Here There Be Puppets: My Experience as a Delegate to the 2016 Washington State Democratic Convention

I have voted in every election since I came of age in 1988, with one exception in 1989 because I didn’t file for my absentee ballot by the deadline and I couldn’t vote in New York State as a college student. I’d never really considered myself very into the Democratic Party per se, but I’ve voted for progressive and left-of-center candidates my whole adulthood. I can’t say I have a primary issue because in my mind they all vie for attention—reproductive rights are very important to me, but so is ending the death penalty (if I’m being honest I’m a prison abolitionist but there are no candidates calling for that), and so are trans civil and human rights, and then I’d really like to see a sea change on green energy investment. See what I did there? I hate the welfare reform passed in 1996, I hate the 1994 crime bill, and I think the Affordable Care Act fell far short of what we need for all humans in the United States to access the care we need, no matter our legal status or which identity categories apply to us. Friends have said I am “left of Chairman Mao,” and thus I recognize that I do not fully fit into any party’s platform.

13501624_1768465986772825_4679976232767497587_nThis year I decided to take the plunge and see what immersing myself into the Democratic Party would be like. I wasn’t excited because of the ruckus between the Clinton and Sanders camps, but I did support Hillary in 2008 and I did have to come around to Barack Obama, who has both delighted and significantly disappointed me (23,000 drone bombs just last year) since then. Still, I can remember needing to suck it up when Clinton conceded in 2008 and so I can sympathize with Sanders supporters now. It’s a difficult space in which to exist, especially after a primary as painful as this one has been. I’m ready to move on from the “Berners are all sexists” and the “Clinton supporters are not real progressives” reductivism of the past several months.

I went into the precinct caucus with real excitement that was quieted as it became clear that I was in a distinct minority. I was the tally man, so I saw the votes get counted by friends who still didn’t trust me completely not to try to throw the results. I went to the county caucus and was excited to be elected to the congressional district caucus and the state convention. I could be a part of an historic election. So what if the air conditioner busted in the CD caucus and we had to do our business in a humid, mold-smelling cafeteria? I was excited to travel to Tacoma for the state convention and get to work on the platform and resolutions. I’d even written a resolution and sent it to my legislative district committee to see if they would push it forward to the convention.

Friday went reasonably well; I spent most of the afternoon in the Stonewall Democrats caucus, the caucus for LGBTQI members of the party. The caucus was taken up with elections for the chair and board, as the organization had been inactive for some time. I was happy to see several other trans and nonbinary people in the room, but when the newly elected chair said he expected five hours of work a week, I shook my head. I thought: that would have to come out of my sleep time, because I have nothing left in my schedule. I shook a few hands but didn’t come away feeling like I’d had an opportunity to meet anyone.

Maybe I should have paid for the Friday night dinner or Saturday morning breakfast, but I wanted to spend at least a little time with the boys and Susanne. Maybe it made me a little more isolated, but I did get to talk to a few folks from my corner of the room (we were seated by county).

What was initial excitement at walking into the ballroom organized by county faded quickly as the proceedings got underway. It was clear that some of the Sanders delegates wanted to obstruct the process—I’d prepared myself for battles on resolutions and platform changes around superdelegates and open primaries, but instead the arguments regarded minutia over the operating rules for the convention. These are temporary rules that are taken up after electing a temporary chair for the convention—just the rules we’ll use to do the work of updates to the charter, platform, and resolutions to bring to the national convention. Some Sanders supporters were riled even at the keynote speaker, Sanders endorser Senator Merkley of Oregon, when he said it was time to unify behind Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump. He was booed from all corners of the room, and five people in the front row stood up and turned their backs on him, saying “Bernie or bust!”

After the points of information, points of order, arguments for and against changes to clauses, we were past 11:00AM. We had to be done at 7:00PM. Next up were elections for presidential electors, otherwise known as the Electoral College. These individuals were running simply to sign their names in Olympia in the middle of December to make the Electoral College votes for the President-Elect, should the Democratic candidate win the general election. This simple process turned into a circus. A man named Andrew Dial stood up at one of two microphones on the floor and said he was excited to vote for Hillary Clinton as the elector because he loves war criminals and he wants endless fracking across America. Some people cheered him; others booed. Delegates asked no fewer than five times what we were voting for. The fifth time this came up the exasperated temporary chair, Noel Frame, said she would no longer answer the question.

We broke for lunch at 12:35, half an hour late. One delegate passed out and had to be revived. I walked a couple of blocks to a Mexican restaurant and ate by myself; I didn’t know but one or two people at the convention, and even for an extrovert like me, I needed a little space. I wolfed down a beef enchilada and headed back to the floor. On the last block the skies unleashed thick pellets of rain and hail; actual waves rolled down the street toward the convention center. My boater had did the best it could to keep me dry.

1024x1024Back on the floor, back to presidential elector nominations. Some of the people nominating themselves for elector disrespected the office. One woman told us she would never vote for Hillary Clinton and would be happy to pay the $1,000 fine. So millions of people’s votes aren’t as important to her as her own opinion? She wound up not getting elected. Neither did the woman who said she was Native American in spirit but not by blood. Also neither did the man who didn’t believe in the Electoral College. No matter our candidate of choice, the delegate body did seem to want people who would be respectful of their role as the electors for the state if the Democratic candidate won in the general election.

This state convention has held out against making presidential endorsements, that is, until this year. On a campaign loyal vote, Sanders delegates pushed through an endorsement of Bernie Sanders, then complained into the microphone that the endorsement should have read Senator Bernie Sanders. The next vote was for an endorsement of both Sanders and Hillary Clinton. That one failed. We were now running past 2:00PM with no agreement yet on the rules for the proceedings. We would not have much time for the charter, platform, or resolutions. I’d read through all of the language up for these various votes and had my ideas about which ways I’d vote. There were two charter amendments to make the party more trans-inclusive. My resolution about the transphobic ballot initiative 1515 wasn’t listed, but three other similar ones were. There were resolutions about supporting Muslim Americans and protecting the environment of Washington State, about minimum wage, all the sorts of things democrats have argued about this primary season. I was glad to see them. When I’d read the file at 3AM a couple of nights earlier, I was excited to do this work. This is why my friends and colleagues in Walla Walla had sent me to Tacoma.

We got to barely any of that. After 4:00PM we finally had our presidential electors chosen.  Three hours to go. I was beyond frustrated. I turned to the man sitting next to me, a Sanders delegate, and said, “If I had a dollar for every time someone said ‘point of information,’ I wouldn’t need my day job.” He sighed at me. “They need to move on,” he said, shaking his head.

920x920Finally Noel Frame our chair brought us to the charter amendments. These require a majority of the elected delegates, or the 1,400 people elected at the earlier caucuses to come to the convention in Tacoma. Of that 1,400 we had 290 Clinton and 1,110 Sanders delegates, but the initial credentials committee which counts how many people actually show up noted that there were 591 Sanders and 232 Clinton delegates present, giving us a total count of 823 delegates. A few more people showed up by the time the final credentials were reported at 2:30, but we were still short of 1,000 people. It would be hard to draw more than 700 to make a majority for any vote.

We passed the gender inclusivity charter amendment for elections to the central committee for the state by 23 votes. These were counted by hand as tally committee members walked around, pointing at each person who’d raised their credential in the air. One person spoke into a mic after the vote was announced, saying that the writer of the amendment was one of the tallying crew. The chair gaveled her down, and instructed the tally committee from then on to recuse themselves if they were also an author of a given referendum or amendment.

Next up was gender inclusivity for all other elected positions, including delegates at the caucus and conventions. This is where things fell apart around the party’s commitment to trans people, and where I found the process was not supportive enough of identifying which voices should be given space in the pro/against arguments.

“I’ll take an argument against the amendment,” said the chair. The first argument presented was that such a new rule could stifle women’s equality in representation. My neck turned red. I knew where such arguments came from, and I was irritated to see them play out in the party. The speaker also thought the wording wasn’t good enough, whatever that meant. A speaker for the amendment went next, and as it dawned on me that this would be a good time to get to the microphone, the following speaker against opened his mouth.

“It seems to easy to abuse this rule,” he said, as if he’d thought about this issue for precisely the last seven seconds. “What’s to stop a man from putting on a dress and running as a woman?”

I think I actually gasped. Two Sanders supporters who’d been playing cribbage two rows ahead of me who I’d been chatting with all day turned to look at me. They looked afraid of me.

I raced to the microphone, which was nowhere near me as the Walla Walla folks were at the far edge of the ballroom and the mics were in the middle of the space.

I tried to come up with some rationale to be able to speak. Point of information — no. Point of order — nope. I thought about saying “point of privilege” and then saying I was aggrieved as a transgender human at the thought that my gender identity was superfluous or a pretense, but I didn’t want to alienate any delegates into changing their votes before they’d been cast. I looked around at the half dozen other transgender people — all women or nonbinary — that I’d met that weekend. Everyone looked as stunned as me.

Let me be clear: The “man in a dress” concept is phony. It’s not real. Nobody except Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as played in 1961 by Anthony Perkins does this. It has never happened that a man who identifies as male has donned female-coded apparel in order to run as a delegate, assault cis women in public rest rooms, or enacted violence or privilege on anyone. Men have the capability to commit violence just fine without dresses. In fact probably the last thing a man of any stripe should do if he wants to be treated with respect or authority is wear a dress. It is the transmisogynist’s rationale for enacting violence against trans women. It has no value in a debate of any kind. It is like saying “trans people are crazy.”

So I stood there and I watched the vote fail. After the tally we had 674 for the amendment. I was livid.

13434761_1370172542998872_7341209844628835417_nThe chair then told us that we should congratulate ourselves on passing even one of the votes. This did not encourage me. It is only because I changed my legal status that I can run as a male, and that’s okay with my state party?

I sighed. I felt like crying. I looked up at the podium and I said, “It’s not good enough.” I found one of the trans women I’d met back at the congressional district caucus in Spokane, and we hugged each other. I wasn’t sure which of us was comforting whom. We pulled apart.

“I want to punch him in the face so bad,” she said, gritting her teeth.

“I do too,” I said. At that moment it didn’t matter which candidate we’d backed, since she was a Sanders delegate and I a Clinton delegate. It mattered that we were trans people. No matter what space we occupy or how much we try to engage in progressive institutions we will still find ourselves pushed into the box of other people’s misunderstandings. And let me be clear, this was a failure of understanding among both sets of supporters, across campaign lines. Simply not enough people supported us as transgender colleagues and party members.

I went back to my seat and sat down, not listening to the next piece of work we had to do. It was past 5:30PM and we were running out of time for the platform and resolutions debates. I let go of the idea that I would get to participate in a productive process; it took a down vote on transgender Democrats to make me see that such hope had been lost hours earlier.

My phone died and I was grateful. I plugged it into the wall of the ballroom and stood on the side for a while. My Walla Walla colleagues took glances at me to check in on my mood. I consoled myself that every organization has its limitations. Literally no one had pushed the party this hard on transgender inclusion before, I figured. So I would stick around to keep pushing.

We voted on the entire platform recommendations and passed them without any discussion. Next we voted on all of the “do pass” recommendations to the resolutions, again with next to no discussion or debate. The convention staff began disassembling our county markers even as we went through the motions of counting votes. The chair adjourned us at 7:21PM.

I texted Susanne that I was free from duty, so we met up at the hotel and walked to a local restaurant. It was so nice to see the boys, who were oblivious to the strife in the world—so far, anyway. We ordered pizza and while we waited four Sanders supporters sat at the next table. They went on to discuss why they’d voted against the charter amendment. “I mean, what if someone is asexual,” one of them asked in that completely uninformed mansplainy way, “do they just get to run for whatever gender?”

I inhaled. I held my breath. I looked over at Emile and Lucas and their sweet smiles and banter. Susanne caught my eye, listened to the men for another thirty seconds, and nodded at me.

“I am this close to getting out of my chair,” she said.

For the record, you do not want to piss off a certain 5’0″ Canadian queer woman because she is smarter than you and she will let you have it. I gestured at our children because they don’t need to see us reading the riot act at anyone.

We went back to the hotel room with literally two boxes of leftover pizza and I played puzzle games on my tablet until I couldn’t stay awake any longer.

And there was a whole additional day of convention stuff ahead of me.

Sunday was better, thank goodness.


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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights


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