Trans Representation Wins Screen Time yet Loses at the Ballot Box

A new study tracks the number of trans people in electoral politics worldwide.
Transgender Thai politician Yollada Suanyot. (Photo: Facebook)
Nov 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As the 16th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance is observed on Friday, transgender people are perhaps more visible in the media and pop culture spotlight than ever before. But true visibility is about more than leading roles in television or on glossy magazine covers. While representation may have grown in the cultural zeitgeist this year, a new report shows that transgender people are still vastly underrepresented in the political sphere—and that underrepresentation has consequences.

“We know that through people coming out [as trans] in the media, and more attention paid to transgender issues, that actually shifts public opinion and makes people rethink their prejudices,” Andrew Reynolds, the report’s coauthor, told TakePart. “But in politics there’s still a real desert of representation of trans and gender-variant people around the world.”

Standing Out: Transgender Candidates and Elected Officials Around the World is the first collection of data on self-identified transgender people in electoral politics worldwide, from Belgium to Thailand to Venezuela. Between 1977 and 2015, 126 transgender people ran in 209 political races across 30 countries, according to Reynolds, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina and the director of the school’s LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative. Just 48 of those candidates were voted into office. More than half of all the candidates in the study are from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Increasing representation of transgender people in electoral politics is in the hands of what Reynolds calls the “gatekeepers”: current party officials, political insiders, and heavy-hitting donors. The report found the majority of transgender candidates ran as independents because they found it difficult to get into traditional parties. The vast majority of people in politics the study identified were trans women.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, because trans people will become more accepted and assimilated once they’re more known, but they won’t become more known until they’re accepted and assimilated,” Reynolds said.

The visibility of the transgender community in the media, as Reynolds mentioned, has been greatly elevated in recent years. Sixteen percent of Americans say they personally know a transgender person, according to a study published in September by GLAAD, compared with just 8 percent of respondents in 2008. That personal knowledge can translate into acceptance—which is important, especially in light of the fact that 2015 was a year in which violence against members of the transgender community reached epidemic proportions.

Reynolds noted that about one-third of the transgender people identified by the report who ran for office won, which he cited as evidence that supporting candidates is a hugely important step toward increasing representation.

“It’s more about internally and externally feeling that you’re allowed to run, that you’re allowed to represent yourself in public,” Reynolds said. “If the space is given for trans people to run for office, they can win.”