Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Black Trans History-Althea Garrison

The United States trans community is at a phase in its maturation as a movement in which we realized long ago  we need girls and boys like us to run for and win political office in order to get the trans human rights laws we need passed.

We have watched with envy as transwomen in New Zealand, Italy and now Poland have been elected to their national legislatures, transwoman Aya Kamikawa is holding elective office in Japan, and Thai transwoman Yollada Suanyot is running to do the same in the Land of Smiles..  

We have long assumed in the United States trans community that we have never had a transperson elected to a state legislature.   I've documented the attempts of Amanda Simpson and Dr. Dana Beyer to break that state legislative glass ceiling.

But it turns out that the glass has already been shattered in that regard, and the person who made that history as the first trans state legislator was an African-American 

Althea Garrison was born in Hahira, GA on October 7, 1940 and moved to Boston to attend beauty school.  She went on to enroll at Newbury Junior College and received an associate's degree. Garrison later received a B.S. degree in administration from Suffolk University, an M.S. degree in management from Lesley College and a certificate in special studies in administration and management from Harvard University in 1984 

Although Althea has never publicly announced her trans status or talked about it, we are aware that people who transitioned during that more restrictive HBIDGA era were advised to never let anyone know their trans status and live their lives.  In 1976 her name change petition was approved and filed in the Suffolk County Courthouse
"consistent with [her] appearance and medical condition."

Keep reading to discover how this info became public, but back to the post.

Politically Garrison is all over the map.  She has been and is currently a Democrat
1982–1986, 1998–1999, 2010–present, an independent in 1988, 2000, 2008 and a Republican from 1990–1996 and 2002–2006. She's run for office multiple times under those various party labels for the Boston City Council, mayor, the Massachusetts Senate and the Massachusetts House of Representatives. .

She worked for the Massachusetts state comptrollers office and made her first unsuccessful run for public office in 1981.  Undaunted, she unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for the Massachusetts House in 1982 and 1986  

But you know the old saying about persistence paying off.  Despite the Boston Globe dismissing her two years before as a 'perennial loser', her breakthrough political victory fitting occurred during the 1992 political 'Year of The Woman".

She was running as a Republican candidate for the Fifth Suffolk seat in the Massachusetts House and successfully challenged several signatures that Democratic incumbent Nelson Merced obtained as part of the candidate certification process.   The successful challenge meant that Merced was removed from the Democratic primary ballot and ended his reelection bid in the process.  

That meant the Fifth Suffolk seat was now an open one and Garrison went on to a close general-election victory in November 1992 over Democratic candidate Irene Roman, 2,451 votes to 2,014.

Unfortunately Garrison only got to savor her long sought after electoral victory for two days. 

A story broke in the conservative leaning Boston Herald that revealed Garrison's old male name and the 1976 name change petition.   The author of the smear piece was Eric Fehrnstrom, the current communications director for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign who was then a conservative attack columnist for the Herald

The outing undermined her opportunity to be judged as a freshman legislator by the same criteria and merits as her fellow Massachusetts House colleagues and probably derailed any opportunity for Garrison to build her political career   It also unfortunately for her occurred the same year The Crying Game was released in theaters.  She was treated as an oddity or the punchline for a joke in local political columns mocking her transition. 

Howie Carr, a conservative talk show host who was at the time a colleague of Fehrnstrom's at the Herald once wrote a column in which he stated, “I’ve always liked Althea. She has a big heart. Not to mention big feet. And very, very big hands.” 

Instead of confronting the smear, no one in the Massachusetts state house, including Garrison herself was willing or comfortable discussing trans issues and their trans colleague.  

She took the lemon situation she'd been thrust into by Fehrnstrom's hit piece and turned it into lemonade. She impressed her legislative colleagues on a personal level.  "She’s a transvestite or transsexual black woman, with an Adam’s Apple, who’s a Republican, who you run into in the members’ ladies’ room," recalls one former colleague. "That being said, when you get past all those obvious things, I always found her to be very pleasant and very kind."

During her term from 1993-1995 she consistently voted pro-union and sided with the Democrats on many issues far more often than she did with the Republicans.  When she ran for reelection in 1994 her pro-union record earned her endorsements from the AFL-CIO and eight additional unions.  It wasn't enough to keep her from being challenged by Democratic rising political star Charlotte Golar Richie.

In the 1994 general election.that fall Garrison's bid for reelection resulted in defeat as Golar Richie garnered 2108 votes to Garrison’s 1718.

Since then Garrison has continued be involved in local politics and run for various offices in the Boston area   She ran as a  'Independent Progressive' in a 2000 Massachusetts House race, a 2001 Boston mayoral race, a 2002 special election for the Massachusetts Senate as a Republican for the 1st Suffolk district; 2003 and 2005 races for at large seats on the Boston City Council, and a 2006 Massachusetts House race as a Republican.

In 2010 Garrison made another run for the 5th Suffolk district Massachusetts House seat she'd once held and finished third in the Democratic primary.  She ran in a February 2011 special election to fill a vacancy on the Boston City Council, District 7 seat and finished in fourth place in the preliminary election.

Unfortunately Garrison has been on the wrong side of the marriage equality issue. 
“Furthermore, to grant special benefits and privileges to a certain group of people is discriminatory toward heterosexual males and females. The issue of same sex marriage is not like race in which a person has no control over the color of his or her skin of which they were born, same sex is a matter of choice and lifestyle not to be confused or associated with class or race.“
She called for the judges who ruled on that groundbreaking Massachusetts marriage case to be removed from the bench and in her 2003 Boston City council race she was supported by the odious anti GLBT organization MassResistance.

But the facts are that we now know the glass ceiling for a transwoman being elected to a state legislature in the United States was broken in 1992, and the woman who did so was Althea Garrison.  

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