Democrat Brianna Titone became Colorado’s first openly transgender elected legislator in 2018, helping set a course for a community that has long fought hard for recognition and acceptance. She is one of a handful of openly transgender representatives currently serving in state governments across the country, which Titone said puts her legislative actions under the microscope.
“Some of the things that I have to deal with that a lot of other people don’t is not only am I the first trans person to be here, but I’m the most targeted seat in the whole entire state,” Titone told Bucket List Community Café. “There’s a lot of reasons why I have to work extra hard, go above and beyond, reach across the aisle and really not screw up at all.”
Titone represents the area that includes Arvada within Jefferson County, which could easily be defined as a “purple” district. She won her first election by less than 450 votes, and in her second she won by less than 2,000 in an election where about 60,000 votes were cast. Her current term ends in 2023.
“I have two jobs, legislator of House District 27 for the people I represent directly, and then for everybody else who is in this country or outside this country or anybody who may look at me as a role model, trying to break barriers for them,” Titone said. “I don’t want to lose this position because I have a lot of important work to do for those people who need me to be here.”
Titone grew up in the small town of Marlborough, New York, but she was an internal outsider, someone who had a different identity but did not feel she could tell people about it.
“Because my town was so small, there wasn’t a lot of diversity; there wasn’t a lot of people who were different,” she said. “Even very few people who were openly gay or lesbian, for that matter. So, it wasn’t really something that people felt comfortable being.”
Although she participated in various extracurricular activities, Titone said she also kept a low profile, spending time exploring computers and other one-person endeavors. “I wasn’t a popular kid. I wasn’t the smartest kid,” she said. “I was … kind of just skating through and trying to stay off the radar and not get bullied because I was kind of a nerd.”
Titone said she wanted to enlist in the military, but before that she said she wanted to be an FBI agent and in the military she feared she would not be able to hide her true identity. Her civil service began as a junior volunteer firefighter in her hometown at age 16.
Titone said when she first came out as a transgender woman in 2015, there were times when people would not refer to her by the pronouns she preferred. Even at the state Democrats’ conventions and caucus when she was campaigning for office, Titone said she announced she is a transgender woman because she said she didn’t want her gender to take focus off the issues at hand.
“It wasn’t about like telling everybody right off the bat, ‘Hey, don’t worry about this,’ but it was about saying, ‘I got this. We can win this. Let’s go out there. Let’s fight for the values we have, and let’s win,’” Titone said. “It wasn’t about me being trans. I just had to just get that out of the way so they can just … process that and then get them excited to want to help me win.”
Titone said when it comes to addressing transgender issues with her constituents, there can be times when it is difficult to get people to try to understand. “There are some people you won’t be able to reach at all, and I can’t waste my time on people who are never going to change their viewpoint,” Titone said. “There’s a lot of other people who just don’t understand. They don’t know anybody (who identifies as transgender), they just have their doubts, or they’ve heard stuff.”
Titone said maintaining that relationship with her constituents helps keep issues to the forefront rather than her gender identity. “They look past me being a trans person, which is ultimately what I want,” she said. “At the same time, I don’t want to lose the fact that my identity is important, just not to the job. Just like a trans person who’s a doctor, their identity has nothing to do with whether they’re a good doctor or not.”
Titone worked on various bills this legislative session with many of them dealing with consumer protections and protections against homeowners associations One of the bills that passed and is awaiting Gov. Jared Polis’ signature, HB 1229, would require homeowners associations to disclose information about how they operate and force the board to adopt an open meetings policy. “This particular session has been exceedingly stressful because I’ve taken on so many bills and a lot of really, really hard topics.”
Titone said her philosophy when legislating is to take everything in before deciding which way to vote on an issue. “I always come into committee trying not to come in with my mind made up already, unless it’s an obvious choice,” Titone said. “There are a lot of issues where I’ve heard both sides of the argument. I try to listen more than I talk and try to ask questions that point out any kind of discrepancies or questionable data. I do a lot more listening than talking, for the most part, because I think it’s important to listen to what people say on those topics. It’s not about what I stand for; it’s about what can I do for the people,” Titone said.
Titone said most Coloradans have progressed in accepting transgender people and that politicians who belittle LGBT people are only pandering to a dwindling contingent. “The role that I play as the first trans person elected here in Colorado and one of the only few in the whole country, I serve as a beacon of hope for a lot of people,” Titone said. “I take this job to the utmost of … the pinnacle of serious because I have a responsibility to my constituents, first and foremost, but I also play that role for a lot of other people who may not be my constituents but may see me as someone who they value being here for a source of inspiration and to help further equality for them.”
Eric Heinz is a freelance journalist based in Denver, Colorado. He previously covered Los Angeles City Hall for City News Service.