Forget for a moment the landmark major presidential campaigns of a woman and a black man. The transgender community is also staking a claim this year in politics from Portland to Minnesota.
Among the new Multnomah County Democratic Party administrative team chosen this month by party members is Laura Calvo, a 51-year-old transgender woman.
The choice of Calvo as a county party's treasurer may not seem so significant, but the Jan. 10 election was followed last week by transgender male Chrissy Nakonsky announcing he is running as a Republican candidate in the Minnesota House. And any political emergence of the T in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender—or GLBT—community is significant, Calvo says, because "we're all neighbors."
"We went out and talked to our neighbors and community and gathered interest," Calvo says. "And now we're seeing that interest paying off in leadership roles."
The Democratic National Committee approved a rule in 2006 that requires all state party leaders to establish programs to increase the number of GLBT delegates selected for the 2008 national convention. At the 2004 convention in Boston, 282 GLBT delegates were seated—about 6.5 percent of the voting delegates—which was the largest in history at a major party convention. GLBT delegates and advocates hope for at least 321 delegates—or about 7.5 percent—at the Democratic convention this August in Denver. (Separate breakdowns for transgender delegates aren't available.)
The transgender community's need for higher political visibility surfaced recently when the Democratic-controlled U.S. House passed the latest version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The bill now under consideration by the Senate would protect gay people in the workplace but not the transgender community.
In 31 states it is legal to fire someone for being gay, lesbian or bisexual, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In 39 states, it is legal to fire someone for being transgender. In Oregon, the Legislature's passage last year of Senate Bill 2 made employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity punishable.
But the bill came too late for Calvo, who retired in 1995 after serving 16 years as a deputy with the Josephine County Sheriff's Office. She heard through a supervisor that then-Sheriff Dan Calvert called her a "freak" and said she shouldn't try to return to work after her gender identity was discovered.
Calvo, who moved to Portland in 2004, says her identity as a Democrat trumps her gender identity in her new party role.
Lori Buckwalter, a once-vocal member of the Portland transgender community who recently moved to Washington state, says many politically involved GLBT people face the dilemma: "Do we include openly our gender identity and gender history in our public identities?"
If yes, Buckwalter says it may limit opportunities. If no, there's the risk of condemnation for concealing some purportedly significant characteristic.
Buckwalter chooses to share her gender identity publicly. And when it comes to the Multnomah County Democratic Party, its leaders speak freely of their sexual orientations but seem more interested in discussing access to health care, adequate shelter, and living wage jobs.
"We don't put a code next to the names of each officeholder to indicate race, ethnic background, sexual orientation or anything else," says communication secretary Sue Hagmeier, a former Portland School Board member. "And we haven't been keeping score."
In addition to Calvo, the county party chairwoman is Carla "KC" Hanson, who's a lesbian. Jokes Hanson: "I think I'm probably better known for being a klutz than being gay."
The population of transgender people in the United States is hard to pinpoint because many live in secrecy. However, estimates place the number at 1 percent of the national population, which if true in Portland would mean about 5,500 transgender people.
GET INVOLVED: Democrats will hold their 2007-08 Dick Celsi Awards Dinner at the Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St. 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 2. For more information, visit multdems.org.