NEW YORK: Vermont Democrat Christine Hallquist has made history as the first openly transgender person nominated for governor by a major party in the United States, defying death threats to take the political fight to Donald Trump.
Hallquist, the 62-year-old former CEO of a local utility company, is part of a wave of progressive Democrats and LGBTQ candidates galvanised into action by the 2016 election of the rule-breaking Republican billionaire president.
She triumphed over a crowded Democratic primary field on Tuesday, beating a dance festival organiser, environmentalist, and a 14-year-old schoolboy in a bucolic state that imposes no minimum age on gubernatorial candidates.
“Tonight, we made history,” Hallquist told a room of cheering supporters. “Our children’s children are going to look back on 2016 and say, ‘Wasn’t our democracy awesome? We survived a death spot’.”
She may face a steep uphill battle in November against Republican incumbent Phil Scott, but it’s an extraordinary achievement for a candidate who only publicly transitioned as a transgender woman three years ago.
At that time, she was Dave — an outwardly masculine, ski- and fishing-loving father of three and CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, married to Pat. The spouses are now grandparents of two.
Her campaign says she was the first US business leader to transition while in office, which stood her in good stead for politics.
The 2015 documentary Denial, directed by her son Derek, followed her transition, its explosive effect on the family, and their journey towards acceptance and realising that Dave was gone forever.
“There were really dark times,” Derek admitted to PBS affiliate Mountain Lake in January. “Dave is gone, basically. I imagine Dad as Christine.”
Hallquist confessed that Pat “misses” the man she married, but that they still live together.
“We call ourselves five-star roommates,” Hallquist told Mountain Lake. “We still love each other but it’s not a marriage.”
For years, she said she had been living with “incredible fear,” learning as a child to hide her identity.
“I didn’t know until I was like 44 what transgender was. There was not even a definition for it back then. It was just different and you had to keep it a secret,” she said.
“It was really my children who changed my mind… I couldn’t live with the idea of going to my grave without telling my children the truth.”
Running for governor, by contrast, has been relatively straightforward — the rough and tumble of politics is no match for a transition that Hallquist has called “the hardest thing” she could ever imagine doing.
Vermonters, she says, care about politics, not her gender, but Hallquist told National Public Radio on Wednesday that some opponents have been “saying some pretty horrible things”, including “death threats”.
“I warned the team early on that the more successful we would be, the more we would get trolled,” she told NPR.
“I do feel the weight and the responsibility of being a role model,” she added. “We have to do everything perfectly and to be careful with the words that I chose, and really speak with intention.”
“There’s a systematic attack,” Hallquist told CNN.
“The fact that our president has gone after the transgender community is no surprise and I think everybody should be afraid.”
Vermont’s most famous political product, Senator Bernie Sanders, and rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old novice who defeated a party grandee in a New York primary for the right to run in November, were among those who congratulated Hallquist.
“People like myself and people who normally wouldn’t be in politics are rising up all over (in response to Trump) and I think that’s what healthy democracy looks like,” she told CNN.
The Victory Fund, which says 13 openly trans people are currently serving in elected office in the United States, called Hallquist’s win on Tuesday “a defining moment in the movement for trans equality”.
Former army intelligence analyst-turned-whistleblower Chelsea Manning is perhaps this year’s most high-profile trans candidate, running for the US Senate in Maryland.
Last November, Democrat Danica Roem became Virginia’s first openly transgender delegate in the state assembly, becoming the first openly trans lawmaker in the United States.