Newton is poised to make history Nov. 5 as Holly Ryan runs unopposed for the Ward 8 City Council seat. When she wins, as expected, she’ll become the first openly transgender elected official in Newton — and one of the first in Massachusetts.
Of the 520,000 elected officials in the United States, about 13 are transgender, according to Victory Institute’s 2018 Out for America report.
For the Oak Hill resident, though, running for office is more about helping the city where she grew up than it is about her gender.
“If you look at it from other people’s perspective, they say this was the most logical evolution in my politics,” Ryan said. “I know the city, the whole city, I know what’s going on. I’ve been [in Newton] for over 65 years. I’ve seen all the changes from when it was farmland and dirt roads.”
Ryan, an activist since the Vietnam War and the Stonewall riots, began her official political journey 25 years ago “lobbying for civil rights and social justice.” A former steering committee co-chair of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, Ryan co-chaired the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee’s LGBT Caucus and served on the LGBTQ advisory board of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.
Rick Lipof, councilor at-large for Ward 8, credits Newton’s “diverse, forward-thinking community” for this historic step forward in representation. But, he said, he was not entirely surprised at Ryan’s warm welcome to the election field.
“It doesn’t feel as groundbreaking because Newton is an accepting, inclusive place where we would expect all people, including the City Council, to be open to everyone regardless of race or gender,” Lipof said.
Ryan’s involvement in Massachusetts politics stems from her belief that the LGBTQ community needed to have a voice. When she first got involved, she said, transgender individuals “had no rights at all.”
“We had to start helping people get elected to politics that would support the trans community,” she said, adding that she joined the Bay State Stonewall Democrats to get transgender seats on the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee.
In January 2012, former Newton Mayor Setti Warren appointed Ryan to Newton’s Human Rights Commission. Warren also appointed her as his LGBTQ liaison, a role she retained under Mayor Ruthanne Fuller until April.
Warren said he appointed Ryan for a number of reasons, but mainly it was her “statewide leadership around LGBTQ issues and, in particular, her strategic leadership” when it came to helping him and the City Council pass a protection ordinance extending to transgender individuals.
After working behind the scenes on local, congressional, and presidential campaigns, Ryan decided it was time to step into the spotlight.
“A lot of people wanted me to run because I’ve always been a voice [in Ward 8]. I called the city councilors when we felt we needed something done or people were feeling disrespected,” she said. Be it LGBTQ issues, development, affordable housing, or conservation, she wants to bring back representation from Oak Hill on the council, something that Ryan claims has been lacking for 35 years.
Lipof, an early supporter of Ryan, has worked alongside her over the last 22 years and is “thrilled” to have her joining the council because “she is so capable, such a great listener, and so passionate about public service.”
Warren echoed these sentiments, saying Ryan “has a strong understanding of the issues that face our community. She has a tremendous heart and intellect that allows her to work effectively with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds.”
Ryan’s election “will heighten our community’s awareness of LGBTQ issues and Newton will be stronger because of that,” Warren said, adding that Ryan’s political “civility” is admirable and necessary in these “challenging” political times.
“Visibility for transgender people in all aspects of life is definitely something that is needed and something that will enhance our community,” said Tre-Andre Valentine, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, adding that visibility at any level can “really smash those stereotypes that people might have.”