The Brave, Often Lonely Fight of Trans Lawmakers in State Legislatures

The Brave, Often Lonely Fight of Trans Lawmakers in State Legislatures

The Brave, Often Lonely Fight of Trans Lawmakers in State Legislatures

Trans and nonbinary people are running for office in record numbers, beginning their careers just as their Republican colleagues are launching an assault on trans rights.

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Mauree Turner grew up in Ardmore, a little strip of a town along Interstate 35, down in the southern belly of Oklahoma. By the second grade, Turner understood, without having the terminology to explain it, that they were different. Sitting on their bunk bed one day, Turner, who was assigned female at birth, told their mother that they didn’t really see a difference between boys and girls—other than how they went to the bathroom, which didn’t seem like it was anyone’s business but their own. It was their way of coming out.

“My mom was like, ‘You’re absolutely right,’” Turner recalled. “That was when my mom told me that my voice is powerful, and it’s going to always be powerful, and to always use it, and to always help others use theirs.”

There was no national crusade against gender-affirming care for trans kids in the backdrop of Turner’s childhood. Instead, there were bike rides across town and Saturday movie days when Turner would hand out popcorn and pink lemonade to moviegoers. There was Mr. Cox, the school principal who sang Elvis Presley songs, and Ms. Sonya, the public librarian who helped Turner with their writing. There was, too, the ever-present discomfort with a body that was developing breasts. One day, when they wore their favorite color-block sweater to school, a boy asked Turner why they weren’t wearing a bra.

“I felt disgusting,” Turner said, their voice shaking, even today, recalling that moment. “I wanted to sink into the background.”

So, Turner said, they began dressing in gym shorts and hoodies, “like a coach getting ready for a Friday-night game.” The hoodies felt safe, so they wore them even when it was 80 or 90 degrees out, until their teacher complained and their mom threatened to burn the shirts. Turner couldn’t bring themself to explain to their mother why they dressed this way. “I couldn’t tell her that the body that she had nursed for nine months, right, that she had helped create, was one that I felt like betrayed me,” Turner said.

Half of transgender and nonbinary young people seriously considered suicide in the past year, and nearly one in five trans and nonbinary youth attempted it, according to the latest survey from the Trevor Project, the LGBTQ youth suicide-prevention nonprofit. As Turner grew up, they survived by clinging to glimpses of a bigger world, disappearing into books like Matilda by Roald Dahl and watching movies, nurtured by a mom who would answer their questions about drag queens and lesbians, about people who seemed different, like them. Turner’s dad was in and out of prison for minor property crimes until Turner was 13. It was from him that Turner took their Muslim faith, a firsthand understanding of how mass incarceration shapes the lives of families and communities, and a determination to reimagine that system. As a young adult, Turner found their calling in community organizing, working with groups including the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the ACLU. In 2020, Turner ran for a seat in the Oklahoma Legislature, challenging the Democratic incumbent with a platform of criminal justice reform and raising the minimum wage. They didn’t truly believe they would win, until they did—thanks to the people of District 88, a progressive pocket in a deep-red state that includes Oklahoma City’s 39th Street District, the city’s “gayborhood.” By then, Turner had found the vocabulary to describe themself as “nonbinary,” someone who doesn’t identify as male or female. In their late 20s, they became the first Muslim lawmaker in Oklahoma and the first nonbinary person ever elected to state office in the United States.

It was a triumph, but it would be a lonely distinction. And it was about to get harder.

Turner’s decision to run in 2020 was part of a record surge in trans and nonbinary people seeking elected office that began after Donald Trump was elected and has accelerated since then. Last year, 118 trans and nonbinary people ran for office, more than double the number five years ago, according to the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund. Today, there are 15 trans and nonbinary state lawmakers, up from four in 2019. Many of these lawmakers are beginning their careers in office right as their Republican peers are launching a record-shattering assault on trans rights. In 2023, state lawmakers have introduced a staggering 559 anti-LGBTQ bills—of which 413 are anti-trans or have anti-trans provisions, according to the Equality Federation.

The bills go after the very resources that keep trans and nonbinary kids alive. The roughly half of trans and nonbinary young people in the Trevor Project’s survey who said their school was gender-affirming also reported fewer suicide attempts. Schools can be refuges for LGBTQ kids, fewer than 40 percent of whom said their home was accepting. Yet there were at least 338 bills introduced this year that target gender education or expression in schools by, for example, banning books that promote “gender fluidity,” preventing athletes from playing on the team that matches their gender identity, or forcing educators to out students to their parents. Nineteen states have banned gender-affirming medication for transgender youth; five states make providing such care a felony. (Some of these bans have been blocked in court.) A bill pending in Oklahoma that would ban insurance coverage for gender-affirming care for people of all ages makes clear that the target is not just kids; proponents acknowledge that banning all transition care is their goal.

The result is that trans and nonbinary lawmakers like Turner are serving while their colleagues attack their very existence. In some cases, these lawmakers have formed unlikely friendships with the opposition, coping silently when even well-intentioned colleagues misgender them, hoping their presence in the halls of power might sway the other side toward an understanding of trans people’s humanity. In other cases, like Turner’s, they have faced outright hostility and efforts to strip them of their power. All over the country, state lawmakers trying to protect trans rights are confronting the same grim reality that abortion advocates have faced for years in many Southern and Midwestern states—the fact that many state legislatures, shaped by years of conservative power-building and progressive neglect, have become undemocratic bastions where it is structurally impossible to do anything but register discontent.

Showing up to work each day under these circumstances, Turner found comfort in a coping mechanism from their childhood. There were no provisions in the dress code for nonbinary lawmakers, and Turner’s efforts to add some had been blocked. So they wore suits, and underneath the suits, they wore the oversized hoodies that were, Turner said, “the only thing that makes this kid who grew up in small-town Oklahoma feel safe some days.” Then, this year, the Oklahoma Legislature banned hoodies for its members. “I’m the only person in this building that wears any,” Turner said.

Republicans had taken issue with Turner’s clothes before. In 2021, Turner was told their vote wouldn’t count because of their outfit, which included a sweatshirt with the text “Protect American families, end the incarceration crisis.” It did not meet the standard of “professional business attire,” House leaders said. Turner put on a jacket so they could vote.

Maybe it was the statements on the sweatshirts that Republicans took issue with, like the one Turner loved that advertised the Oklahoma City-based news outlet The Black Times, with the tagline: “Activism through Journalism.” The sweatshirt fit just right. But they can no longer wear it. Turner felt singled out and isolated. Even within their Democratic caucus, Turner did not feel comfortable sharing how it felt when their peers took away this lifeline from their childhood: “I’m like, ‘You all, I’m suffocating, that’s like the last thing that’s helping me survive.’”

State legislatures are the place where seemingly small decisions shape the contours of our lives. While Democrats and progressives have all too often ignored their potential, focusing instead on swing states that impact federal elections, statehouses decide the circumstances under which people attend school, drive, vote, access health insurance, and go to jail. Total state expenditures, combined, are larger than the federal government’s discretionary spending. State legislatures hold the power to shape democracy itself; every 10 years, the party in control of a statehouse redraws not only its own voting districts but also the districts for the US House of Representatives. Conservatives have long understood the importance of this power. “He who controls redistricting can control Congress,” Karl Rove, the former adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in March 2010, laying out the GOP’s plan to conquer the House by winning down-ballot races.

That November, the plan succeeded spectacularly. The share of state legislatures controlled by the Democrats slipped from 60 percent to 36 percent. Soon after, chambers in the South and Midwest newly under Republican control launched an assault on abortion rights. They started with incremental measures: bills to ban abortion at 20 weeks, impose waiting periods, and force minors seeking an abortion to get parental permission. Meanwhile, Republicans were gerrymandering their districts to such a degree that, in many places, the party’s incumbents were virtually guaranteed to win.

“What they created was a system where almost not a single member ever faces a real election their entire careers,” David Pepper, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party and the author of a book on state legislatures called Laboratories of Autocracy, told me. “They have created an entire generation of people in power who don’t feel any accountability back to voters.”

At the same time, Democrats have profoundly neglected areas of the country that are seen as too red to be worth a fight. In 2021, Texas state Senator Bryan Hughes introduced a six-week abortion ban with a deeply unpopular private-citizen enforcement mechanism that two-thirds of voters in the state opposed. The following year, Hughes ran for reelection—unopposed. Nor did anyone challenge the state lawmaker who authored the six-week ban in Ohio that caused a firestorm when it forced a 10-year-old rape victim to travel to Indiana for an abortion, Pepper noted.

“No wonder they keep doing what they’re doing. It’s rewarded not just by their side, but by our side,” Pepper said.

The biggest beneficiaries of this unequal playing field are extremists within the Republican Party. That’s because a Republican state lawmaker’s only fear in a deeply gerrymandered district is a challenge from the right, giving even moderate lawmakers an incentive to support the most extreme positions to avoid a primary challenge. In the 2022 midterms, as Pepper wrote in his new book, Saving Democracy, there were 90 US congressional districts drawn by Republican statehouses where incumbents who denied that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election were up for reelection. Eighty-nine of those districts were rigged so thoroughly that the election wasn’t competitive. In the one district that was competitive, the election denier lost.

Liberals and progressives are finally beginning to pay more attention to statehouses, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which gave the power to determine abortion access entirely to the states. In 2022, the States Project, cofounded by former New York state senator Daniel Squadron and the billionaire heir and entrepreneur Adam Pritzker, invested nearly $60 million in legislative efforts in Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, among others. The group Run for Something, founded in 2017, has helped elect more than 800 diverse young progressives to local office. The State Innovation Exchange, a progressive version of the right-wing bill mill known as the American Legislative Exchange Council, received more than $8.6 million in donations in 2020—slightly topping ALEC’s total for the first time.

Now some activists who cut their teeth dealing with the impact of abortion restrictions have set their sights on fighting those restrictions from within state legislatures. In 2019, a group of young organizers started New Hampshire’s first abortion fund, raising money to pay for people’s procedures. Thanks to the libertarian ethos in the “Live Free or Die” state, abortion has remained legal there even under Republican control, but Medicaid doesn’t cover it. Two of the fund’s founders, Josie Pinto and Alissandra Rodríguez Murray, a community organizer raised in New Hampshire, became friends; they worked to help Bernie Sanders win the New Hampshire primary in 2020. From there, they decided on a bigger goal. “Together, we sort of developed this theory of change, which was like, ‘If we want to see the state we want, we have to get our people to run,’” Pinto said.

But there was a major obstacle in their way: New Hampshire’s Legislature pays a salary of just $100 a year. That’s fine for wealthy retirees but not for working-class activists. So Pinto hired Murray at the Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire, giving them a salary that would allow them to work in the Legislature while running the abortion fund’s social media accounts.

In 2022, Murray, then 28, ran for a seat in the 400-member New Hampshire Legislature—and won.

One blustery morning in March 2023, New Hampshire’s House Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety convened in a wood-paneled room in the state legislative office building in Concord. Murray, now the committee’s clerk, sat with pen in hand, a copper-colored scarf around their neck. To their right sat the committee’s Republican chair, Representative Terry Roy, wearing a suit and tie, in a leather chair just slightly higher than his colleague’s. Roy and Murray chatted and laughed. Their ease with each other belied their positions on opposite sides of the partisan divide. Roy is an Army veteran and former cop whose Twitter profile picture shows him firing a rifle. Murray’s pinstripe pants covered an “Abolish Prison” tattoo. Roy wrote the session’s most sweeping anti-transgender bill. Murray is trans and nonbinary.

Still, Murray considers Roy a friend. “He reminds me a lot of my dad,” they told me.

Murray’s childhood prepared them for a career of working with people like Roy. When they were around 12, their parents joined a church run out of a private home that was associated with the Quiverfull movement, which encourages families to eschew birth control and procreate as much as God allows. “Everyone’s family had 10 kids,” Murray said. It was “essentially a cult.”

Murray was homeschooled, not allowed to see much of a world beyond their church and family. At church, women were not allowed to wear pants or speak. Like many adolescents, Murray, who was assigned female at birth, was beginning to find an escape in music. One day, they asked to be allowed to play guitar for the congregation. Church leaders eventually agreed, but with conditions: Murray could play a guitar without an amp and could sing without a microphone. A man would play next to them, his guitar plugged in and his voice amplified by a mic. Murray, desperate to play, agreed to the terms. In the audience, Murray’s younger sister, Grace, strained to hear her sibling’s voice, but she could only hear the male performer. “All you could hear was him,” Grace said. “I could see Ali’s mouth moving, and I could see their hands strumming, and I couldn’t hear a thing from them.”

Under church rules, women weren’t supposed to work, either. That added to the financial strain facing Murray’s family. When Murray was 18, their family finally allowed them to take a $9-an-hour job at American Eagle so they could help with expenses. But not long after, the family home, where Murray used to build forts in the nearby woods with their siblings, went into foreclosure. “It was one of the most traumatizing things in my life,” Murray told me.

After their family lost the house, Murray moved to Manchester on their own, working at Newbury Comics and subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen. Twice, they were evicted from apartments. Murray broke away from religion, taking with them an abiding appreciation for principles like mercy and social justice, which would animate their activism to raise the minimum wage. Their parents and sister Grace still attend church—not the Quiverfull-affiliated one, but another that is more accepting of women. Murray keeps up a relationship with their parents by avoiding topics that they don’t agree on—like their gender identity. “The way I was raised, and my experiences, are a huge part of why I can be friendly and talk with libertarians and Republicans,” Murray told me. “I’ve always had to get along with people that believe differently than me and people who don’t accept me for who I am.”

In New Hampshire, Republican control of the state legislature hangs by a gerrymandered thread. In 2022, Democratic statehouse candidates won 52.8 percent of the vote, or over 50,000 votes more than the Republican candidates, according to an analysis by the New Hampshire journalist Garry Rayno. Yet because Republicans had drawn the districts, their party wound up with a three-member House majority, giving them control over chair appointments for all of the body’s committees. Terry Roy became chair of the criminal justice committee. At the start of the session in January, he gave a pep talk to the committee’s 19 bipartisan members. “I said to them, ‘Listen, we have to be a family; we have to work together,’” Roy told me.

The members seemed to take his words to heart. On that March morning, they passed bill after bill with unanimous consent, including one to get rid of the term “police matrons” to refer to women officers and another, more consequential one that Murray supported to study the state’s parole system. But not all of the votes the Legislature held were so easy.

Last summer, Roy told me, he was approached by a group of parents who had grown upset about gender-affirming care for minors, probably from “watching television and seeing what’s going on nationally,” he said. Roy looked at the bans that other states had passed to draft one for New Hampshire. Legislation shaped by the Family Research Council offered model language about the purported harms of gender-affirming care. Some laws proposed banning such medical care until age 21, but Roy thought 18 was old enough. He included in his bill a provision that would force students to use bathrooms and participate in school activities that matched their sex assigned at birth. “Schools shall not allow the teaching of different pronouns other than those in common use in the English language when referring to the male or female,” Roy wrote.

In early March, Roy stood before a House panel and said he was introducing his bill “not with the intention that it will necessarily end up as banning” gender-affirming care for minors, but because he hoped to start “a public discussion” about the topic. He declined to take questions. Watching from the audience in the high-ceilinged, blue-carpeted chamber, Murray thought Roy’s tone seemed half-hearted; they hoped their friendship with him might have been the reason. Then they rose to testify against Roy’s bill.

“I represent Manchester Ward 9 and I am a trans, nonbinary person,” Murray said, their voice sounding tightly controlled. “Many of you—my colleagues—may not know that, yet I’ve been able to make good friends on both sides of the aisle.”

Roy wasn’t there to hear them. He had left, he said, to attend another hearing. Later, he told me that he hadn’t realized Murray was trans until a few weeks later, when he saw them standing beside two fellow transgender lawmakers to mark the Trans Day of Visibility. Later that day, when Murray tweeted a picture of themself with the two trans colleagues, Roy posted a reply.

“I am proud to have you as my clerk and call you a friend, not because you’re Trans, but because you’re the best person for the job and a great person all around,” he wrote.

On the same day that Murray came out to their colleagues in Concord, Mauree Turner was learning that they would lose their ability to participate in their committees—unless they issued an apology they were not willing to give.

The week before, Oklahoma’s House had passed HB 2177, which banned gender-affirming care for minors and insurance coverage for the care even for adults. Public testimony is rare in Oklahoma—constituents can only testify when invited by committee chairs—but LGBTQ activists had shown up to protest. Outside the chamber, one protester threw water on a lawmaker who had voted in favor of the ban. Police arrested the protester, who resisted as their spouse tried to intervene, a video shows. The spouse, rattled, came to Turner’s office. “If this is the only place where folks feel safe, then I’m absolutely going to create a space for them to utilize that, because this is often the only place where I feel safe in this building,” Turner told me.

Soon, someone knocked on the door to tell Turner that there were Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers stationed in the stairwells leading to their office. Police accused Turner of locking the door. Ultimately, the police were able to speak with the person Turner was sheltering, whom they arrested nearly a week later. (The district attorney later declined to prosecute that person.) But Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall denounced Turner for “harbor[ing] a fugitive.” Turner was told to apologize. They refused. “I’ll never apologize for loving the people of Oklahoma,” they told me.

Censure is a severe punishment, one that House Republican leaders had chosen not to use against two Republican lawmakers who were facing felony charges at the same time as Turner’s saga. When Turner was censured, they were stripped of their committee assignments, removing their ability to debate and discuss bills that didn’t make it to the House floor.

The weeks and months after Turner’s censure would bring national attention to the crackdown on dissent in state legislatures. Tennessee state Representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, two Black men, were expelled from the Legislature for participating in a protest in favor of gun control; a third lawmaker, Representative Gloria Johnson, a white woman, missed being expelled along with them by a single vote. Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr, a transgender woman, denounced a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors in her state, telling lawmakers they would have “blood on [their] hands”—a reference to research showing that trans kids with access to gender-affirming care have lower rates of suicide. Zephyr, too, was censured, barred from the House floor altogether. Zephyr’s censure sparked a media firestorm; she was interviewed repeatedly, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NBC, and CBS. But Turner’s case received far less attention. Jennifer Driver, the senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange, said the reason for that disparity, she believes, is that Turner is “a Black, nonbinary person.” Driver added, “I think what you’re seeing is that conservative white Republicans are obviously trying to put together a code to silence anyone who’s not white, who’s not straight, who’s not cis.”

Oklahoma’s Legislature considered 20 anti-transgender bills this session, including one that passed that makes providing gender-affirming procedures or hormone therapy to minors a felony. Turner had introduced bills to decriminalize sexual activity for people with HIV, to improve fast food workers’ rights, and to make it easier for people with disabilities to vote. Only one of their bills—the HIV one—even got a committee hearing. In the waning days of the session in late May, Turner still wasn’t sure when they would be allowed back onto their committees. Regardless, they told me, they planned to keep showing up. “Our communities are so rich, and the people here deserve so much better than what our government is giving them,” Turner told me. In early June, Oklahoma’s House speaker announced that Turner’s censure would continue into next year’s legislative session. (The speaker did not respond to requests for comment.)

In Concord, Alissandra Rodríguez Murray approached the end of their first legislative session with a victory. Over the course of the session, with the help of a few Republicans, Murray and their colleagues held their ground on abortion, defeating a six-week ban and a 24-hour waiting period and even passing a bill (later defeated in the Senate) to remove civil and criminal penalties from the state’s existing 24-week ban. Then, on May 18, LGBTQ advocates decked out in trans and rainbow flags rallied at the statehouse to protest a bill that would force educators to out kids to their parents. Inside, Democrats waged a battle to defeat the bill, proposing amendments and denouncing the difficulties it would create for teachers. Ultimately, two Republicans sided with the Democrats, defeating the legislation. Murray was delighted. But tempering their joy was the fact that their friend Terry Roy had voted for the bill.

The next day, Roy told me he did so to prevent schools from “lying” to parents about their kids. But he also told me that he hoped the bill he had introduced back in March to ban gender-affirming care for minors wouldn’t pass—not as written. The bill was retained by the Legislature’s health committee, which can be a way to tweak a measure or a polite way to kill it. Roy said he would like the result of the bill to be deeper study and input from doctors. And yes, he said, knowing Murray, his first transgender friend, had made an impact on him.

“I wonder, you know, if I’d have known she was trans first, would I have been as open to being friends with her?” Roy reflected. “We all have our own subconscious biases, you know, and I feel like—I’m glad that I got to know her.”

Roy paused, then asked if he’d misspoken: “Should I have said I’m glad that I got to know ‘them’?”

“I’m never going to get it,” he said, when I assented. He hoped Murray wouldn’t mind.

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