Lisa Middleton made history last week by becoming the first trans mayor in California and just the third trans mayor in U.S. history. The Palm Springs city council member and mayor pro tem was sworn in at a Dec. 9 city council meeting.
“I’m very excited, very proud of my city, very grateful to my city,” Middleton tells Xtra by phone. “This community has been incredibly embracing of my wife, Cheryl, and I, and the people and opportunities given to me in Palm Springs are humbling.”
There are currently 52 out trans, non-binary and genderqueer elected officials in the United States, according to the political advocacy group LGBTQ Victory Fund. As of her swearing in, Middleton is the only trans mayor currently seated in office. The late Stu Rasmussen of Silverton, Oregon, became America’s first-ever trans mayor in 2008, followed by Jess Herbst, who served one term as the mayor of New Hope, Texas, from 2016 to 2018.
Middleton has broken barriers before: her election to the Palm Springs city council in 2017 made her the first trans person elected to a political office in the state of California. That was the same year the council itself made history as the country’s first all-LGBTQ+ city council. The outgoing mayor, Christy Holstege, was also the first out bisexual mayor in the U.S.
“Today, we have very good reason for both hope and fear within our community,” Middleton says. “We have seen some horrific laws passed in a number of states yet, at the same time, in other states, we’re seeing communities embrace the transgender community and transgender leaders.”
Despite Middleton being part of a growing number of trans elected officials making history in the U.S., the current political climate has produced a record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills, mainly attacking the rights of trans children. More than 100 anti-trans bills were filed in 2021 seeking to restrict trans youth from playing sports and accessing gender-affirming health care.
Middleton says she was one of the “fortunate individuals” who was supported by her employer when she came out as trans in 1995 while working at California’s State Compensation Insurance Fund. However, she was not immune to discrimination: she wasn’t promoted for 13 years after she came out, despite being consistently promoted prior to her transition. Those experiences, she says, fuelled her to improve opportunities for transgender people.
During her time as a council member, Middleton has worked to improve transportation issues, homelessness, affordable housing, the climate crisis and the lives of LGBTQ2S+ people, a significant portion of the population in the Southern California city. Palm Springs ranks first in California and third in the U.S. among cities with the most same-sex couples per 1,000 households, according to pro-LGBTQ2S+ think tank the Williams Institute.
“People within our community, particularly those of us who are seniors, we have experienced discrimination in our lives,” she says. “That knowledge that you are being treated differently because of who you are never goes away. So, for me, I want to make sure that our community is consistently one that is welcoming and open to everyone.”
As the new mayor, Middleton says she’s committed to making sure basic municipal services are delivered to Palm Springs. In addition to making sure the trash is picked up on time and the sewers are working, one of her priorities is to tackle homelessness in the area, which she says has gotten worse since the pandemic.
“We have been addressing it for some time, but it’s reached critical mass that we need to be very aggressive in our response,” Middleton says.
Last month, the city council voted to acquire a nearly $6-million site to establish a homeless navigation centre, according to the Desert Sun. The facility will provide food, shelter and health care services and job training; city council hopes the centre will open before the end of 2022.
Middleton is also running for California’s 28th state Senate seat, which is currently held by Republican Melissa Melendez. If elected, Middleton would become California’s first trans state legislator and just the second trans state senator nationwide, after Delaware’s Sarah McBride. There are currently only eight transgender state-elected officials, including Oklahoma’s Stephanie Byers and Virginia’s Danica Roem.
The primary state Senate election will be held in June 2022.
Middleton hopes to build infrastructure projects including a commuter rail that would connect the Coachella Valley to the rest of Southern California and that addresses closed roads due to seasonal wind storms. She is also invested in combating climate change by investing in green energy, which can be supported in the desert.
“If we are going to move away from fossil fuels, which we must do, we have to increase the number of solar power generators and the number of wind power generators,” Middleton says.
As she moves forward with her campaign, Middleton is reminded of a five-year-old transgender girl she met at a fundraising event in 2017. She and her parents had just moved to California from a different state in order to secure better opportunities for their daughter.
“I think about that little girl every day that I am in office,” Middleton says. “I am going to do everything I can in Sacramento to make sure that parents of children who are transgender have the support and have government officials who have their back as they are giving their children the opportunity to live a full, equal and authentic life.”