This guest piece is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics called “That’s What Girls Do.”
There is never a perfect time to take the plunge and run for public office. You simply have to jump in head first and go for it, which is always easier said than done. Being a transgender woman in Arkansas and considering whether to take that leap is like standing on a diving board and seeing a NO DIVING sign.
A few years ago, I was perched on that ledge. In the end, feeling discouraged, I ended up walking away. I decided to stop thinking about public office as a potential avenue for my future, and that’s frankly unfortunate, both for me and for the state I love and would have been honored to serve.
I learned the value of public service as a young child from my father, Charles, who served on the library board in the Illinois town where I grew up. Focusing on what public libraries can do for children, he guided the board to develop a children’s library and afterschool programming. His example led me into careers in journalism, government and advocacy. My father believed someday I would run for political office, but, when I transitioned from being his son into being the daughter I knew deep down I always had been, I thought I had to throw those political ambitions away.
I never saw transgender people in politics or public service growing up. I struggled in pain before my transition partially because I did not want to disappoint my father by dashing his dreams for me. After he accepted me unconditionally as his daughter, he said “I think you still have at least one run in you.” That is what unconditional love feels like, and I am forever thankful to my parents for it.
In 2014, I cofounded the Arkansas Transgender Equity Collaborative, and after finding my voice as an advocate, I gained the confidence to towards becoming the first openly transgender candidate in Arkansas. The goal felt bold and audacious for me and important for my many transgender friends who dealt with discrimination, violence and feeling outcast from society. I would show up for public events, make political friends, volunteer and contribute to community efforts — often at times being to my knowledge the only transgender woman in the room. By 2015, I felt ready to make that next step.
For me, the next step was applying for and receiving a prestigious political fellowship from the Victory Institute for underrepresented transgender and LGBTQ people of color candidates. The program provided the campaign training, tools and mentors that would help prepare me to run for office. I returned home ready to work and looking ahead to the coming election year.
However just as quickly as my excitement and motivation built, those dreams of running in Arkansas fell flat. And I didn’t just decide not to run, I ended up leaving the state.
What happened? Well, I learned political luck actually comes down to timing and positional privilege — two things I seriously lacked. First, progressive Democrats in Arkansas in 2016 were competing for a relatively small number of reliably blue seats, and people I respected had already made inroads at running for positions in which I was also interested. In that political environment, those more traditional candidates were seen as more electable by political influencers and donors than a young transgender woman would have been.
I went to politically minded women I trusted and confided my desire to run. All of them advised me to wait. They weren’t mean about it, but they urged me to hold off on my plan so that I could gain more experience. Looking back, I wonder if they were advising straight, white, cisgender candidates to do the same. Was it lack of experience, or were they concerned that Arkansas wasn’t ready to elect a transgender woman? There is a very fine line between people not wanting you to get hurt and people holding you back. Either way, the message was clear: I didn’t have the support I would need to run.
Since then, the landscape has changed for transgender candidates as campaigns have learned from each other through trial and error. Now, transgender people have been winning at the polls — whether on ballot issues in Massachusetts and Anchorage or through candidates like Roem in Virginia, Minneapolis City Council Members Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham and state Rep. Brianna Titone of Colorado. Voters are capable of seeing beyond the fear-mongering and unknown. They see our humanity and shared values. Voters also care more about the issues — and transgender people win on the issues.
But I didn’t have that knowledge in 2015. None of us did. And I wasn’t willing to run as a token or an experiment. Arkansas has some of the highest filing fees in the country, so I only wanted to run as a serious and respected candidate. I couldn’t do that without support, which I didn’t have. So I didn’t run. Instead, I left Arkansas. I was recruited for a policy director position in Oregon at the same time, and I decided to leave for Portland, where I helped advance some of the most progressive LGBTQ regulations, bills and policies in the country.
In March 2016, I stood on the stage of the Moda Center in Portland and introduced Sen. Bernie Sanders during his first run for the White House in front of 13,000 people. In under two minutes, I became one of the first ever transgender Americans to introduce a candidate for president of the United States, an absolutely electric experience. When the campaign posted the video to social media days later, parents across the country messaged me, telling me how they watched it with their transgender children, cried and finally felt that this democracy belonged to them, too. I was reminded that my voice, as a transgender woman and advocate from Arkansas, could represent others who were still feeling unseen and unheard.
Coming back to Arkansas to attend the Clinton School of Public Service and pursue a masters of public service has been an absolute joy and privilege. At least once a week, people ask me when I am running for office, and I tell them that I’m much better off encouraging my friends on their campaigns. I have learned that I do not necessarily have to run to serve; being selected by the United States Office of Personnel Management as a Presidential Management Fellow finalist for 2020 is the highest, most humbling honor I have ever received. Arkansas will soon have its first out and openly transgender candidate for office, and they will perform well, but alas, it won’t be me — and that’s OK.
I hope that person, if they are reading this, learns from my experience that they have to take that leap when they are ready.
You cannot wait for the world to be ready for you. It took courage for each of us to live as our authentic selves, and it will take exactly that kind of courage for us to put ourselves out there and run for office.
Andrea Zekis is a second year student at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, McLarty Scholar at Vital Voices Global Partnership in Washington, D.C., and a 2020 Presidential Management Fellowship finalist. She co-founded the Arkansas Transgender Equity Collaborative and served on the National LGBTQ Steering Committee for Senator Sanders’ 2016 Presidential Campaign.