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.
And then there’s Jess Herbst, mayor of the tiny town of New Hope in Collin County, who received “overwhelming support” earlier this year when she came out as transgender after being appointed to her position. Herbst, whose term is up in May, said she plans to run again.
"The only way that we're ever going to have true equality is if we have a seat at the table where they're making decisions," she said. "And the only way to do that is to run for office. No one gets treated fairly until they're there."
Curry will face at least one opponent in the Democratic primary for her state senate bid. The Republican primary for the seat has turned into a high-profile affair, with both Angela Paxton, the wife of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Phillip Huffines, brother to state Sen. Don Huffines, vying for the open seat. Curry cited bigotry at the state level as one of her motivations for seeking office.
“People need to be treated fairly and equally,” said Curry, whose legislative priorities include nondiscrimination measures, as well as health care and protecting local rule. “People use these so-called religious arguments to discriminate. That’s not in the Bible.”
Transgender candidates said their bids for office were about more than blocking specific legislation. Some also pointed to the symbolic importance of appearing on the ballot.
Dunn, who made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Amarillo in 2011 before entering the Board of Regents race this year, said she’s proud that through her campaigns, she has been able to “represent the community in a positive way.”
“Yes, I wanted to be a role model. Yes, I wanted trans young people to know that we get it, we understand what you’re going through,” Dunn said. “It’s important because it lets people know that we’re not these monsters that some people try to put us out to be.”
That visibility can have important political implications, too.
“Having transgender candidates run in that state for particular offices, even completely unrelated offices, can affect the perception of where things are in that state,” said Don Haider-Markel, a University of Kansas professor who studies LGBTQ political participation. “If you don’t have a trans candidate running for office, and they’re debating this bathroom bill in the state legislature, it’s seen that there’s no political power for this group out there. But if you do have candidates running, all of a sudden the debate shifts.”
But all four candidates said they often wish their identity didn’t play such a large role in their campaigns.
“It kinda always strings back into, ‘You’re a trans candidate running for office, so we’re gonna talk about you being trans,’” Pellett said. “It’s a little aggravating to hear, ‘You’re just running because you’re trans.’ I never was, and I’m not now.”
Nationally, the number of transgender candidates is on the rise, though the totals are so small that it’s hard to trace a significant pattern. Researchers said that so far, transgender candidates have followed the model set by other marginalized groups who have achieved increasing political success in recent decades but continue to face significant obstacles. In some surveys of potential voters, hypothetical transgender candidates receive less support, by 5 to 7 percentage points, than hypothetical gay or lesbian candidates, Haider-Markel said.
Part of the challenge for these transgender candidates is they aren’t running in the state’s liberal centers. Both Curry and Pellet, for instance, are running in districts that have historically leaned Republican. Sessions won his most recent election with a handy 71 percent. But the race to challenge him has drawn nearly a dozen Democrats because Hillary Clinton won Sessions' district in the 2016 presidential election despite losing the state to Donald Trump by 9 points. Pellett, who has raised about $15,000, faces candidates with ties to Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
For her part, Curry — who is hoping to replace state Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican running for Congress — is still focused on collecting signatures.
“It’s not a defeatist thing — I know it’s an uphill battle,” Curry said. But that’s not the most important thing: “Even if we don’t win, we’ve raised that bar.”
Haider-Markel said that for transgender candidates running in deep-red states like Texas, the challenges are many. But so are the potential payoffs. Even a victory in a primary can be an enormous step forward, he said. And that can bolster candidates in future races.
Pellett said she often gets asked why, as a transgender woman, she’d want to live — let alone seek office — in a place like Texas.
“And I’m like, ‘Hell no, I’m going to stay here and make it better,’” she said. “If you don’t like it here, take a run and try to change it.”