It was a cold, snowy day in Missoula, Mont., last year when Zooey Zephyr, a candidate for the state House of Representatives, was invited inside a voter’s house to shelter from the weather while canvassing.
Not knowing that Zephyr herself was transgender, the woman proceeded to share that she had a trans grandson, and he was afraid to come home to Montana because of anti-trans bills in the legislature.
Zephyr has since been elected as Montana’s first transgender lawmaker. Weeks after her swearing-in, she recounted that voter’s concerns when she testified in January against legislation that would ban gender-affirming care for anyone under 18. The bill passed the state Senate on Feb. 7.
Montana is one of several states where hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced this year alone. In Arizona, a bill would ban the usage of a trans or nonbinary student’s pronouns. In Indiana, some legislators want to prevent official documentation, such as birth certificates, from being updated to reflect a change in gender identity. Legislation in Kansas would restrict participation in women’s sports to those whose assigned sex at birth is female.
As a result, representatives such as Zephyr in the history-making class of trans and nonbinary officials who were elected in 2022 are often left to testify in defense of their very existence.
But Zephyr and several other lawmakers who spoke to the Globe said that’s why they need to be in office: to have a voice in the room who can speak of life as a trans person in a hostile environment, and because having an elected position gives that voice extra weight.
“I felt like I wasn’t walking in there for me,” Zephyr said of her first day in office. “I was walking in there for my constituents, who overwhelmingly support trans rights.”
As the trans community has become a focal point of right-wing culture wars, its representation in public office remains limited. There are 14 trans or nonbinary representatives at the state level, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, and none in Congress. And while allies can advocate for trans-inclusive policies, there’s no substitute for a community member’s visible presence in these chambers.
But that representation comes at a cost, as life on the front lines in the social and political spheres carries major responsibilities, and is often a lonely path with a high emotional toll.
“Running for public office puts your life under a microscope in a way that many people may be very uncomfortable with, simply because they’ve led a life in which privacy has protected them,” said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.
“It is so important for us to have the folks who are impacted by this legislation be able to be in office and to be speaking to the harms of it.”
Leigh Finke, who last year became the first transgender person elected to the Minnesota legislature, said she spent her first few weeks addressing issues such as high prescription drug prices, which is of particular consequence to many in the trans community who are on long-term medication for gender-affirming care.
“Being in the building is a radical act of government transformation in my opinion . . . just by walking the halls something is different,” Finke said. “It’s really powerful — it’s very motivating to me.”
Like Finke, Colorado state Representative Brianna Titone serves in a state with a Democratic majority, where she hopes to get a bill passed to enshrine protections for gender-affirming care. The change would not only help trans people in Colorado but also those needing care in neighboring states where restrictions are on the rise.
“People have a right to have these kinds of medical care,” Titone said. “And we’re going to do everything that we can to protect the people who are providing and receiving that care.”
But even in the best circumstances, the workplace can be difficult. The lawmakers mentioned that some colleagues stare, and others avoid eye contact or make “weird comments.” Still others misgender them in conversation.
Mauree Turner of Oklahoma, the first nonbinary official elected to a state legislature, said the hostility made them hesitant to run for reelection in 2022, due to the vitriol they experienced and the potential unintended side effects of their presence in the legislature.
“I grappled with a lot of guilt, wondering if the anti-trans, homophobic, anti-[two spirit] LGBTQ+, anti-freedom legislation that was coming from the legislature was because I was so visible,” Turner said. “And I wondered if I would be better able to protect my community if I left.”
But just before the deadline, Turner filed their candidacy paperwork for 2022. Their mission — to build a better state for trans and nonbinary Oklahomans —wasn’t over, Turner said.
Many of these anti-trans bills target LGBTQ+ youth. And, according to The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ crisis support nonprofit, that’s taking a toll: a national poll last year found that 86 percent of trans and nonbinary youth say these legislative efforts are hurting their mental well-being. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida, University of South Carolina, and the School of Law at Western New England University also underscored this harm, finding that search rates related to suicide and depression rose in states in the months following their passage of anti-trans bills — and then declined when the bills were defeated.
“We know that banning gender-affirming care for minors is going to lead to serious mental health outcomes, including suicide risk,” said Kirsty Clark, associate director of the Vanderbilt LGBTQ+ Policy Lab. “The children and families who will be affected aren’t just statistics, they’re people and constituents who deserve to be treated equally and with care.”
For New Hampshire Representative James Roesener, who was the first out trans man elected to any state legislature in the country, being ”on the first line of defense when it comes to these bills has been a gratifying process, as well as taxing emotionally.”
He has been surprised by how many trans people have told him they have considered running for office, but didn’t see it as an option. Since his election, he said, he’s shown up at hearings outside of his assignments to speak on bills related to the trans community to ensure the public understands the effect the legislation can have. Roesener described a feeling of “nakedness” that comes from having to disclose so much about private journeys so that the broader public can debate trans people’s rights.
The road to equality will be long. But for trans and nonbinary lawmakers, there are also moments of joy.
Former New Hampshire state representative Lisa Bunker described the nervousness she felt after being invited to sing the national anthem at the start of a legislative session during her tenure, followed by her pride at embracing her natural bass voice.
“That was an important moment for me because I, too, am a patriot, I, too, love this country, and I have just as much right to be the person who celebrates our nation . . . as anybody else,” Bunker said. “I was proud of coming up with the courage to do that and of singing in my natural voice . . . which deserves to be heard just as much as anybody else’s.”