This guest piece is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics “That’s What Girls Do.”
My day job, thankfully, doesn’t have a strict dress code, and because of this I own exactly two kinds of shoes: running shoes and Chuck Taylors. Last year, this fact sparked a series of anxious fits that lasted far longer than I’d like to admit when I ran for a leadership position on the executive committee of a county political party.
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As I was on a stage giving a stiffly-delivered prepared speech to that party’s membership before their vote (and it’s not like they had a difficult decision in my race — I was unopposed), I momentarily looked down at my shoes as I tend to do when I’m uncomfortable. My cruel mind immediately wavered its attention from the speech I was giving and began to critique my footwear.
“Sofie,” my mind said disdainfully, “what are you doing? You’re on a stage wearing bright red, scuffed Chuck Taylors in a room full of people wearing heels and polished loafers. Whatever made you think you belong here?”
I returned to the present to find the microphone shaking in my hand.
“Hoo boy, am I out of my comfort zone,” I remarked out loud to polite, tension-breaking laughter from the room.
“You’re doing great,” said a woman to my right.
“Hey, thanks. I appreciate that,” I replied, with a casual point in her direction. The bright spotlights prevented me from seeing her, but if you’re reading this, mystery lady, I owe you a hug.
And, at least for that speech, that was all I needed. I dropped my façade of being Sofie the candidate and finished that speech as Sofie the person — the one who believes that being able to afford fancy shoes and attire shouldn’t be a prerequisite for successful entry and navigation of the political community.
I finished that speech feeling fantastic! I nailed it. But unfortunately, that momentary confidence never lasts long.
The truth is, politics is a tough nut to crack for a trans (or, more specifically, non-binary/genderfluid) person with often-crippling anxiety and mental illnesses. Stigma be damned, I have mental illnesses.
I don’t mention any of this out of a sense of pride, nor am I looking for identity politics street cred. Rather, I mention them because a person possessing any one of these attributes is at an inherent disadvantage in politics. They sometimes place impassable barriers (often of my own making) on whatever progress I’m trying to achieve within the community.
“I’m so proud of my little trans activist!” said a trans friend one time, half-jokingly, knowing that I buck against that term.
My feathers sufficiently ruffled, I said, “I’m not a trans activist.”
“Yeah, OK, but you’re visible! You’re in a position of leadership as a trans person, and that’s big!”
I buck against being called a “trans activist.” I don’t hide my trans-ness, nor do I flaunt it — rather, to me it’s a secondary trait that I am honestly lucky to rarely have to think about. Some other trans/queer people don’t have it so well, and I’m mindful of that.
But sometimes people assume that I know other trans folx or I am asked for more information about LGBTQ+ organizations of which I’m not a member in a way that, at least to me, feels like an assumption that LGBTQ activism is the primary reason why I participate in politics. It’s not, and that fact is still a novelty for some people in the greater political community.
Trans people have historically been — and very much continue to be — marginalized, and it hasn’t been until very recently that our inclusion in the greater political community as a whole has been welcomed at best and tolerated at worst. Before this recent inclusion/tolerance, trans people were expected to stay in their own political and activist circles.
Unfortunately, this attitude persists in some communities, even until today. Ninety-nine percent of politicos I’ve met have welcomed me with open arms, but micro-aggressions are still somewhat common from those who aren’t used to seeing people like me in the greater political community, usually in the form of subtle hints and warnings that I need to keep my ambitions in check.
However, I’ve found that trans pushback is relatively easier to navigate than anxiety and mental illnesses and the unique handicaps they create in the political community.
Too many times I have sat pitifully in my car watching people arrive at a political event, waiting for a familiar face to arrive so that I have someone to talk to. Often, that entry point is all I need. On those anxious days, mingling in a room full of unfamiliar people is a feat that feels as difficult as climbing El Capitan with no ropes and no experience.
How am I supposed to keep up with extroverted candidates who eat three events for breakfast and still have room for lunch and a five-course dinner?
“Rockstar” is a term often used by my peers in politics, and I find myself rejecting that praise when it’s bestowed upon me. I mean, I flaked out of two gatherings this week because I didn’t have the strength to overcome my anxiety and go inside. How could I be a rockstar?
But that’s unfair. I’ve only recently learned to stop comparing my political work volume with that of my peers. Placing those expectations on myself, as many women tend to do, only leads to more frustration — especially when I require more time to recharge than most of my peers.
All of this isn’t to say that I don’t have ambitions to run for office someday, but even on those energetic days when I have the smallest inkling that I might someday have the potential to be a fantastic legislator, I go home after a nine-hour day of political action and mingling. I crawl into bed, tired and deflated, and feel that I could sleep for a week.
Unfortunately, as it stands right now, the political community places higher value on candidates and operatives that possess high amounts of stamina and seemingly bottomless stores of energy, and those are traits I’ll just never have. But there may be hope yet.
One night last year, I sat by myself in the back of the room at a candidate forum. As the forum began and candidates gave their opening statements, the lone female candidate among a table of males began to speak.
Her words came out stiffly at first, and I saw in her uneasy eyes that she was delivering rehearsed lines as her candidate persona and not as herself. Her eyes began to dart from side to side, as if she had forgotten a line in a play and the words are right there but they’re so far out of reach — and in her frustration, she began to tear up.
Empathy overwhelmed me, and I was glad that I was sitting alone in the back of the room as I’m one of those faux-tough types that don’t like others seeing them cry.
But I was crying. I knew that feeling of momentary hopelessness too well. My brain does exactly the same thing, especially when it critiques my choice of footwear at the worst possible moments.
After a moment, she took a breath. She drank a sip of water. And when she came back to center, she began to speak as herself and not as the perfect, invulnerable candidate that she was expected to be. Finding her ease and her voice, she not only excelled for the rest of the forum, but she also went on to win the race.
I think about her often when I remind myself to come back to center and be myself, and not the invulnerable workhorse that I perceive that others expect. I hope to see more candidates like her — authentic candidates who aren’t afraid to show vulnerability and buck the impossible expectations of possessing endless confidence and energy.
I also hope to someday see more trans candidates who are accepted and included, not on the basis of whether the visibility may help or hinder a certain party, but rather because they’re terrific people. Gay, lesbian and bisexual candidates have broken this barrier (and there are many such candidates here in Arkansas), and I know that trans/non-binary/queer people can do it, too.
The boundaries of trans/non-binary acceptance started with the work of LGBTQ-specific activism and political groups, but it must now continue in the greater political community, and as loathe as I am to admit that my friend was right, it starts with visibility in leadership roles, just as they said.
To those of you who suffer from mental illnesses, or depression, or anxiety, I’m not going to state any of the clichés that we’ve all heard except for one: You’re not alone. If you find you have the energy, join whatever political, volunteer, or activist community your heart leads you to. It can be deeply empowering to become an agent of change, as long as you do it on your own time and at your own pace.
And if you’re ever in your car before a political event trying to find the courage to overcome your fear of meeting new people and go inside, look for me. I’ll be your safe person.
That is, if I’m not in my car waiting for you to arrive first.
Sofie Dill is a normal person doing the best she can.