For Transgender Vermonters, Hallquist Victory Goes Beyond Politics

Aug 17, 2018

Many Vermonters say Christine Hallquist’s victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary is already building visibility for the transgender community.

As a child, Jessica Pellett said she felt like she was somehow different from the other kids she went to school with. But it was the 1990s, and Pellett lived in rural Vermont.

“I had no idea what the terminology was,” Pellett said. “I knew there was something more than what I was.”

That feeling of being alone, Pellett said, with a secret that no one else could possibly understand, lasted well into adulthood.

“I had never met, that I knew of, another trans person," Pellett said. "There was nobody I could look and say, ‘Oh, no that’s me.’”

Pellett came out as a transgender woman two years ago, when she was 41 years old.

And earlier this week, when Christine Hallquist became the first openly transgender person to win a major party gubernatorial nomination, Pellett said she thought about the transgender children — in Vermont and beyond — that would see Hallquist on television or read about her in the newspaper.

“This is such an incredible thing that’s happening,” Pellett said. “And I can see these kids ... with the positive role model of, you know, look what you can achieve and be happy doing it. It’s amazing.”

More from VPR — Christine Hallquist 'Proud And Honored' To Make History With Gubernatorial Primary Win [Aug. 15]

Public visibility of the transgender community is still relatively new. A 2015 Harris Poll found that only 16 percent of Americans know or work with someone who is openly transgender.

Brenda Churchill, a transgender woman who works as director of outreach for the Hallquist campaign, said ignorance of transgender people can breed fear. And fear, she said, can breed contempt.

“If we can overcome ignorance by talking to people, and now they know a transgender person, that has proven to be the most effective thing we can do,” Churchill said.

By introducing herself to voters across the state, whether it’s at a county fair or on the evening news, Churchill said Hallquist will in many cases be the first transgender person many Vermonters have ever met.

Churchill said that, in turn, could begin to change the way young transgender people view themselves, “where you can enter a realm that will have some significance to everybody.”

“We have a generation of young trans folks that are coming up in a way that Christine and I never could,” said Churchill, who also works as the Statehouse liaison for the LGBTQIA Alliance of Vermont. “Now we have kids in junior high school, in elementary school, that recognize they are different, and refuse to define themselves by traditional gender roles.”

"If we can overcome ignorance by talking to people, and now they know a transgender person, that has proven to be the most effective thing we can do." — Brenda Churchill, Hallquist campaign director of outreach

Jesse Scarlato, who lives in central Vermont, is transgender and has been an activist for LGBTQ issues for most of her adult life.

“I’ve also thought of running for office,” Scarlato said. “And usually the second thought in my head is, ‘Will people vote for a transgender person?’”

Hallquist’s candidacy, Scarlato said, has answered that question. Not only did Hallquist win, she more than doubled the vote count of her nearest competitor.

“It’s really encouraging to see that level of support, both for Christine’s platform and for a transgender person,” Scarlato said.

Scarlato said it’s important not to pretend that Hallquist’s political victory means “all transgender people’s rights are fully realized.”

Pellett said transgender people are reminded of that fact all too often.  She said she was kicked out of her church after publicly transitioning, though she said her family, boss and co-workers “have been an incredible support for me."

While Pellett said the world can sometimes be a dark place for her and other transgender people, she said Hallquist’s victory makes it a little brighter.

“I am not going to cower in the darkness in a closet anymore,” Pellett said. “It’s too much fun out in the sunshine anyway.”

Brenda Churchill said she hopes that Hallquist’s candidacy makes that sunshine a little brighter for other transgender people as well.

“Hey, we’re transgender, we’re human, we deserve a place at the table,” Churchill said. “And this is really what democracy looks like. We’re giving the world a lesson. And it’s kind of fun.”