People like Misty Plowright don’t get elected to Congress. And that, she says, is exactly why she’s trying.
The 33-year-old tech consultant is the nation’s first openly transgender candidate to win a major party primary nomination for a House seat. She’s running, of all places, in Colorado’s 5th Congressional District – home to Focus on the Family and other Colorado Springs-based tentacles of the Christian Industrial Complex.
Plowright has no political experience and hardly any name recognition. Her campaign can’t afford to hire a staffer or even send out a mass mailer. And her party has essentially written off the conservative district, which no Democrat has ever won.
As if her hurdles weren’t high enough, she’s intent on being frank about her personal life, specifically her relationship with her wife and the man they call their husband – both, like Plowright herself, millennial computer geeks and Trekkies.
What’s most striking about the Democrat vying to unseat U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, though, isn’t her gender identity or marital situation. Instead, it’s the fear underscoring her candidacy. One minute she’s discussing public policy with unmistakable ease and confidence, and the next her hands shake and lips quiver as she talks about the possibility of someone attacking or even killing her.
Plowright’s congressional bid is about change – both her own personal and political transformations, and the nation’s gradual coming-to-terms with people modifying their gender. It’s an exercise in progress, if not probability. However many votes she wins in November, her uneasy campaign is a reminder both of how far we’ve come and of how far we still have to go.
“It scares me, coming out like this so publicly. It’s scary, for sure,” she said, nervously tapping her foot throughout our interview. “But I’ve been underestimated all my life. And this candidacy isn’t the first mountain I’ve climbed. Not even close.”
I met Plowright earlier this week when she offered to make the trip to Denver to discuss her candidacy. She was accompanied by wife Lisa Wilkes and husband Sebastian McRae, whom I assumed had come as some sort of statement about their poly lifestyle. But I assumed wrong. They had come because this public persona thing is new to Plowright and – after years of trying to live “stealth,” as she calls it – self-revelation doesn’t come easily.
“As cool as she seems to be handling it, that anxiety is always there,” Wilkes told me.
Plowright’s path to this year’s election has been as surprising – even to her – as Lamborn’s has been straight and narrow.
She was born to a father she can’t remember and a mother who shot a man who was trying to rape her. Plowright was raised in northwest Arkansas mainly by a strict Southern Baptist grandmother who believed anyone who wasn’t Southern Baptist was going straight to hell. She worried when her young grandson took too keen an interest in crocheting.
As far back as Plowright can remember, she felt estranged from her boy body and by the male identity that the world tried to pin on her. The first time she had an erection, she said, “It made me so sick that I threw up.” Kids at school taunted and beat her. Her frustration and confusion led to a suicide attempts in which she swallowed a bottle of extra strength Tylenol and chased it down with a half-bottle of vodka.
“Trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not, it’s soul crushing,” she said.
Plowright enlisted in the Army because she didn’t have money for college. But she found the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy increasingly tough to honor. She started taking female hormones after her Army discharge at age 21, and began living openly as a woman when she moved to Colorado at 24.
She met Wilkes online in 2007. The couple brought McRae into their relationship a few years later. The trio lives with three roommates in a house east of Colorado Springs. McRae, a self-described “housewife,” stays home while his wives both work at tech jobs. They seem happy, in love and committed not only to each other, but also to Plowright’s bid for Congress, which they decided together to pursue.
“It’s kind of indicative of Misty’s honesty that she’s so open about our personal life,” McRae said. “I mean, if she’s not lying about this, what would she lie about?”
A self-taught systems engineer, Plowright snagged a job in her 20s managing server infrastructure for Microsoft’s Windows Embedded business division. She was laid off last year and has been working as a consultant building tech infrastructure for other companies.
She has spent most of her adult life avoiding political pigeonholes, just as she has shirked easy gender labels. Saying she long felt both major parties “sold us all out,” she was an independent until about a year ago when she heard Bernie Sanders speak in Denver. The Vermont senator addressed issues she felt most Dems have ignored: wealth disparities, the need for universal health care, regulatory corruption, counter-productive trade policies, over-militarization and campaign finance woes, to name a few.
Sanders’ underdog candidacy inspired her to believe that the political system could change.
“I’d been waiting for someone like him for a very long time,” she said.
Plowright leaned in, caucusing for Sanders in March and a few weeks later finding herself in front of a crowd at the El Paso County Democratic Convention with tape over her mouth protesting that the party hadn’t been credentialing alternates. That same day, she also led a fight to defeat a resolution that would have enabled the party to sanction politicians who commit “moral transgressions.”
“Whose morals are you even talking about, anyway?” she asked.
It was the first time Plowright had announced publicly that she’s transgender.
“That was the moment when everything irreversibly changed,” she said.
Things changed even more irreversibly after the June 28 primary, when Plowright beat her Democratic challenger, Colorado Springs combat veteran Donald Martinez, by more than 16 points. She’s not sure what pulled her over the top, but suspects it was her candor.
“I don’t sound like a politician. I don’t look like a politician. I stand there in my jeans, t-shirt and hoodie saying what I really think. I’m pretty sure, at least this year, those qualities are resonating with people,” she said.
Lamborn’s campaign didn’t respond to inquires about whether he’ll debate Plowright before the November election.
The five-term congressman sits on the House Armed Services and Natural Resources committees. He has made headlines for calling President Obama a “tar baby” on talk radio and for urging military generals to “go out in a blaze of glory” by resigning in an attempt to discredit the administration. His voting pattern is strongly pro-military and pro-conservative Christian.
Though Plowright is the first openly transgender candidate to snag a major party nomination for the U.S. House, she’s not the only one to win a nomination for federal office. In Utah this year, 30-year-old grocery store clerk Misty Snow won the Democratic nomination to run against Sen. Mike Lee, a Tea Party favorite.
National and international media had some fun with the coincidence of their names.
“Two transgender candidates named ‘Misty’ win primaries,” reads a headline from Politico.
But the timing of their victories is hardly coincidental. Plowright and Snow won their primaries in a year when equality for the “T’s” in the term LGBT is gaining more attention than ever.
The Pentagon announced earlier this month that it will allow time off for service members seeking gender changes. North Carolina has come under fire for signing into law a policy requiring transgender students to use restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates. Similar so-called “bathroom bills” have been introduced by social conservatives in several other states.
Plowright said she has never been harassed for using a restroom. Among her reasons for running for Congress, she noted, where she should pee isn’t a top priority.
“Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s important. I mean, especially when you’ve gotta go,” she says. “But trust me when I say I’m about more – lots more – than just bathrooms.”
Plowright’s mother had to work several jobs at once – as a bartender, a store clerk and a dancer – to get by. The candidate recalls the times her mom was able to raise her income, only to have their food stamps and free school lunches yanked away by welfare reform policies. No matter how hard she worked, it seemed impossible to get ahead.
“I know what it’s like to stare at cat food when you’re really hungry, or to come home from a food bank and scrape mold off your dinner,” she said. “I know what it’s like not to even imagine the possibility of some day having a decent life.”
If elected, Plowright says she’d work to put in place policies to help the working poor, including assistance with college tuition. She describes her stance on guns as “libertarian,” meaning “If someone wants to have a bazillion guns, so be it.” She’s staunchly pro-choice, saying “The government doesn’t get to decide what’s an acceptable medical procedure.”
She’s for single payer health care. She opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying “the deal has sold off our national sovereignty.” She wants to make internet access available to all Americans. And she says Congress sorely needs more members who understand computers.
“Nobody up there seems to realize how the world is changing because of technology,” she said. “None of those Congress people actually do anything other than delegate to their staffs while they make phone calls begging for money.”
On the issue of gender politics, Plowright says protections for transgender Americans ought to extend far beyond just restrooms. Policies and programs need to be put in place that help ease the fear she says transgender people face every day in the face of ignorance, intolerance and taunting.
In Arkansas, she was once cornered by three men at a gas station, and narrowly escaped when one pulled a knife on her. Years later, she was working at a Circuit City in Denver when a coworker who had commented that “something ain’t right about her, and I’m gonna find out what it is” chased her through a parking lot with a bat.
She didn’t report either incident because, she said, “police don’t have a terribly good track record defending people who are trans.”
“People have a panic reaction to us. It’s a very real threat the trans community lives with,” she added, her hands trembling from her memories. “It’s a very real possibility that somebody will come after me for running for office.”
By this point in our interview, Plowright needed a cigarette. Wilkes and McRae stepped in to console her.
Before Plowright stepped outside to light up, she pulled up a song on her smart phone whose lyrics she said expressed why she’s running for Congress better than she is able. She turned up the volume and pressed play on “Spectators” by a group called Crüxshadows.
“Everyone will say ‘I told you so’/ yeah they’ll all just nod and sigh/but I made a run at something real/and they never even tried,” goes the refrain.
Plowright returned from her smoke when the song ended. Her tears were gone and her voice was steadier. She looked at me to gauge if I’d heard what spoke to her in the song.
“Defiance?” I asked.
“Right on,” she said. “Don’t tell me I can’t do something. Just watch.”
Photo credit: Allen Tian