PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has never elected a transgender member of the General Assembly, but that might change soon.
Three transgender candidates are running in the Sept. 13 Democratic primaries — the Rev. Donnie Anderson in Senate District 1 in Providence, Damián Lima in House District 6 in Providence, and Giona Picheco in House District 14 in Cranston.
The three are trying to gain a voice in Rhode Island’s legislature at a time when state lawmakers around the country have introduced a record number of bills to limit LGBTQ rights, with about half of that legislation targeting transgender people specifically.
“The anti-trans legislation we are seeing around the country is prompting a lot of trans folks to step forward and run for office,” said Ken Barber, executive director and president of the RI Queer PAC. “They are realizing the lack of trans representation in government at every level is a big problem. We are creating legislation or creating policies that could affect the trans population, but they are not sitting at the table.”
Barber said electing one transgender Rhode Island legislator would be historic, and if all three candidates win, that would be a national story.
The Rhode Island Queer Political Action Committee launched in March. And since then it has spoken out against legislative proposals such as a House bill introduced by Representative Patricia L. Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, that would have prohibited teaching about “sexual preference” or “gender dysphoria,” and a Senate bill, introduced by Senator Elaine J. Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, that would “categorize women by their biological identity at birth rather than their gender identity for purposes of organized sports.”
Barber said it would be valuable to have a trans person in the legislature. “Too many issues out there are being ignored or negative legislation is being brought forward,” he said. “So we have to create a system to fight against those systemic processes.”
The PAC also has endorsed 14 candidates, including Anderson, Lima, and Picheco.
“We are in a pretty dark spot historically,” Barber said. “But having three trans candidates and 20-plus LGBTQ candidates running this year gives us a positive outlook for the future for Rhode Island.”
Anderson is challenging Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat who has been in office for 35 years, in a Democratic primary. Unaffiliated candidate Niyoka Powell also is running for that Senate District 1 seat.
“We live in a country where there are people trying to pass laws in some states to basically deny our existence and say transgender is not an issue and not acknowledge our existence as individuals,” Anderson said. “I am so grateful I live in Rhode Island and get a chance to run.”
Anderson, 74, served for 13 years as executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and is now a minister at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her transition to womanhood, completed in 2018, received media attention, so a lot of voters know her story when she campaigns door to door, she said.
Overall, being a transgender candidate has been a non-issue or even a positive, Anderson said.
“Almost always there is a sympathetic ear there, so I’m not uncomfortable,” she said. “But I’m not stupid. I know there are people out there probably very disturbed, and the more seriously my candidacy is taken, the more they will be upset with me.”
But, Anderson said, if people disagree with her it’s usually over a policy or because they like Goodwin. “If they are upset that I’m trans,” she said, “I have not met them or they have chosen not to say that.”
When campaigning, Anderson introduces herself and then tells voters that she supports abortion rights while her opponent does not. She notes that Rhode Island this year failed to pass the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would provide for abortion coverage in the health insurance of Medicaid recipients and state employees.
“It just seems so bizarre to treat state employees and women on Medicaid as second-class citizens, and it is intentional,” she said.
Anderson also is speaking out against a bill that would have cleared the way for “advanced recycling” plants, which use the high-heat process known as pyrolysis to turn plastic into fuel, and she is calling for term limits for all state legislators, saying a six-term limit, or 12 years, “is enough time to spend at the State House.”
Picheco is running in a primary against another high-profile incumbent — Deputy House Speaker Charlene M. Lima, a Cranston Democrat.
Picheco, 33, served in the US Navy for six years and said she was upset to see the Trump administration ban transgender people from openly serving in the military. She said she is running for the House in part because of “heightened attacks against trans communities in other states.”
In Rhode Island, bills such as those proposed by Representative Morgan and Senator Morgan did not come close to becoming law this year, but Picheco said, “It’s important to have people representing the trans community and standing up against this increased hate and ignorance.”
As she campaigns, Picheco said she finds that most people people don’t seem to notice or care that she is transgender. “It hasn’t been an issue,” she said.
Picheco said voters are concerned with issues such as education and the condition of public school buildings in the district. And she said she disagrees with Lima noting that Lima voted against the Act on Climate, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable, and he voted against a new law banning large-capacity gun magazines.
Damián Lima is challenging another House incumbent — Representative Raymond A. Hull, a Providence Democratic who chairs the House Municipal Government and Housing Committee and is a member of the powerful House Finance Committee.
“It is incredible that while in many parts of the country, the rights of transgender people are being stripped, Rhode Island has three transgender candidates running for office,” he said.
Lima gave credit to the work organizers have done over the years and said his involvement with the LGBTQ+ Action Committee propelled him to run for office. “I attended one of their meetings when an anti-trans bill was introduced, and then I just kept attending their meetings,” he said. “The group opened my eyes to the legislative process and politics in Rhode Island.”
Lima, who came to the United States from El Salvador in 2002, said he would be the first transgender immigrant to serve in a state legislature in the country. “This is extremely important for me as I only became eligible to vote about four years ago when I finally obtained my citizenship,” he said.
Lima, 36, is a public health worker at Casa Esperanza in Boston, and he is running as part of a slate of progressive candidates backed by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative.
“I am getting good responses at the door,” he said. “So far, I have only been insulted on one property because of my ethnicity. However, I have taken some precautions to protect my safety at home after talking to other queer elected officials and candidates.”
While LGBTQ+ issues are important for many people in his district, Lima said voters are also focused on the lack of universal pre-kindergarten and affordable childcare, the condition of public schools, our environment, corruption, the housing and healthcare crisis, Lima said.
“Sometimes people forget that we (transgender people) struggle with the same issues as everyone else, with the added component of having to defend our humanity at every turn,” he said.