both of you.

ZEPHYR: Thank you so much for having us.

ROESENER: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.