Carmen Xavier, a candidate for the Board of Education in Smithville, Missouri, has been very deliberate about letting voters know she is transgender. But she’s also been very clear that she believes her decades of public service qualify her for the job.
Advocates see Xavier’s run as part of a nationwide movement. The LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign says there are some 40 transgender people running in state and local offices nationwide.
Supporters see the trend as a response to policies coming from the White House they see as unfriendly to LGBT communities. They're also inspired by the successes of transgender candidates like Danica Roem. Roem, now a democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates, won a stunning upset last year over 13-term incumbent Robert G. Marshall, who had long been an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights.
Activism out of tragedy
Xavier got her start as a political activist after her father was killed walking across Southwest Trafficway, a busy north-south artery connecting midtown and downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Because of her lobbying efforts, the city built a pedestrian walkway.
In 1980, Xavier was elected to the Jackson County Legislature. Later, she was a state delegate for Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, and remembers cutting her teeth in the campaign backrooms of prominent local leaders like former Mayor Charles Wheeler and former Mayor and current U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. She was twice elected to the Park Hill school board. A professional nurse anesthetist, she was also appointed to the Southern Platte County Ambulance District board.
Until her transition a few years ago, she served under the name Fred Sanchez.
“I will not ever erase my past because if I do, if a person erases their past, they disappear,” she says.
The only difference between then and now, she says, is her name and a dramatically different appearance.
“My cognitive abilities and stands on issues are still the same and metamorphosing or changing over time, hopefully to the benefit of the community that I serve.”
She says her reasons for serving are not complicated. She has the time now that she’s retired and wants to give back.
“I'm about to turn 70,” she says, “and while I'm proud of the things that I have accomplished ... I feel that now is my turn to return my experience and qualifications back to the community in which I live.”
A challenging move north of the river
Carmen Xavier flew her rainbow flag outside her house when she moved to Smithville a couple years ago. The flag was desecrated and vandals threw eggs at her windows.
Now that she’s become more a part of the community, that hostility seems to have disappeared.
In an interview with the editorial board of the Smithville Courier-Tribune about her school board run, Xavier says her gender never came up.
“But what about the gorilla in the room, I call that issue,” she says she asked at the end of the hour long interview.
“We are aware of your gorilla, Ms. Xavier, however it has no place in this room. What we want to know is if you are qualified to serve in the position that you seek,” she says she was told by the board.
An old-time grass roots campaign
Xavier’s experience has taught her there’s no substitute for meeting voters in person and that’s what she’s trying to do before the election on April 3. She’s combed voter rolls and knows only about one fourth of Smithville's registered voters cast ballots in the last school board election. Turnout is important.
On a sunny March weekend, Xavier went door-to-door to pass out literature and hopefully talk to as many residents as possible. On a quiet cul-de-sac, a woman in a National Park sweatshirt answered the second ring.
“I’ll only ring twice,” Xavier says, “out of courtesy for the resident.”
The woman doesn’t seem too enthusiastic about engaging in conversation about the election. But when she hears "school board," she has one question.
“Where do you stand on the protection of the kids, on arming teachers?” the woman asks. She preferred KCUR not use her name.
“I stand firm, opposed to the weaponization of teachers,” Xavier said. “I don’t believe teachers should be carrying guns.”
Xavier herself is a gun owner and hunter. She believes many of her neighbors share her interest in the sport. But they may not share her commitment to what she calls “sensible gun restrictions.”
Smithville is a conservative community where Donald Trump won by more than 10 points.
As a flaming red sun sinks behind the huge Smithville water tower, residents streamed into the high school for a candidate forum.
The three candidates sit at a table in front of a crowded community room. To Xavier's left are her two primary opponents, both decades her junior and political neophytes. Wade Kiefer and Ian Sexton say they admire Xavier's experience and do not see gender identity as an issue.
In the ninety seconds she had to introduce herself, Xavier talked about her years of political experience and civic engagement. At the end of her time, she mentioned what she called three very important aspects of her life.
“In the spirit of transparency and authenticity, I am a Hispanic, trans woman.”
Her gender didn’t come up again during the hour long session.
What did come up are questions about curriculum, security and who’s served before on a publicly-elected boards. At one point, Xavier admitted she’d voluntarily resigned from the Park Hill school board when she realized she’d unintentionally carried a firearm on school property. It was this lapse in judgment that worried parent Michael Stratham.
“Gender has nothing to do with anything,” he said. “It’s just that she brought a weapon on school property. Whether anyone was at the school at all, she still broke the law.”
An exciting time
Sara McBride , national spokesperson for The Human Rights Campaign, says a record number of transgender people have already committed to running for office. She expects to see more.
“We are constantly hearing of new candidates for offices from everything from school board to Congress,” she says. “People are stepping forward in record numbers; it’s inspiring for the trans community to witness and experience.”
Carmen Xavier is optimistic - and scared. While her gender hasn’t become an issue in the campaign, she says the voting booth is a very private place where people may feel freer to express their true beliefs.
But even if she loses at the ballot box, she believes her campaign is still a win. Perhaps it will serve as a beacon of hope, she says, to other transgender people interested in public service.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. Reach her on Twitter @laurazig or email firstname.lastname@example.org.