Two years ago Christine Hallquist made history as the first openly transgender woman to win the gubernatorial nomination of a major political party in her failed 2018 bid. Now, in 2020, three other transgender women are running to become members of Vermont’s Legislature.
The first-time Democratic candidates include Taylor Small, the director of health and wellness at Pride Center of Vermont, who is running for the Winooski House seat now held by Rep. Diana Gonzalez, a Progressive, who is not seeking reelection; Ember Quinn, a substitute teacher, is vying for a seat in Milton; and Jamie Dufour, a small business owner, is campaigning to become a state representative for Manchester.
“I am definitely proud that there are three trans-women running for office,” Hallquist said Tuesday. “It’s nice to know that when you give up everything and commit to something that it has some level of impact.”
In 2018, Hallquist bested her three Democratic opponents in the primary race, decisively defeating them with 40% of the vote, before losing to Republican Gov. Phil Scott by 15 points in the general election.
Quinn, who has launched her bid against two Republican incumbents — Reps. Chris Mattos and John Palasik — in Milton, got a phone call a week ago from Emily Hecker — who is also running as a Democrat in the district — who told her the Democratic Party was looking for another candidate to run and that Quinn should be that person.
Quinn agreed and soon was in touch with Brenda Churchill, the Statehouse liaison for LGBTQIA Alliance of Vermont. Then, before long, she found herself on a phone call with Hallquist.
Quinn had not yet come out as transgender when Hallquist was running her primary campaign in 2018, but had watched with awe as Hallquist went on to win the Democratic nomination.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” Quinn said of the 2018 race. “But I had not been optimistic.”
Quinn said Tuesday that she was “starstruck” talking to Hallquist on the phone last week. The former gubernatorial candidate asked her if she knew what the campaign would entail and what Quinn might endure as a transgender candidate.
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“It was fun when she called me up and it was even more fun at 10:30 p.m. when I had to actually tell her that I had to hang up because I had dishes to do,” Quinn said.
“I am hoping I will make her proud one of these days,” she added.
Quinn said she and her family have dealt with harassment during their time living in Milton, including having their Black Lives Matter flag ripped down and their house shot at with paintballs, the Burlington Free Press reported in February.
Quinn says she is most inspired by Bernie Sanders and his political message and that her campaign will focus on education funding equity, affordability, low income housing and pushing for a statewide LGBTQ education curriculum. She added that Covid-19 has presented a moment for Milton to elect a Democrat as its state representative, and she thinks she has a chance at winning the race.
“This opportunity is now, and the time is now,” she said.
Small, who is competing against incumbent Rep. Hal Colston, D-Winooski, and Jordan Matte in the Democratic primary, said she had been a supporter of Hallquist’s campaign from “the moment she announced” and that seeing the success she had in the Democratic gubernatorial primary has informed her decision to seek elected office.
“It was inspiring to see Christine take up the run — absolutely — and I think it is a continued effort for folks who don’t see themselves reflected and then who don’t feel like their voices are heard to continue to step up and make sure that that does happen,” Small said in an interview.
Looking back at her run, Hallquist said she never considered that she was breaking a glass ceiling or that it could inspire people who identify as transgender to also seek public office.
“We did not expect this. We did not even think about this aspect of it at all. But in the end it was a historic campaign,” she added.
In Manchester, Dufour is running against the ticket of Kathleen James and Seth Bongartz in the Democratic primary. Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, has decided to run for reelection as an independent.
Dufour, who as a child was adopted by a “staunch Repubican” Catholic family, said she is running on a pro-small business message and on her ability to work with and listen to both Republicans and Democrats.
“Having a conservative background I think is a definite bonus,” Defour said in an interview Wednesday. “It helps me connect to the opposite side of the fence in terms of policy when it comes to party politics.”
Dufour came out as transgender a decade ago and said she does not believe it needs to be “spoken prominently about” during her campaign and would prefer it to be about policy and to discuss the economy in her area and across the state.
“It’s a part of who I am. It’s not everything about me,” she said.
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“I would like to see it as a non-issue,” Dufour added. “It’s not the reason I’m running.”
If a transgender women were to be elected to the Vermont Legislature in 2020, it would be the first time in the state’s history and only the third openly transgender person in New England to serve in a state legislature, according to the Victory Institute, which provides LGBTQ leaders with the training and skills necessary to run for office and win.
In addition to the three candidates running in Vermont, across the country there are a number of people who identify as transgender who have decided to run for state senate in their respective districts. Sarah McBride, a transgender activist, is running in Delaware, and two Democrats in North Carolina are seeking seats in the state’s upper chamber.
Small said that while she has been a Hallquist supporter for some time, she had not decided to run for a seat in the Vermont House until she spoke with the retiring Gonzalez who advocated that Small enter the race.
But like Hallquist, who ran a predominantly single-issue campaign on expanding broadband access throughout the state, Small is dialing in on a straightforward message of working on ensuring equitable access to health care for all Vermonters.
“The payments of co-pays and deductibles and premiums are still having a significant economic impact on folks and is actually a significant barrier for folks to be accessing health care in the first place,” Small said, referring to how Vermont’s high number of people with health insurance does not always equate to fair access to care.
Small is receiving Hallquist’s endorsement. Hallquist said she has told Small to be proud of being an “out transgender woman” and embrace that identity while campaigning, but the campaign should be issue- and policy-based.
“Everywhere I go, I start my conversation with ‘I’m a proud and out transgender woman’ but that’s all you need to say and then you move on to the policies,” she said.
This story was updated June 3 with comments from Jamie Dufour, who could not be reached previously.
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