These pro-transgender rights candidates are running for office in red districts. Can they win?

By: - September 20, 2020 7:38 am

Janelle Crossley, Democratic candidate for the 199th House District

(*This story was updated at 1:11 p.m. on 9/20/20 to note that Janelle Crossley would be Pennsylvania’s first transgender woman elected official if she wins in November.)

As she prepared to announce her candidacy for state House, Janelle Crossley was debating with herself — should she reveal she is transgender?

On the one hand, Crossley said she thought such a private issue wasn’t worth advertising. But on the other, she didn’t want voters to feel she was concealing anything.

“If you’re hiding that, what else could [you] hide if [you] are in office?” she asked rhetorically.

So, in a press release announcing her candidacy in late January, she planted her flag as, in all likelihood, the first openly transgender person to run for the state House in Pennsylvania.

Her candidacy comes as a sign of the times, politicos say, in a decade that started with same sex marriage illegal in most of the country, and ends after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed both marriage equality and the LGBTQ non-discrimination in the workplace.

Now, Crossley, a former nursing home facilities manager running as a Democrat, is one of a score of candidates running to flip the state Legislature from red to blue. She and others are hoping that growing acceptance and support for LGBTQ issues, and trans rights in particular, can boost their chances at public office — or at the very least, not be an impediment.

Crossley is running in the 199th House District in Cumberland County, which includes blue Carlisle but lots of surrounding Republican turf. Republican Rep. Barbara Gleim is in her first term representing the district.

Crossley told the Capital-Star that she’s had “no issues with identity and voters, no harassment no discirmination, no nothing. And that’s awesome.”

“I think a lot of that has to do with not stressing my identity,” she added. Few ask, and she said she brings it up in press releases, but rarely on the campaign trail while interacting with voters.

She made another exception Thursday night at a virtual fundraiser, hosted by the grassroots organization Turn PA Blue.

State House candidates Crossley and Jill Dennin, a school board member from Boyertown, Montgomery County, who fought a lawsuit targeting trans rights there, talked to roughly three-dozen donors about their races for an hour.

Dennin is running in the 147th House District in the northwestern corner of Montgomery County around Pottstown, including Upper and Lower Salford, Upper Pottsgrove, and Douglas Township.

The district is open after the GOP incumbent announced her retirement this year, and has never been represented by a Democrat even as the Philly suburbs turn bluer. Dennin will face Republican Tracy Pennycuick in November.

The suit Dennin faced was filed by a conservative group representing six students who felt their right to privacy was violated when the district allowed trans students to use the bathroom and locker room that matched their gender identity.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought [the lawsuit] would be something consuming me,” Dennin said Thursday. “I thought I’d be working on facilities, hiring superintendents.”

Lower courts ruled against the students, and the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the decision to stand in an early win for trans rights.

Dennin said she’d be an ally for LGBTQ rights, pushing for non-discrimination protection and an increased focus on inclusive education standards.

“We need to be able to allow education in the classroom so we can educate students about the LGBTQI community and other civil rights issues,” she said.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the northeast to not enshrine protections for LGBTQ people into state law. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling provides employment protections, but advocates say that protections in housing and public accommodations are still needed in state law.

Crossley also said she’d be a definite vote for equality if called to vote in it. But her campaign website doesn’t highlight that support, instead focusing on homelessness, school security, and reforming nursing homes.

How LGBTQ issues will fare on the campaign trail is unclear. But overall, recent polling suggests the vast majority Americans support the issue.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost 90 percent of Americans thought that discirmination in health care and employment against LGBTQ individuals should be illegal. That includes 70 percent of Republicans, and almost 95 percent of Democrats.

Crossley and Dennin’s candidacies are “a sign of where the base of our party is,” Anne Wakayabashi, a queer Pennsylvania-based Democratic political operative, told the Capital-Star. “To run as a Democrat anywhere, you have to have a base level dedication to equality.”

Both Dennin and Crossley and facing tough races to win a seat in Harrisburg. The districts they are running in have voted for Republicans up and down the ballot for decades.

But Gov. Tom Wolf’s landslide 2018 reelection could show signs of hope. He took 48 percent of the vote in the 199th, and 51 percent in the 147th, according to numbers crunched by Daily Kos, and progressive elections blog. 

Crossley could have a little assistance at the top of the ticket as well. The national Human Rights Campaign is putting $267,000 into get-out-the vote operations in Pennsylvania, aimed at people unlikely to vote but who support LGBTQ rights issues.

The campaign will target three congressional districts, including central Pennsylvania’s 10th District, which partially overlaps with the 199th District.

The race in the 10th District, between GOP U.S. Rep. Scott Perry and Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, is shaping up to be among the most competitive in the country.

*Crossley would be Pennsylvania’s first transgender woman in elected office if she wins in November. Erie School Board member Tyler Titus, a trans man, was the first transgender official, elected in 2017.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.