Published — March 6, 2019

Transgender political candidates are increasingly common. The money backing them is not

The lone PAC dedicated to trans politicos is grappling with debt and legal issues. 

This story is published in partnership with Out magazine


March 10: This story has been corrected.

About 1.4 million people in the United States identify as transgender at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration has been particularly hostile toward the “T” in LGBTQ — from trying to ban transgender individuals in the military to considering a federal definition of what constitutes gender.

Meanwhile, there are zero openly transgender Americans serving in Congress. At least 51 transgender people unsuccessfully ran for state, local and federal office last year, according to data collected by Logan Casey, a political scientist who now works with the Movement Advancement Project. Nine ran for Congress, but none emerged victorious or even won a major-party nomination.

Such political futility for transgender Americans specifically comes at a time when gay, lesbian and bisexual political candidates are winning some of the nation’s highest offices and even running for president in 2020.

A major obstacle for transgender candidates is money: Those nine transgender congressional candidates collectively raised less than $300,000 during the 2018 election cycle, a Center for Public Integrity review of federal records indicates.

Only three of them — Democratic candidates Alexandra Chandler in Massachusetts, Brianna Westbrook in Arizona and once-imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning in Maryland — raised more than $5,000 each. (During the 2016 election cycle, the average winner of a U.S. House seat spent about $1.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Meanwhile, there were no exclusively trans-focused political action committees or super PACs raising and spending significant amounts of money to help transgender congressional candidates’ campaigns.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: Trans United Fund, a PAC organized in October 2016, sought to fill that void through its PAC and 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit arm. The group’s launch garnered national attention, it leader spoke of involving Trans United Fund in federal elections — including presidential campaigns — and its emergence came with the promise that it would boost transgender political representation.

But the Washington-based PAC hasn’t yet raised a single federal-level dollar, according to Federal Election Commission records. While Trans United Fund endorsed three winning transgender candidates who ran for state or local offices in 2017, including Democratic Virginia General Assembly Delegate Danica Roem, the PAC has struggled to convert these successes into significant cash.

Headwinds for Trans United Fund include competition from more established political groups that advocate generally for pro-LGBTQ candidates, the absence of wealthy, founding donors to kickstart its operations and an American public that’s still understanding what it means to be transgender.

Trans United Fund’s lack of financial muscle and the dearth of other organizations like it could hinder transgender candidates’ viability in the future.

What is Trans United Fund?

Trans United Fund was founded by Minneapolis City Council member Andrea Jenkins — the first openly transgender African-American woman elected to public office — and political strategist Hayden Mora, a transgender man.

Jenkins, who ran as a Democratic Farmer Labor Party candidate, said the vision for Trans United Fund was initially “broad,” but the goal was always to have a training mechanism for transgender and gender-nonconforming (people who express their gender outside of traditional societal expectations).

Adhering to that mission, especially on the federal level, has proven difficult. And raising money for Trans United Fund hasn’t been easy.  

Phillipe Cunningham, Hayden Mora and Andrea Jenkins discussing goals in North Carolina in 2016. (Courtesy of Hayden Mora)

The costs associated with running and winning federal campaigns, coupled with the relatively small number of transgender candidates running for Congress, are reasons why Trans United Fund hasn’t been active in federal races, Mora said.

Among Trans United Fund’s victories at the local level came in 2017, when its non-federal PAC, Breakthrough Fund, spent more than $88,000 to counteract attacks leveled at Minneapolis City Council candidate Phillipe Cunningham, a transgender man. The Democratic Farmer Labor Party candidate narrowly defeated incumbent Barbara Johnson, who had occupied the seat for nearly 20 years.

Cunningham credits Trans United Fund — it hired a consulting group to advise on tactics such as increased door-knocking and phone-banking efforts — with helping him survive the last months of his campaign. Groups opposing Cunningham spent money on ads and mailers targeting his financial debts.

Aside from Trans United Fund, “everybody stayed out and nobody supported me,” Cunningham said.

For Mora, Cunningham’s triumph was a sign that his organization could make a difference.

But victory came with a cost. Trans United Fund has struggled to fully comply with state election laws, and it’s incurred significant debt.

The debt is a result of a partner pledging $45,000 and then backing out. Mora said he had to appeal to the Trans United Fund board to assume the debt so the money could be used to help Jenkins’ and Cunningham’s campaigns.

This left Trans United Fund exactly $45,000 in the red — debt it’s since paid down to $18,578.61 as of July 31, according to Minnesota campaign finance records. But the situation may concern prospective donors.

While federal filings show Trans United Fund has raised no money at all for congressional elections, Minnesota campaign finance records show it received state-level contributions from Minneapolis-based individuals, local LGBTQ+ organization OutFront MN Action and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Minnesota State Council Political Fund.

Trans United Fund, which describes itself as nonpartisan, spent more than $13,500 on three Democratic transgender women running for governor, U.S. House or state Senate in 2018. None of them won.

Meanwhile, according to IRS records, Trans United Fund’s sister charitable nonprofit organization disclosed raising less than $50,000 for the 2016 tax year.

Trans United Fund has endorsed, most notably, Roem. Founder Jenkins was also endorsed by her own group. She won her Minneapolis City Council race in 2017 with 73 percent of the vote, meaning the Minneapolis City Council now has two black, transgender members out of 13 members overall.

Transgender political candidates are no longer anomalies

Roem’s race for a Virginia General Assembly delegate seat made her the highest-profile transgender political candidate in the United States, and arguably, U.S. history.

The race garnered national attention for its acrimony: Her opponent, Republican incumbent Robert Marshall, had previously called himself the state’s “chief homophobe” and hurled insults at her throughout the campaign.

In September 2017, he declared that Roem and her candidacy were “against the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

Roem beat Marshall by more than 1,700 votes.

Although Marshall made Roem’s identity a part of his platform — he proudly touted his sponsorship of a so-called “bathroom bill” in Virginia that required transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender assigned at birth —  Roem had other priorities.

For Roem, the letter “T” didn’t stand for “transgender” nearly as much as it did “transportation” — she made improving Virginia’s Route 28 highway a cornerstone of her campaign.

Roem told the Center for Public Integrity that she is defined by more than her gender identity. She said her years as a news reporter in Virginia gave her critical knowledge about public policy, which led her to focus on hyperlocal issues.

As a transgender elected leader, she said, her responsibility is to represent all the people who voted for her — and even the ones who didn’t.

Roem said groups such as Trans United Fund are needed to help transgender elected officials be perceived as viable candidates and public servants. The group contributed $5,000 to Roem’s campaign committee in 2017.

She continues to work with the “burgeoning organization” as she runs for re-election. Just last December, Trans United Fund hosted a re-election event for Roem in Washington, D.C.

Mora said Trans United Fund didn’t contribute more money to Roem because she was already receiving large sums of money from donors across the country — Roem outspent her opponent by more than $539,000 — and Trans United Fund wanted to focus its attention on helping the Minnesota City Council candidates, Jenkins and Cunningham.

The Center for Public Integrity spoke with transgender candidates across the country about their experience running for office and how money, or the lack thereof, affected their runs. These are their stories.

Mel Wymore ran for a city council seat in 2013 and again in 2017. He would’ve been New York’s first transgender city council member if he had been elected. He also ran the New York-based TransPAC, which focused on helping elect transgender candidates. The trained systems engineer and activist said messaging was difficult in both runs as he tried to balance discussing his identity with his stances on issues. “People weren’t out [as transgender] five or six years ago,” he said, noting that the media presence of celebrities such as actress Laverne Cox and retired athlete Caitlyn Jenner helped put a face on transgender identity. He said he willingly spent a lot of time in personal conversations with voters educating them about what being transgender meant. The educating part of his campaign lessened slightly in his second campaign when he ran against incumbent Helen Rosenthal. “I had to tell people I’m not a white guy, I’m a trans person,” he said with laughter about how different his experience is from the average non-transgender man. He received nearly 31 percent of the primary vote. Wymore said he doesn’t have immediate plans to run for office again. Instead, he’s focusing on pushing New York City’s small-dollar matching model, which multiplies the impact of small donations from city residents. (Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch/IPX via AP)
Deja Alvarez has her eyes set on running for City Council at-large in Philadelphia. Should she win, she’d be the first openly transgender city council member. “We’re about to find out if Philly is ready for a transgender candidate,” she said. Alvarez completed the candidate training Trans United Fund offered in January at the Creating Change Conference in Detroit. The training, she said, stressed to candidates the importance of interacting with their community and fundraising. The community activist has found fundraising to be the most difficult. As she scrolled throuhg her contact list of people who could contribute to her campaign, she realized that many of her contacts were people she worked with through her advcocacy work around LGBTQ homelessness and illness outreach. She also still needs to work her full-time job as a systems navigator for an HIV prevention program funded by the city’s department of health. It’s not a typical 9-to-5 job, she said. People call her all hours of the day and night asking for help or how to access help. (Vote 4 Alvarez Facebook page)
Phillipe Cunningham, the first black transgender man elected to office in 2017, was open about his policy stances and his gender identity throughout his campaign. The former Chicago special education teacher said he chose not to hide his transgender identity as he did in Chicago, where he felt unsafe to fully be himself. He moved to North Minneapolis after posting on Facebook that he was ready to leave Chicago. A black queer woman told him to consider Minneapolis over Portland and Nashville because it was the safest place she’d ever lived. Cunningham attributes part of his campaigning ease to Minneapolis’ history of being the first city in America to have a nondiscrimination ordinance against gender expression in 1975. “We have a hidden gayborhood over here,” he said while chuckling. Although self transparency had never been an issue for Cunningham and many of his constituents, outside groups thought otherwise. His opponent’s supporters spent hundreds of thousands to dampen his success. Cunningham said one person posted on Facebook that he had unpaid medical bills connected to his transition. A mailer about how he filed for bankruptcy and wanted to raise taxes followed shortly after along with other mailers questioning his competency. Cunningham said his medical bills and student loans did indeed bankrupt him, but that wasn’t something he was hiding. The mailers were also not enough to keep him from winning his race — by 175 votes. Trans United Fund’s help, he said, also played a critical role in success. Cunningham said he has confidence that Trans United Fund could replicate his success on the national level if it had more resources. For federal candidates, however, the road could be bumpier, and it’s one he has no desire to explore. (Tony Webster / Creative Commons)
Danielle VanHelsing is currently the only opposition who has announced her candidacy to go against Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins. VanHelsing would be the first openly transgender person elected to Congress if she were to beat Collins. VanHelsing said she’s running as an independent because she doesn’t think the two-party system represents everyone. Winning the Democratic party nomination in her state would also be unlikely, she said. She ran as an independent last year for Maine’s 2nd Congressional district but withdrew her candidacy because she thought she was further bifurcating the vote. The transgender rights activist and \call center employee said the lack of infrastructure for financially supporting transgender candidates is pushing her to think more creatively about how and from where she will receive funding. “Collins has millions to work with. I’m going into this penniless,” she said, noting that she’s still assembling a team to help her strategize sources to contact for support. VanHelsing is open to working with Trans United Fund, but she only knows about them from reading a few articles. (Danielle VanHelsing via Twitter)
Jennifer Williams is running for an assembly seat in New Jersey’s 15th Legislative District. The longtime Republican would be the first transgender woman elected in the state should she secure her party’s nomination and win in the general election. The Log Cabin Republicans member has been advocating for transgender rights at the past three editions of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a yearly event near Washington, D.C., where thousands of conservative lawmakers and activists gather. (Courtesy of Jennifer Williams) This year, she and two other conservative, transgender women parked themselves in the main hallway of the conference, holding up a Bennington flag and a sign declaring their pride in their identity and being conservative Americans. Only one person yelled at Williams and her friends for pushing “‘the agenda,’” she said. At the New Jersey Republican Party 2019 Statewide Leadership Summit, Williams said party officials and politicians such as Kim Guadagno were positive and welcoming toward her. Williams recently attended an LGBTQ Victory Instiute candidate training in San Francisco, where she joked that she was the only “out” Republican in attendance. Williams, who once considered running for Congress, said the training confirmed for her that she made the right decision to run for a state office because experts at the training stressed the difficulty of securing funding and getting votes for congressional races. Williams voted for John Kasich in the 2016 presidential primary and in the general election. Trump’s policies, especially the ones concerning military service members, conflict with her conservative ideals that government should have no say in personhood. “If you don’t believe that, you’re not a true conservative,” she said. (Courtesy of Jennifer Williams)
Madeline Eden, a transgender woman who ran as a Democrat in Texas’ 10th Congressional District, received just over 14 percent of the vote in her primary. Eden said the candidate training received from the LGBTQ Victory Instiute did provide her with useful information, although the strong message for fundraising was a bit unsettling for her. She also didn’t receive endorsement from the LGBTQ Victory Fund although she said she requested it. The software architect, who in part raised money through cryptocurrency donations, said she ran mostly to learn about how to be a candidate and to see what barriers exist for nontraditional candidates running for office. “My main takeaways from being a candidate is that there are a lot of problems with the system as it is and a lot of problems for LGBT candidates to receive endorsements, assistance and training,” she said. (Eden for Texas Facebook page)

The Center for Public Integrity spoke with transgender candidates across the country about their experience running for office and how money, or the lack thereof, affected their runs. These are their stories.

Money troubles

Last year, transgender candidate Alexandra Chandler ran as a Democrat for a U.S. House seat in Massachusetts but lost in her primary.

Chandler was the only federal candidate Trans United Fund endorsed, mainly because of her stances on race, gender equality and immigration, Mora said. Trans United Fund also contributed $4,493 to her campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

But Trans United Fund erred in doing so: The money came from the group’s nonprofit arm, not its political committee. Federal law prohibits nonprofits from making direct contributions to political candidates.

Mora acknowledged the error and says he’s working with the FEC to resolve it. Erin Chlopak, director of finance strategy for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said an error like Trans United Fund’s is unusual.

“Most sophisticated PACs and entities are careful to not make that mistake,” Chlopak said. Trans United Fund will most likely have to notify the campaign committee of its misreporting and the money will need to be returned. Trans United Fund could also face a fine from the FEC, but Chlopak predicted it would not be substantial.

Mora said Chandler has been notified and the money has been returned. A correction to the error will appear in Trans United Fund’s next filing with the FEC, he said.    

Chandler said she also received extensive candidate training from the LGBTQ Victory Institute, whose mission is to train and to elect LGBTQ leaders to office. But that preparation left her feeling burdened by the amount of money she needed to raise to run a successful campaign. The LGBTQ Victory Fund also skipped over her potential groundbreaking candidacy to instead endorse former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, who is openly gay. Gifford and Chandler both lost in the primary.

Her campaign raised slightly more than $150,000 — decent money, but much less than most winning congressional candidates.

The road to money and success isn’t always smooth in politics — particularly if you’re a black, trans, progressive man, said Mora, speaking about Cunningham. “It’s like David and Goliath,” Mora said.

Public perceptions of transgender identity

As transgender political candidates become more common, many Americans are still struggling to comprehend what being transgender means. According to the American Psychological Association, the word “transgender” is a blanket term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior does not conform to what’s associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Less than half of all Americans believe that gender can be different from what a person was assigned at birth, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last year. That division becomes even starker across party lines:

  • 80 percent of those polled who leaned Republican said that gender is determined by sex at birth
  • 64 percent of those polled who leaned Democratic said that gender can be different from sex at birth  

Jenkins, of Trans United Fund, said transgender people and issues have often been on the edges of the larger LGBTQ movement.

“One of the mantras of the LGBT community, and I will say mostly LGB, is that, ‘We’re normal. We’re just like you,’” she said, stressing gay men and lesbians have received more societal acceptance. “When trans-identified people come along, it sort of disrupts that narrative.”

Andrew Reynolds, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who’s researched LGBTQ political candidates around the world, said that stigma around transgender people will fade in time. But “it’s a very long game,” Reynolds said.

That’s a game Jenkins and Mora aren’t willing to wait for as transgender people face legal restrictions — along with the threats of assault, murder, suicide and homelessness.

“We have to step forward and stand up and fight for our rights and not wait for these other organizations to come to our rescue,” Jenkins said.

Trump and transgender Americans

The urgency is prompted in part by the Trump administration’s decisions affecting transgender Americans, which has alarmed transgender rights activists across the country.

Protesters outside the White House on October 22, 2018 at the ‘We Won’t Be Erased – Rally for Trans Rights,’ in Washington, D.C. (Ted Eytan / Creative Commons)

But while campaigning for president, Trump signaled he supported transgender Americans and, similarly, wanted their support.

“Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs,” Trump tweeted in June 2016, two days after a gunman murdered 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

In his 2016 Republican National Convention speech, Trump said, “I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”

His campaign even sold a shirt that reads, “LGBTQ for Trump.” It’s still on sale on Trump’s re-election campaign website, reduced in price from $30 to $24.

The White House and Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Although Trump has placed transgender identity in national discourse, his tactics of targeting LGBTQ individuals are nothing new to the federal government, according to Nicole Elias, a professor of public management at the City University of New York.

“The first mention of LGBT individuals goes back all the way to Eisenhower,” she said, outlining an abridged version of past administrations’ LGBTQ policies that include the following:

“Trump is both more vocal and more restrictive of transgender rights in policies and programs compared to past administrations,” Elias said, citing the Trump administration’s proposal around gender and the transgender servicemember ban.

Trans United Fund: Needed ‘programming’?

Political groups that support LGBTQ candidates broadly have found great success in recent years, giving organizations such as Trans United Fund hope for growth.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading advocacy group for LGBTQ equality, also has its own PAC, which has raised more than $1 million every election cycle since the mid-1990s. It raised $1.7 million last election cycle.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund PAC raised more than $826,000 this past election — an election-cycle record for the group — with two of its largest donors being Milwaukee businessman Christopher Abele and a super PAC called the Committee to Elect a Progressive Congress.

But these groups don’t supplant the need for Trans United Fund, Jenkins said.

“It’s like saying ‘Does Black Entertainment Television need to exist? How come you just can’t be on NBC?’” she said. “NBC is not playing the programming that we want to watch so we need to create our own.”

Neither HRC nor LGBTQ Victory gave money to the nine transgender candidates who ran for Congress last year.  

One notable donor to transgender candidates is watching Trans United Fund closely.

Amy Watt, a 32-year-old entrepreneur and former oil trader from Houston, spread $8,100 among several of the transgender federal candidates who ran last year, according to federal records.

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Watt, a transgender woman, said she was motivated to donate by the so-called “bathroom bills” circulating in her state and wanted to combat this “symptom of maltreatment of transgender people.”

Watt donated to Chandler, the transgender congressional candidate in Massachusetts, who put her in touch with the Trans United Fund.

Watt didn’t donate to Trans United Fund. But she said she likes the idea of the group and wants to learn more about its organizational structure and governance before contributing.  

What’s next?

Mora said he’d like for Trans United Fund to continue to recruit and train “priority” candidates, or transgender people of color or people with immigrant backgrounds.

In January, more than 1,000 people attended the Creating Change Conference in Detroit, which included a Trans United Fund-led candidate and campaign school for transgender, “queer and ally leaders”.

Playing at the federal level still seems like a daunting task for Trans United Fund. Moreover, none of the current Democratic presidential candidates stand out to Trans United Fund, according to Mora, even though Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pledged her solidarity with transgender Americans just last year.

Trans United Fund would like to partner with other emergent groups that have focused on multiple issues involving race, sex and immigration, like Mijente, Movement for Black Lives and UltraViolet. The goal would be for other organizations to include Trans United Fund’s priority issues, such as race and gender equality and immigration reform in candidate questionnaires.

Trans United Fund will continue to endorse candidates who champion all the issues — pro-trans, pro-black, pro-immigrant among them — important to Trans United Fund, and it will mobilize volunteers as needed. Mora said there is interest in exploring how Trans United Fund can help Danielle VanHelsing, an independent candidate running for a Maine U.S. Senate seat.

For now, Trans United Fund is planning to tap transgender rights advocate and TransLatin@ Coalition founder Bamby Salcedo as a leader of its “social welfare” nonprofit arm. Trans United Fund is tapping black transgender rights advocate and founder of TAKE (Transgender Advocates Knowledgeable Empowering), Daroneshia Duncan, to lead its separate charitable nonprofit.

Transgender representation in office is not a large enough goal for Trans United Fund, Mora said. It wants to turn the tiny transgender voting population into a voting bloc to which lawmakers must answer. But exactly how it will accomplish its mission and be something different from other transgender-focused groups isn’t completely clear.

“There’s not a straight playbook,” he said. “We haven’t figured it all out.”

March 10, 10:16 p.m.: An earlier version of this article reported the incorrect title for Nicole Elias. She is a professor of public management.

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