PROVIDENCE — The Rev. Donnie Anderson, a transgender woman, has been elected chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, the group announced Friday.
“It really says that the women who are the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus mean it when they say that they accept all women,” Anderson told the Globe.
But she said she is confident that the group elected her because of her skill set and not because she is transgender.
“They thought I was the woman who could provide leadership at this point in time,” Anderson said. “I hope the message is: Trans women are women, and we just want to function like every other woman in society.”
The Democratic Women’s Caucus, which broke away from the Rhode Island Democratic Party in 2019, also elected former state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor Cynthia Mendes as vice president, former candidate for secretary of state Stephanie Beauté as secretary, and retired public school teacher Pearl Holloway as treasurer.
Anderson, 75, of Providence, served for 13 years as executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and is now a half-time minister at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in New Bedford, Mass. She has four children and seven grandchildren.
Anderson received media attention when she came out as transgender in 2018, and she ran for state Senate in 2022, losing the Democratic primary in Senate District 1 to Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, of Providence.
She has been active on social justice issues of race, poverty and gender. She also is co-chair of the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, and a former co-chair of the State Advisory Committee for the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
Anderson said she has been on the executive committee of the Democratic Women’s Caucus for two years. “And never once — I mean not once — was there any hint of treating me any differently than any other woman on the executive committee,” she said. “To be honest with you, I was a little surprised that my acceptance was so complete.”
So when the chair position opened up, Anderson said her main concern was not whether she’d be accepted — it was whether her skills matched the needs of the caucus. Candace Brown Casey had been serving as chair since Samantha Weiser stepped down. Anderson decided to seek the position, and the election was uncontested.
Anderson takes over at a time when conservative legislators across the country are introducing a variety of anti-transgender bills.
“Some people want to stick their heads in the sand and deny the reality of people like me,” she said. “As supportive as the caucus has been, there will be people who are not supportive. There will be people who think this is horrible. I have to weigh that.”
Anderson said “some nasty stuff came along” when she first talked about her transition, but she is prepared for that.
“I did this with my eyes wide open,” she said. “It’s too important for all of us in general and for my community specifically for some of us to be willing to assume positions that have a high level of visibility.”
Anderson said she is focused on helping the caucus support and encourage women candidates. Once a candidate steps forward, the group wants to connect them with volunteers in their area, and the group wants to support those who are already in office, she said.
For example, Anderson said group will provide support for Jessica Marie Purcell, a Democrat who is challenging the Richmond Town Council’s decision to appoint a Republican to a vacancy on the Chariho Regional School Committee.
The Town Council voted to appoint Clay Johnson, chair of the conservative Gaspee Project and a supporter of Parents United, which opposes “efforts to teach our K-12 students any divisive race-based or gender-based theory and any inappropriate and explicit sexual content.” Purcell has filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, arguing that the Richmond Home Rule Charter requires the Town Council to appoint her because she received the next-highest vote total in November’s elections.
Anderson said the group also plans to support North Kingstown School Committee member Jennifer Lima, who recently received a threatening email containing a photo of a noose and the words: “It’s coming.” Lima has been outspoken on issues related to racism, anti-Asian hate and LGBTQ rights.
“(Lima) has worked to make sure the curriculum recognizes the diversity that exists in the United States,” Anderson said. “Some people want to close their eyes to the fact that this is a diverse country, and we celebrate that diversity.”
Anderson said the women’s caucus will also focus on advocating for legislation on the state and local level. For example, the group is part of a coalition supporting the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would let Medicaid recipients and state employees use their health insurance to cover the cost of abortions.
“If you have two hours a year, you can rock the State of Rhode Island,” Anderson said. “It takes two minutes to make a call to a state representative to say, ‘I support this bill or I’m against it.’ So if someone is willing to give two hours of their life to make two-minute calls, they can make a difference. If legislators get multiple calls, they know people in their district care about an issue, and they pay attention.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.