It wasn’t a question of whether or not Bernie Sanders would gain enough delegates in Seattle’s Democratic 43rd legislative district. The 43rd, after all—home to the city council district that elected its own socialist, council member Kshama Sawant—is the most progressive district in the state, if not the country. Nearly 70 percent of the precincts that make up the 43rd had already gone for Sanders during the initial presidential balloting at the March caucuses.
No, the pressing question was whether the party was progressive enough to make room for transgender delegates.
The 43rd met on April 17, 2016, to winnow down delegates in the run-up to July’s Democratic National Committee convention in Philadelphia, where Washington state is sending 101 pledged delegates. Tara Gallagher and her gender-queer 16-year-old, Galaxy Marshall, who self-identifies as “nonbinary,” asked the state party to change rules that required delegates to conform with one gender or the other. When local party leaders said the decision would have to be made on the national level, Gallagher turned the request into a protest.
“For noncis delegate candidates,” the poster she placed at the sign-in table blared in all caps. “We apologize that the DNC has not offered us more flexi-bility in gender identification...you must choose a gender to run as.”
As the Sanders crowd gathered in the auditorium (Hillary Clinton supporters were in the gym), Philip Dawdy, heading the voting process for Sanders hopefuls that day, told the delegates to form two lines: one for men and one for women.
When a nonbinary person asked if there was a nongendered option, Dawdy offered his apologies, he recalls, “but state party rules dictated they needed to pick whichever gender they were most comfortable identifying with…and get in line. I felt like absolute crap.”
One Sanders delegate hopeful, trans activist Danni Askini, who was born a boy and has lived her adult life as a woman, explains that her experience has rendered gender itself nonbinary. She’s not just a man or a woman now. “I feel deeply uncomfortable being forced to gender segregate,” says Askini, who made it past the legislative district level as a Sanders delegate but didn’t move on to the national level after that.
The rules that require delegates to identify strictly as either a man or woman were, ironically, put into place in the early 1970s, a time of earnest reform when the Democratic Party was trying to enforce gender balance in the name of women’s equality.
Back then, in the throes of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the time, and in the run-up to the 1972 Democratic convention, U.S. senator and presidential candidate George McGovern led a commission to change the nomination rules (to his advantage, obviously) and adopted new language to democratize the delegate process, mandating, for one thing, gender equality. Practically speaking, that boils down to rules on the books today like this: “The state’s total number of congressional district-level delegates will be equally divided between men and women.”
By current standards that language is downright conservative—or “cisgender” and “heteronormative,” as modern activists would have it. “I wouldn’t want to do away with protections to make sure women are equally represented,” says Caspian Priebe, a 29-year-old trans man in the 43rd who wanted to be a national Sanders delegate. “But there should be a third option. People need to be able to define themselves as undefined.”
Now Seattle Democrats are out to change those old-school regulations. Dawdy was so upset by “being put in a position where I had to marginalize people who live in my neighborhood” that he submitted a party resolution urging the DNC “to update the party’s language to include persons who identify as nonbinary” in time for the 2020 presidential race.
Meanwhile, Galaxy Marshall and mom Tara Gallagher cowrote a resolution directed at the state party and got it passed unanimously at the 43rd’s regular monthly meeting in May. Their resolution bypasses Dawdy’s pitch to the DNC and simply calls on the state party itself to make local rules inclusive for nongendered people by 2018.
But for one older trans woman who was in the running to go to Philadelphia as a Sanders delegate, standing in the female line was the point. At least originally.
“I’m not a woman with an asterisk,” says Breanna Anderson, 58, a successful software engineer who joined the women’s line at the First Legislative District delegate meeting in Kirkland to make her one-minute pitch to move forward in the process. She won that round with a speech that compared the long-game activism of the trans rights movement—like her own fight as a Microsoft employee in the early 2000s for health insurance that covered transgender care—to the need for the Sanders cause to include leaders who understand “you don’t always get it the first time out…you’ve got to be able to take some blows and keep coming back.”
Later, toward the end of May, Anderson vied for one of the three female spots at the congressional district level. She didn’t win but as of press time she was running for one of 34 at-large delegate spots.
Anderson says there wasn’t any discussion about nonbinary delegates at her suburban caucuses but admits “a conversation needs to be had about nongendered or gender-neutral people” so they aren’t left out.
Tough conversations have been a theme in Anderson’s life for 30 years. She grew up in the suburbs of Edmonds, became a successful software engineer, was married for 10 years, and had three kids before shaving her beard, getting divorced, and coming out as a trans lesbian woman in the early ’90s.
She quickly embraced the queer community in Capitol Hill and joined QPatrol (a volunteer crew that patrolled the Pike/Pine scene to help prevent gay bashings). While working at Microsoft, Anderson began cochairing the pride parade in 1996. And she’s proud that the Seattle parade was the first—even before San Francisco—to add the T (as in LGBT) to the brand, something for which she advocated.
Still, her political life didn’t extend much beyond queer rights (though she once designed the back end of senator Patty Murray’s reelection website) until this year when her partner, Maggie, got involved in the Sanders campaign. At first Anderson viewed Sanders as just a solid protest candidate, but since his campaign has grown into a full-fledged movement—“a protest candidate on steroids,” Anderson says—she decided to run for a spot in Philadelphia to challenge the status quo. And for Anderson, making sure transgender people are present is part of that challenge.
Noting the new North Carolina law that bans entrance to restrooms by anyone one other than individuals whose birth gender matches that assigned to the restroom, Anderson says that, with trans rights under attack nationally (“We’ve become a scapegoat and a bogeyman”), it’s important for the Democrats to “double down” on rights that already exist in the law and affirmatively enshrine them in the party platform this year.
Higher-ups in the party agree. The rules are out of date. “There are many regulations…that were seen as progressive then,” says Jamal Raad, a spokesperson for the Washington State Democrats, “but now are a little bit antiquated.”
Interest in transgender delegates has popped up elsewhere. There’s a transgender superdelegate from New Jersey. And Eric Walker, the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, told me, “Yes, incorporating transgender delegates into our 50-50 male-female delegate rule will be a topic of discussion with respect to future conventions.”
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is moving in the opposite direction; earlier this year it approved a resolution that calls on state legislatures to pass more laws prohibiting trans kids from choosing the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Of course, given that only 0.3 percent of Americans identify as transgender, there’s no clear equation that feasibly guarantees trans people slots at the conventions.
“Trans people and gender nonconforming people just kind of fuck up the whole system,” Anderson says. “They jam it. But you just have to deal with it because…we’re not going away.”
She’s happy Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch spoke out in defense of transgender rights. But “it’s important for us not to allow other people to proxy for us. We have to be there to make the ‘I have a dream’ speech.”
That dream, as it’s now framed by the heirs of Anderson’s ’90s activism—such as 16-year-old Galaxy Marshall—includes transforming the civil rights gains of the past into meaningful civil rights today.