Alexandra Chandler is fighting to become the first openly transgender person in Congress

The November 2018 election is coming up, and more women than ever are running for Congress. In our She’s Running series, HelloGiggles is highlighting some of the young, progressive women candidates who are reshaping the face of politics just by campaigning—and could have a hand in reshaping our future. Still need to register to vote? Do it here.

In 2006, Alexandra Chandler transitioned on the job while serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence. Although her military-civilian chain of command fully embraced her and provided her with the treatments she needed, not everybody was supportive of her trans identity. She recalls one particular incident during a town hall about employee benefits when a colleague stood up and demanded for her to be fired.

“Someone stands up at the end and says, ‘There’s this drag queen, and it’s gonna be in our bathrooms. This is disgusting, and you’ve gotta protect us,’” Chandler told HelloGiggles.

Half the auditorium applauded.

As horrific as the ordeal was, today Chandler recalls it not with pain, but with pride—in her view, it’s one of many experiences that make her uniquely qualified to become a powerful representative of the people in Congress.

“You want me in that room for you,” she said. “Because if I am not cowed by dozens, hundreds of people cheering for me to be fired, then when I’m in that room for you, and your paycheck or your health care is out on the line, I will not be afraid of any dozens or hundreds of lobbyists or people who say, ‘Oh, you have to vote this way.’”

After serving for 13 years as an analyst and leader in the intelligence community, Chandler is running for Congress in Massachusetts’s 3rd District. She’s part of an enormous surge in LGBTQ candidates across the country—dubbed the “rainbow wave”—who are running for positions at all levels of government in the 2018 midterm elections. Chandler already made history as the first trans person to make it onto the ballot in her state, and if she triumphs in the Democratic primary on September 4th and later wins the House seat in November, she’ll become the first openly transgender person to serve in Congress.

Chandler champions a wide range of leftist policy initiatives, including single-payer health care, a federal jobs guarantee, establishment of a living wage, and aggressive campaign finance reform. We caught up with her to discuss how her trans identity also intersects with her campaign, the sorry state of American politics today, and what we can do to bridge the divide between us and our opponents. Clearly, she’s got plenty of firsthand experience dealing with naysayers.  

HelloGiggles: So first of all, a belated congratulations on becoming the first trans person on the ballot in Massachusetts. How does it feel to break that ceiling?

Alexandra Chandler: It’s a humbling feeling. I always reflect on the fact I’m the first openly transgender person because one never knows in the years, decades, centuries past how many people knew that they were different, knew that they would hope to live life a different way, but the conventions, the culture, the laws of the time wouldn’t allow them. So I try, as I consider the moment, to always remember them. It is a humbling feeling, and it’s a sense of responsibility, too, to use this platform…in the right way. To amplify the voices, whether from decades and centuries past or those communities even within the trans community, particular trans people of color, women of color, and trans immigrants, who don’t have such a platform and need one very desperately.

HG: We’re seeing all these very aggressive attacks on so many oppressed populations, from people in the working class to Muslims to immigrants to the LGBTQ community. Not to be dark about this, but is there hope? Can we really fix this with a couple more blue people in Congress?

AC: In my opinion, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I firmly believe it’s gonna get better. And when I say it’s gonna get worse, it’s that what we are seeing is this administration again and again lashes out against certain communities when their overall agenda—or, frankly, the investigations going on against the administration and against the president—go badly. We see it for the LGBTQ community, we see it for communities of color, we see it for women, and that’s going to keep happening.

Now a question will be what the midterm results do to that pattern. What I will say is that the lashing out may continue, but there’s going to be far less bite that they can get out of it if we can have at least a Democratic House and hopefully a Democratic Senate as well. Because then anything that’s an executive order or pressing Congress to do X, Y, or Z or some sort of quasi-policy announcement per tweet, Congress—if we elect the right people—will be able to stand up with our constitutional role and say, ‘No. You may have issued that executive order. Here’s our appropriations bill saying you have no money to carry it out.’ And appropriations bills start in the U.S. House, which the Democrats have a very good shot of taking. So the power of the purse I think is going to be key in order to drain a lot of the wind out of their sails, and that gives me optimism in terms of dealing with what I think will be increasing attacks as things get worse for the administration.

However this administration ends, whether on the schedule in 2020 or earlier, then we will have a chance not only to repair the damage but also to rebuild a stronger foundation. We’re talking here about me as a trans candidate, me as an LGBT candidate. There’s the whole ‘rainbow wave’ that people are talking about, but it’s part of this broader wave that is LGBT people, women, communities of color. When we rebuild after this, we will rebuild better. Study after study from other countries who are ahead of us in this [shows that] when representation improves, policy improves.

HG: What pushed you to run for Congress in this 2018 election?

AC: I saw it as answering a call to serve…When our home district member of Congress retired, Nikki Tsongas, and I saw the field emerging, I realized that I was going to be the best candidate to actually get things done in Congress for working-class and middle-class people. And I realized that I had the experience from the intelligence community of working across divisions under the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and the Trump administration against our biggest global problems. I realized that I had specific expertise that were so necessary. I’m the only candidate in our race with career national security experience. I am a Russian-speaking lawyer. I am a former intelligence community leader. And we have to protect our democracy right now.

HG: What exactly do you mean by that?

AC: When I talk about protecting our democracy, it’s both about the threat of interference and actual interference from abroad and the threat of corruption and disengagement and creeping oligarchy from within. And what I can bring to this is [that] I was there when the reports of Russian interference in our election came in. I was working in intelligence in the Pentagon. I’m uniquely positioned to be an asset in Congress to safeguarding us against future attacks and understanding exactly what happened and what to do next.

In terms of dealing with the corruption and the creeping oligarchy within our country, I am someone who, as a candidate, am building my campaign, financing my campaign, based on the working-class and middle-class people of this district and country. And it gives me the unique ability to go to Congress beholden to no one except the people I want to serve. And it gives me a unique power so that if the people of this district send me to Congress, I can actually follow through on all of my promises to get money out of politics, have publicly funded elections, and end gerrymandering. Lots of people have made such commitments before; there’s been a lack of follow-through for a long time, and money in politics is the reason why.

HG: Outside of national of security and the influence of money in politics, what else do you see as the MA-3 district’s most pressing issues that need to be addressed?

AC: In this district, our wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living inclusive of housing costs, health care costs, child care costs, the costs of transportation. And what I offer in terms of solutions is to address both sides of the equation. And people immediately understand that. Your wages need to go up higher, and the costs need to come down or be controlled. I talk about things like expanding the earned income tax credit, expanding access to profit-sharing. On the wages side, [increasing] pressure on wages to go up. But I then also talk about capping child care costs at 10% of income. I talk about single-payer health care and the steps that we can take on the way to single-payer health care. I talk about how we can have integrated into our health care system mental health and addiction treatment so we’re not treating them as different silos, which will also bring costs further down and increase quality of life. For the citizens of the district, they can be in wealthier communities or poorer communities. That transcends divides, because even the most affluent communities, if they’re not facing the issue, they know people who are—friends and members of their families.

And the other issue here, I would say, is the opioid epidemic. People respond to the fact that I have a father who has struggled with addiction. He was addicted to alcohol, then prescription drugs, then nonprescription drugs, and it’s part of why I lost him when I was 17. So they understand that it’s not a matter of a fleeting attention from me. This is something that has shaped my life and that therefore, when I talk about we have to treat this as a public health emergency, that’s why I wrap it up into health care reform. Because I think for far too long, we have siloed this off by itself when I know, because I worked in community health care—I worked as a director, vice chair for this community health center in D.C.—I understand you can never properly deal with addiction unless you’re integrating it into the entire health care and support for the individual. That means their mental health care, that means often the chronic health conditions that they’ll have in addition to severe addiction, that means helping them with housing, that means helping them with employment. You can’t address that piecemeal.

HG: You’ve had a lot of unique and difficult experiences when it comes to health, both in terms of your father’s battle with multiple sclerosis and addiction as well as your personal experiences being a person who had to transition on the job and deal with the health care system on that front. How have these experiences influenced your views on health care in this country?

AC: I’ve been without health insurance, in addition to everything you’ve said. When I did my phone interview for the Office of Naval Intelligence, I did it lying on floor because that was the one position that I could be in with my then-herniated disk and uncontrolled sciatica that all I had for was Tylenol and ibuprofen because I had no health insurance, and I couldn’t see a doctor. I had to do that. That’s not something you forget, in addition to everything else. So what I think that does for me is it means that policy and reform isn’t abstract. The health care crisis in this country of both access and cost isn’t a thinktank question for me. It’s something that very much shaped my life and that of my family. Again, much like with addiction, it informs not just perspective and experience but passion, and I think the power of storytelling can make one a much more effective advocate.

I won’t just be another Democratic member of Congress (and fortunately there are more and more) saying we should have single-payer health care, here’s why and here’s why the numbers are more favorable. I can say this is what happened to my family, this is what I faced when pre-existing conditions are a question and an issue, this is what I faced when we don’t have the ability for people who just finished grad school and law school to find any place where they can get any health insurance. This was what I faced when I finally got health insurance, but I’m a transgender woman so therefore I can’t get my health care needs paid for. I can use storytelling to change the nature of the discussion and get more people to ‘yes.’

HG: Massachusetts is

considering revoking its protections for trans people in public spaces. What’s a representative to do when the constituency itself is divided on an issue like trans rights?

AC: My point of view on this is not negotiable. However, I take it as a responsibility, as a candidate and as someone who seeks to represent people, to meet people on the other side of this currently with an open heart. These are people who perhaps never met a transgender person before, have been exposed to media that have given them simply false reports on what happens under laws to protect trans people. And I have already found success in engaging with people.

I had an occasion—I was on Boston Herald radio, and I was ostensibly on to talk about North Korea and a little bit about the threats to leave the Iran deal, but then there was sort of a twist at the end where they had someone who wanted to ask me about the ballot measure [to rescind trans rights in Massachusetts]. And it became clear within seconds of the conversation starting that this was someone who believed that anti-discrimination protections should be repealed. I even joked with him at one point. I said, ‘See, I’m not gonna leap across the table at you.’ What I wanna do is have the conversation and let you know how this really affects someone like me and just give you an insight into my life and hope that you take that and that you consider that when you cast your vote. I’m not going to yell at you. I’m not going to berate you or assume the worst of you. I’m just going to assume that you are someone who’s just not on board yet.

HG: I love that perspective.

AC: It’s a much better way to live.

HG: A lot of the specific issues that are facing the queer community—workplace discrimination, health care access, trans access to businesses and services—a lot of these issues are hingeing on this question of how we reconcile LGBTQ rights with arguments about religious freedom. What’s your take on this? How do we reconcile these two very different poles?

AC: For me, I also happen to be a person of faith. I am myself Catholic, so I respect the importance of the protection of the right to practice one’s faith freely. It’s just where I reconcile this is that for me, in all of these interactions, we’re talking about the marketplace. We’re talking about the marketplace, the economy—we’re not talking about the church, the temple, the mosque. For me it is a clear distinction that one’s personal religious convictions does not allow you to demand policy carve-outs that then directly harm the most fundamental interests of other people who live in this country. That right cannot overrule another right. They cannot claim religious harm simply by being people that are part of an economy.

HG: Today we’re dealing with something that feels like it’s beyond just who’s in control in Washington. It seems like we’re dealing with a country that is just so deeply divided in their values, perhaps more so now than almost ever before. How did it get so bad, and how can we figure out how to reconcile this fissure?

AC: In terms of how it got so bad, a lot of it is just the long-term feeling that politics from the local to the federal level is no longer translating the will of people into policies that actually help them with their daily lives. That provides the fertile ground as to who to blame for that, and in that fertile ground, we on the more progressive and left side will never win.

What we need to do is to stand very clearly for a different kind of politics. You who wrote in for Donald Trump, we’re not going to validate your adherence to conspiracy theories or blaming this group or blaming that group. We’re not going to go there. But what we are going to offer up is an agenda that gives you and yours a living wage job, cuts your health care costs, and deals with the crises that are affecting your community.

Now, that agenda happens to be a progressive agenda. Because if you actually poll people and ask them what should the tax system look like, people believe that it should look like the progressive tax system that we had in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, where we built the interstate highways and sent people to the moon. It doesn’t create this system. When you poll people, it’s like—yes, universal affordable childcare for all. Oh, and single payer health care for all, yup, all the gun safety measures, and yup, take on climate change. And yet none of that happens. If we make it clear that that’s the agenda and that we’re not going to spend our time re-litigating why they made the choices they made in the past, in 2016, you’d be surprised how open people are.

I was knocking on a door just the other day in one of the towns in our district, Townsend. I was talking to someone, and she looked at my door hanger piece that I’d given her and said, ‘Oh, I’m a Trump supporter, so you’re probably not going to like me.’ I said, ‘Oh, ma’am, it’s not like that at all. Tell me a little bit about you.’ She’s someone who voted for Trump because she felt left out of politics in Washington, and she had economic concerns. She’s talking, she’s talking, and I’m listening, I’m listening, telling her a little bit of my policy. By the end she says, ‘You know, I haven’t participated in a Democratic primary in I don’t know how many years, but I’m going to give you real consideration. I might vote for you this primary.’ And I’ve had a number of Trump voters who’ve said that to me. And yet, if you look at my policies, I’m for increasing the federal minimum wage, a federal jobs guarantee, single-payer health care. It doesn’t make sense on a certain level. But if you can connect on their real struggles and don’t just shut off people before they’ve had a chance to tell you their story, you can forge connections. And I think that’s gonna be part of how we climb out of this. You don’t have to compromise one iota on our agenda, but we have to be able to have those conversations with people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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