Marisa Richmond has been tireless in her advocacy for the transgender community — and the LGBT community more widely — in Tennessee. Her work founding the Tennessee Vals, which provides a rare safe haven for trans people in Tennessee, and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, which lobbies for transgender rights most broadly construed, hasn’t just changed lives: there is little doubt it has saved lives.

She is less well known for — but no less energetic in — her promotion of political activism and action through the Democratic Party. She has volunteered through and served as an officer of the Davidson County Committee of the Democratic Party, as well as having worked on campaign staffs and even run her own campaign once.

Richmond’s work in both advocacy and in Democratic politics have garnered her many “firsts.” In 2008 she became the first transgender person elected to hold executive office in the Democratic Party in Davidson County, in the same year she was first elected to serve as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention (DNCC). On June 29, 2011, Richmond was invited to attend the White House LGBT Pride reception, where she met with President Obama and Vice-President Biden.

Earlier this year Mayor Megan Barry appointed Richmond to the Metro Human Relations Commission. This was the first time a transgender person was named to a local government board or commission not only in Nashville, but in all of Tennessee. But Richmond’s most prominent first may be her most recent. At this summer’s DNCC, Richmond served as official podium timekeeper. By all accounts, that honor makes her the first transgender person to serve as a podium official at a major party convention.

In light of this momentous honor, and as we focus this month on the nexus of local and national politics, we sat down with Richmond to discuss her life in politics, with all of its hopes and frustrations, and how she believes the LGBT community can best position itself in future political battles in Tennessee.

 

So this month, we’ve titled our issue All Politics is Local

That’s a quote from former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, you know? [I nod.] I actually voted for Tip O'Neill in my first election when I was a freshman at Harvard. So a couple of years later, when I was working for Jane Eskind—that was my first paid campaign staff position. We were over at an Al Gore event in Lebanon, and Tip O'Neill was there. I went over and introduced myself and said I voted for him, and he grabbed me and yelled across the room, "Hey, Al! I've got a constituent here!" He was so excited!

 

Then it really does tie in well! Tell our readers a little about your history and how you got involved in politics?

I'm a native of Nashville; I was born and raised here. Both my parents were educators: they taught at Fisk and TSU. When I was four, my mom took me and my sister to see President Kennedy when he came to Nashville. The motorcade in those days was open limo, and when he came past us he was smiling and waving, and he looked right at me. I've sort of been a political junky from that moment on.

 

Were your parents very politically active?

Yes! My parents even hosted Stokely Carmichael in our house when he was the president of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), so I had that exposure from a very early age.

My mom, when she was pregnant with my sister, was between jobs. So when the sit-ins started here in Nashville, she was on the phones helping organize the business boycotts, saying, 'Those kids are out there fighting for us, we need to stand up and help them in some way.' And the business boycott had helped with the Montgomery Bus boycotts…

 

How did you get personally involved?

I was twelve, almost thirteen, when my best friend's mom ran for mayor of Nashville... So I was volunteering—the headquarters was over on West End Avenue—and I was stuffing envelopes and passing out literature and stuff like that. That was the first campaign I volunteered in. I always paid close attention to politics, always talked about it at school, so when opportunities arose I just said, 'I'd like to get involved.'

As an undergrad I went to Harvard, and for grad school I started at Cal Berkeley, before I moved across country to D.C. to work at the Smithsonian and finish my Ph.D. at George Washington University. I worked on Jane Eskind’s campaign. And actually when I was in grad school in California, I ran for county committee in Alameda County. I didn't win. The way the district was set up, there were six seats and you ran at large. There were eleven of us running, and I finished eleventh!

 

When did you get more involved in the LGBT community, or trans community?

I was only starting to come out of the closet when I was in D.C., and so I started by going to the bars… I was still just getting my feet wet in the community when I moved back to Nashville in 1992, so I wasn't involved in leadership in the community in D.C. But … while there I found out about a support group there called Transgender Education Association (TGEA), and I joined while I was there.

 

So when you returned to Nashville, how did you start to get involved?

Well, we started the Tennessee Vals (TVals), so that was the first step. It was not intended to be political—and it's certainly not—though there were a couple of times I tried to organize letter-writing about some things.

The spark for TTPC (the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition) was actually the non-discrimination battle here in 2003, because that left out trans people. We were angry and insulted by things that were being said. And so a bunch of us started TTPC in May 2003, right after that whole business with the ordinance blew up, and we selected a core of issues, like non-discrimination, hate crimes, birth certificates, and marriage equality. Those were our four original priorities.

 

What was it like trying to get support for that agenda early on?

When we started going to the legislature trying to get them to do legislation, they were just like, "Oh, yeah.... Right!' At that time people didn't want to talk about trans issues and they were sort of taken aback. I found out later that people were talking behind my back about, 'Where's she going to go to the bathroom?' When I heard that, I thought 'Really?' That's all they were thinking about.... I was talking about discrimination in the workplace and hate crimes and they're already talking about bathrooms. I was annoyed with that when I found out!

But eventually the first bill we got introduced was the birth certificate bill by Steve Cohen when he was in the state senate, so we really sort of started working heavily on that issue at the time. We were also pushing for the repeal of the state's Defense of Marriage Act—and that's when the marriage amendment was introduced almost at that same time, so we had to sort of start focusing and try to stop that, because we didn't want discrimination in the state's Constitution.

 

It’s sometimes hard to remember that that fight was so recent…

When I was in Philly and D.C. recently, I was talking to a lot of my fellow old-timers and saying, 'Can you remember ten years, twenty years ago? Would you have imagined how much the country would change in this short amount of time?' We still have a long way to go but we've made incredible progress in all these years.

 

Despite the progress there’s still a lot facing our youth: they’re so eager to be out now that they are very exposed. How do you work with them?

Especially now that they're back in school, with all this bathroom crap (no pun intended) that they are putting up with... It saddens me, with all that we've done, that those kids are having to put up with so much. I try to present a role model for them, because I didn't have that when I was their age. I want to show them what's possible with their own lives.

I keep warning their parents about the possibility of suicide. I don't want us to lose any more kids, and this is the time of year when it's most dangerous for them. And so I'm trying to give them something positive to look to… I love the kids… I also try to help their parents and answer their questions, because they are parents who are struggling to understand them and trying to be supportive and that's great.

 

Can you tell us a little about how your involvement with the Democratic Party developed over the years?

My parents were very partisan Democrats. So I knew a lot of politicians, and they took me to a lot of speeches and rallies, and stuff like that. So I saw Bobby Kennedy when he spoke at Vanderbilt in 1968. I remember that vividly.

After I moved to D.C., my involvement kind of died out because of Hatch Act restrictions on government employees, but I always said I was going to get involved again. When I moved back to Nashville, I ended up spending several years taking care of my parents in their last years, so that kind of took up a hell of a lot of time…

After they passed away, I started to get involved. Around 2008, I decided that I wanted to be a delegate and that I wanted to be on the county committee. I'd actually started going to the county committee meetings a couple of years earlier. In fact, one person said when I got elected, "I thought you were already on the committee; you were coming all the time." But I finally ran in 2008 and got elected. Of course I ran for delegate that year, and got elected for that as well.

 

Have you been to a convention again since 2008?

I wasn't a delegate this year, but I was in 2012. But I was there this year as an official officer. I didn't run to be a delegate this year because I was on the Diversity Outreach Committee, so I was trying to get other people in the community to run. Several people said they were interested, and then two of them didn't even vote in the primary.... I got really exasperated. So one of the things, especially when I was posting from the convention, is that I was was hoping to excite people. I want people to think, "I want to see myself in those pictures, I want to be in that spot, so I'm going to find out how to do this next time." So some people have started to reach out and say, "You're right, I need to get off my butt and start doing things."

 

How do people go about getting involved?

Election day coming up November 8, and there's candidates all around the state… Get involved in those campaigns, they need your energy. They need money, but as one candidate told me, "If I have to choose between volunteers and donors, I'd rather have volunteers.” So I tell people, give an hour a week: go in, make phone calls, knock on doors... Do something. But get involved and start making those contacts and meeting people. Let them see that you are committed. And that's how you start to work your way up through the system.

 

How do LGBT people build their political clout?

There are a number of LGBT events; I know one's coming up at the end of this month for Holly McCall. There have been others. I know a lot of people are trying to help Trisha Farmer in Wilson County. And I tell people, let the candidate know, "This is why I am supporting you, because of these issues, because I belong to this constituency." When they are elected, you can say, "I voted for you," "I volunteered for you," or "I donated money to you" for this reason: here's what I'm asking now that you're in office. And that's how it works.

 

How do we motivate people to take that interest in local politics?

I'm hoping the craziness we've seen out of our state legislature the last few years will help. I was saying the other day that when Stacey Campfield was there, that was all people were focused on. And it's like the sun is up, the stars are still there in the sky but you don't see them until the sun sets. Well now Campfield is gone and people are starting to realize how many other crazy stars that we have, and people are finally starting to talk about this. So now they just have to get involved.

 

So back to the DNCC: what did your role this year entail?

My official title was podium timekeeper.... The time was actually kept by the production staff, so the position is honorary. That's why I was taking so many photos. So I jokingly called myself the official podium selfie photographer. I was physically on the podium Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Thursday they removed the seats so they had a special VIP section in front, so that's where I was Thursday night.

 

What are some of the highlights of the Convention for you, besides the history making moments?

Besides what goes on in Wells Fargo Center, there are receptions and events, and I spoke on both Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, I spoke at the HRC/Victory Fund Luncheon just before Chelsea Clinton, although we didn't actually rub elbows. And Thursday I spoke at the LGBT Caucus just before Senator Cory Booker. It was kind of nice to be part of that.

And then when we took the big group photo of all of the trans delegates together... It was the biggest Transgender Caucus, and I've seen online that it's gotten wide exposure, so we're hoping that will inspire more people all over the country, and for me especially in Tennessee, to step up and run.

 

After the DNCC, you were off to the Lavender Law Conference. You talked there about what’s going on in Tennessee and how to move forward. Can you give us a taste of that?

When I gave the speech at the Transgender Law Institute lunch, I focused on what's going on here in Tennessee and all of the many battles, both positive and negative but mostly negative... And then when I was on the panel at the end of the day, we were asked to talk about next steps and what we think we can achieve or how we are going to get there.

 

What do you think is possible for us here in Tennessee?

Well, the key is enforcement of those laws, and encouraging people to continue to file lawsuits and grievances, whether it's through EEOC or Department of Education or Department of Justice... Federal laws apply to Tennessee whether Tennesseans want to admit it or not. We tried secession once, and it didn't work. We are part of the United States of America, and U.S. laws apply to us here.

We do plan a lawsuit at some point on the birth certificate laws in Tennessee. We've been working to line up plaintiffs for that, but we are going to take however long it takes. Originally the plan was to file before Thanksgiving 2015, but then everyone's attention had to shift both to bathrooms and to counseling discrimination. Those two issues took up so much energy.

We are reaching out all across the state, and I think we've got about a dozen plaintiffs already. Actually they don't even all live in Tennessee: one had moved to Toronto. One of the things we wanted to show is that it doesn't matter where you live, it matters where you were born, and it still follows you even if you move to another state or another country.

 

For more information about the TTPC and its events, like the group at facebook.com/tntpc. Photo provided, from the DNCC in 2012.

 

 

 

 

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