NPR’s Ailsa Chang speaks with two recently elected transgender lawmakers, Rep. Zooey Zephyr of Montana and Rep. James Roesener of New Hampshire.
AILSA CHANG, HOSTS:
For the first time in US history, this election season saw at least one LGBTQ candidate running for office in every state and in Washington, DC Legislature James Roesener of New Hampshire and the election victory of Zooey Zephyr, the first trans legislature , who was elected to office in Montana. All of this at a time when laws targeting the rights of LGBTQ people are being drafted and passed across the country. James Roesener and Zooey Zephyr here today. Welcome and congratulations.
ZOOEY ZEPHYR: Yes. Thank you for having us. Excited to be here.
JAMES ROESENER: Hello. Thank you very much.
CHANG: So first I want to ask you what inspired you both to run for office this election cycle? Why now?
ZEPHYR: This is Zooey Zephyr. In 2021, several anti-LGBTQ laws were introduced in Montana. And I had worked on politics at the city level and went before the legislature to testify specifically about a law banning trans women and trans children from sports. I then went to the governor’s office and testified with two trans kids who were begging to just play sports with their friends. And then I watched several bills pass through the Montana Legislature with one vote. And I figured I could change this heart. I know representation can make that difference. And so I met with my then legislator and asked him what do I have to do? And he gave me a list and I went.
CHANG: So, Zooey, your path into politics – it started in activism. What about you James?
ROESENER: Very similar here. I have been part of the LGBT community and advocacy for some time. I have been a volunteer at the local clinic for the past eight years, which not only provides gender-affirming services and LGBT health care, but is also an abortion clinic. And they’re like a second family to me at this point. I’ve been seeing her for so long. Not only do I deal with these issues, but it also gets a little personal when, you know, laws threaten to lock up my friends for providing very needed health care and health services to my community. It just feels a bit absurd and surreal. Understanding the weight that local politics carries, especially for communities like mine, I found it really important to have some visibility of your own, let alone someone willing to fight for good regardless of identity.
CHANG: Well, let me ask you because right-wing politicians and even some in the mainstream GOP have targeted trans people. Like newly re-elected Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, she ran a campaign ad this cycle saying that Iowaans know the difference between boys and girls. What do you think of the fact that this type of rhetoric is so prevalent from Republican politicians, people who are very likely to become some of your peers?
ZEPHYR: The first thing that comes to my mind is the direct impact it has on trans people and those who love them. When Montana passed its anti-trans legislation, my friends left the state. I had friends who ended their lives. And that’s the immediate effect of these kinds of bills. Furthermore, to me, a short-term strategy of the right is to foment fear, to find a target they consider vulnerable to rally their base around. I think the right will find that trans people have the support of those around them if they take away the R and the D and bring it into our local communities. And in Montana, when the Department of Public Health and Human Services proposed a new rule banning trans people from updating their birth certificates, they held a public hearing, and a person came out in support of this anti-trans law 100 kicked in against it. And all of Montana. And if it’s true here, I know it’s true across the country.
ROESENER: People are very willing to show themselves and defend the rights of their neighbors. And that was a lot of what I experienced in this campaign, which is to see in real time what I did believe that people were somehow organizing for a better world.
CHANG: Well, while there is a whole body of legislation that you find deeply hurtful and deeply troubling, there were a record number of LGBTQ candidates running for office during this midterm election. And I just want to know, what does that signal to you two?
ROESENER: I feel like so many LGBT people are being inspired to run, which just proves to me that all this homophobic and transphobic and bigoted rhetoric that’s been flowing in our system because, you know, we’re a little bit different now take back our power, sort of. And I think we’re going to see a really amazing turning point here in the near future.
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. It would have been hard to imagine decades ago that so many people would want to stand up and be visible and present. What’s more, the record number of winners shows that our communities aren’t just passively supporting us. My friends and neighbors in my area looked at me and said this is the person we want to represent. And I know that applies to all candidates across the country who have won their elections.
CHANG: So what will be your first priorities in office?
ROESENER: New Hampshire recently saw its first abortion ban. It’s a 24-week ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. One of my first priorities for this next session will be to work to enshrine abortion rights and reproductive services in our state, since we are the only New England state that does not offer these protections.
ZEPHYR: The state of Montana is currently sitting in a $2 billion surplus, and both Democrats and Republicans have come up with plans on what to do with it. Top priorities in this, and top priorities in my community and throughout the state, are affordable housing and making sure we have enough inventory for the people of Montana. Additionally, there is a big debate about mental health in the state of Montana. It will be my job to help with that. And also when it comes to human rights, make sure we have conversations about how these anti-LGBTQ attacks, the way abortion attacks are happening, the direct impact they are having on the mental health crisis, that we’re trying to solve.
CHANG: The state legislature elects Zooey Zephyr of Montana and James Roesener of New Hampshire. Thank you and congratulations to you both.
ZEPHYR: Thank you for having us.
ROSENER: Thank you.
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