For some transgender Texans, bathroom bill fight spurs bids for office

The first time Dani Pellett tackled the bathroom question was years before the issue of transgender access to restrooms would become a matter of political debate — and more than a decade before Pellett would enter the political realm herself.

Pellett was in her early twenties then, a University of North Texas student just two months shy of seeking a commission as an Air Force pilot. But “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was still in effect, and she knew that to receive a commission she’d have to hide her gender dysphoria. Pellett ultimately dropped out of air force training, transitioned, founded a support group and began to advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Eventually, the group was successful.

“Did we just win? Oh, I think we did!” Pellett recalls thinking. The political victory got her hooked.

Thirteen years later, Pellett finds herself challenging U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Dallas Republican. Sessions' North Texas district overlaps with State Senate District 8, where Pamela Curry is planning to run as a Democrat for a rare open seat.

Both women are among a tiny group of transgender Texans who have run for office in recent years, partly in response to Republican leaders' support for laws that target the transgender community. The Texas Legislature devoted part of this year's regular legislative session and a special session this summer to proposals that would restrict transgender individuals' bathroom use in public buildings. No bathroom bills made it to the governor.

Pellett and Curry intend to be on the ballot in 2018, and two other transgender candidates ran for local offices earlier this year. Johnny Boucher made an unsuccessful bid for Grand Prairie’s school board and Sandra Faye Dunn lost her bid for a seat on the Amarillo College Board of Regents.

Four people in two years are hardly a speck in a state of nearly 28 million, but that number means Texas currently has more transgender candidates than any other state, according to Logan Casey, a Harvard researcher who studies LGBTQ representation in politics. And it’s a disproportionately large group — Texas carries just under 9 percent of the country’s population, but about 14 percent of its current transgender candidates.

Casey said the political debate over measures targeting transgender Texans has galvanized that community.

“When you use a group as a political tool the way the bathroom bill has been used in Texas, that has effects on the marginalized group that is being used,” Casey said. “It’s not surprising to me that, given the hyper politicization of LGBTQ issues and particularly trans issues in Texas in the last couple years, that there are a lot of people — proportionately — running for office in Texas.”

The state actually has a relatively robust history of transgender politicians, according to Casey’s research. There’s Phyllis Frye, an associate municipal judge in Houston, who was appointed to her post in 2010; and Jennifer Gale, who ran unsuccessfully 12 times for a host of political offices between 1997 and 2008. Last year, Jenifer Rene Pool won the Democratic primary for Precinct 3 on the Harris County Commissioners Court with 78 percent of the vote but lost in the general election.

This article originally appear in The Texas Tribune. For the full story, go here.

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