Bathroom bills, national successes fuel unprecedented slate.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with information about Madeline Eden, who is running as a Democrat in Congressional District 10; and Danielle Skidmore and Jessica Cohen, who are running for Austin City Council.
By Lourdes Zavaleta
As a child, Jenifer Rene Pool was picked on mercilessly. She was small in stature, and relied on thick eyeglasses due to poor eyesight.
“Classmates would grab my glasses and throw them around to each other,” the Houston transgender activist recalls.
“I hate bullies. Everyone should be treated fairly,” Pool adds. “This is the premise of our national Constitution, and for the most part, the Constitution of the State of Texas. It is why I have decided to run for State representative in 2018.”
In 2016, Pool was the first openly trans person to win a party primary in Texas, becoming the Democratic nominee for a Harris County commissioner’s seat before losing in the general election. This year, she is among eight openly trans Texans running for office, which is by far the most ever.
In November, six trans candidates across the U.S. recorded historic victories, including Virginia’s Danica Roem, who became the first openly trans person elected to a state legislature.
Daye Pope, organizing director of the Trans United Fund, a national political-action committee, says those victories are “sparking a movement.”
“2017 showed us that trans people can run, and win—and we will continue to make that happen,” Pope tells OutSmart.
In Texas, the increase in trans candidates is being fueled largely by attacks from the state’s Legislature, according Jess Herbst, mayor of New Hope in Collin County.
“The bathroom bill awakened the rise of trans politicians,” Herbst says. “More trans people are out today, and this has made us the subject of political attacks. But we have also become more understood and supported. This made us want our voices to be heard.”
According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, there are more than 125,000 trans adults living in Texas, or 0.66 percent of the state’s population. However, Herbst is this state’s only openly trans elected official.
She became mayor in May 2016, and received “overwhelming support” when she came out in January 2017. With her term expiring in May 2018, she plans to run for reelection.
“It’s important that there is visibility for society to see and understand what it means to be transgender today,” Herbst says, adding that a victory by a trans candidate in Texas would prove that “simply being transgender isn’t automatically going to bar someone from holding office.”
Two of the trans candidates in Texas are running for Congress, three are running for state Legislature, and two are running for Austin City Council. Vanessa Edwards Foster, cofounder and president of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC), is running as a Democrat for the Congressional District 27 seat held by U.S. representative Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi), who announced his retirement last month amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Madeline Eden, a trans woman, is running as a Democrat in Congressional District 10, for the seat currently held by Republican Michael McCaul, who received a zero, the lowest possible score, on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent Congressional Scorecard.
Danielle Skidmore and Jessica Cohen are running for Austin City Council seats in November.
In Texas House District 94, Democrat Finnigan Jones is running for the seat held by incumbent State representative Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) who is rabidly anti-LGBTQ and authored legislation in 2017 that would have defined “sex” as the “physical condition of being male or female.”
Jones is the co-founder and executive director of Trans-Cendence, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit that supports and provides resources for trans people. He hopes his campaign will show trans youth that they can one day run for office, too.
“We need more role models in this community for our younger generation to believe in and learn from,” Jones says, adding that if he wins, it would give the community a voice in the legislative process. “That will be vital going forward to defeat discrimination in our society.”
In Texas House District 29, Dylan Wilde Forbis is running for the seat held by incumbent State representative Edward Thompson (R-Pearland), another bathroom-bill supporter. Forbis leads Queers with Careers and Trans Living Anthology, two LGBTQ support groups that allow queer people to share their testimonies.
He notes that Kimberly Shappley has been fighting to get the Pearland Independent School District to allow her trans daughter, Kai, to use girls’ restrooms.
“Her daughter, just like all students, deserves a place to receive a fair education and equitable place to grow into a nice young adult,” Forbis says. “My win would be a footnote on the decades-long fight for transgender rights, and there is a long way to go.”
Pool, meanwhile, will face attorney Adam Milasincic in the March 6 Democratic primary in Texas House District 138. The winner will take on incumbent Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), a bathroom-bill supporter who received a grade of “F” on Equality Texas’ 2017 Legislative Scorecard. Pool says she is running in part because Bohac had no Democratic opponent in 2016.
“When someone runs for office, it is important that they be challenged on their stances,” Pool says. “They need to answer questions. They can’t just be allowed to coast.”
If Pool wins the primary, she will face an uphill battle against Bohac, who captured 66 percent of the vote in 2014, the last time he had a Democratic opponent. The district covers the Bear Creek, Spring Branch, Cy-Fair, and Katy communities of west and northwest Houston.
Bohac did not respond to a request for comment.
“This is a winnable election, but I’ve got to make it past primaries,” Pool says. “I’m focused in on March 6. I think winning [the primary] will make a difference, and more organizations will want to help.”
Pool came out in 1994 and went on to serve as the first trans president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. She ran three times for City Council, earning more votes with each successive campaign. In 2016, she defeated Erik Hassan in the Democratic primary for Precinct 3 on the Commissioners Court, capturing 78 percent of the vote. She lost to Republican Steve Radack, 58 percent to 42 percent, in the general election.
Pool believes the current Legislature has let the people of Texas down. Texas is ranked 41st in education and 32nd in quality of life.
If she wins, Pool says she will fight for a higher minimum wage, access to healthcare, public education, and LGBTQ rights. She says she wants to work for “average Texans” who do not benefit from being represented by wealthy, privileged cisgender men.
“Right now, Austin is broken,” Pool says. “I think I’ve got the super-glue to fix it.”
This article appears in the January 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.