Three weeks before the Nov. 7 elections, former Republican President George W. Bush delivered a speech lamenting the “casual cruelty” that has degraded discourse since Donald Trump became president. “Bigotry seems emboldened,” Bush said. “There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned.”
Anti-LGBT hate crime statistics back him up, with data collected by law enforcement show underscoring the epidemic of anti-transgender violence. On Nov. 13, the FBI released their hate crime statistics for 2016 showing a five percent increase from 2015, including a nine percent increase of hate crime incidents based on gender identity. On Nov. 16, Los Angeles County released their hate crime report showing 31 reported anti-trans hate crimes— a 72% increase from the previous year. “We reviewed the number of anti-transgender hate crimes reported for the past ten years and this was by far the largest number,” out LA County Human Relations Commissioner Marshall Wong told the Los Angeles Blade.
And yet, staring down the ugly face of hate, eight trans candidates were elected across the country on Nov. 7, a vote for civility.
Lisa Middleton’s election to the Palm Springs City Council makes her the first out trans person elected to a non-judicial office in California— Victoria Kolakowski was elected the nation’s first trans judge in 2010. But it also marks a major shift in political attitudes. Once the bastion of conservative country club Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, Gerald and Betty Ford, Sonny and Mary Bono—Palm Springs is now America’s first LGBT-run city government.
Middleton came out publicly as transgender in 1995. She met Cheryl O’Callaghan in 2000 and 17 years later, they are a married lesbian couple, “with a little bit of a twist in one of our histories.” They have two adult children.
Middleton also identifies as a career professional and community activist. For 36 years, she worked with the State Compensation Insurance Fund of California and was Senior Vice President of Internal Affairs when she retired.
Middleton comes from a family of sharecroppers who left Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. She attended East Los Angles College, graduated from UCLA and received a Masters in Public Administration from USC. In addition to government service, she worked with the Organized Neighborhoods of Palm Springs, serving as chair from 2015-2017, and served on city planning commission and task forces concerned with homelessness and government transparency.
“I have been very proud to be out as a transgender individual but I had a career,” Middleton tells the LA Blade. “I was in an executive position within the State of California. So at the time I came out, I had responsibility and involvement that went beyond the fact that I was transgender.”
But she also helped advance the trans movement in California. In the mid-1990s, out San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno proposed a trans-inclusive healthcare policy for employees of the City and County of San Francisco. At the time, insurance policies nationwide had standard exclusions barring transgender healthcare. Because of her knowledge of insurance systems, she helped the person struggling most with the proposed change—the city’s actuary.
“I was able to sit down with him and talk him through transgender 101,” Middleton recalls. “And then, in terms an actuary could understand, I talked about how to make projections as to what the actual costs would be. I was convinced he overestimated the projected costs—but it wasn’t an unreasonable estimate and it wasn’t an estimate that would cause people to say we can’t afford it.”
So, she continues, “a lot of the work I’ve been able to do as someone who is transgender hasn’t been the person knocking down the barricades as an activist leading the charge. But as someone who proudly is transgender and is able to communicate across the spectrum in all kinds of environments and situations from neighborhood meetings to planning meetings to sitting down with an actuary trying to figure out a financial cost estimate.”
Middleton is very cognizant of the issues around trans employment. “Until individuals have economic security, they’re not in a position to fully exercise their other legal rights,” she says, adding she will do “everything I can” to help.
“One of the things that our community faces in employment is lot of appearance discrimination,” Middleton says. “Women have been judged for years based on appearances before they are judged based on their intelligence and their capacity to do work. And some of that discrimination falls more heavily on a transgender population. Transgender women tend to be taller, heavier than those that are not. Transgender men tend to be slighter.”
What can be done about that? “One of the things I have done is be very good at what I do,” Middleton says, emphasizing “very good” over the phone. “You can break down barriers. Attitudes make a big difference. So I feel very proud that as a transgender woman I have had the opportunity to succeed in government service and then to succeed in community and neighborhood relationships and programs and that’s now afforded me the opportunity to serve on city council.”
Middleton says her job will be tending to the city’s needs. “And none of those issues are defined by gender or by sexuality. They’re defined by your capacity to reach out, form consensus, and develop public policy programs that will succeed.”
But to the LGBT community, her very presence combats hate.