With everyone’s minds on yesterday’s general election I thought I’d delve into the world of politics. The Boston Globe has called her the “most perennial of perennial candidates” but her mark on politics is perhaps greater than the credit they give her — Althea Garrison was the first transgender person (that we know of) elected to a state legislature in the United States. Though her tenure was brief, the barrier she broke is undeniable — even if she never meant to or wanted to.
Garrison was born in Hahira, Georgia on October 7, 1940. At nineteen years old — still living in the closet as a man — Garrison moved to Boston to attend beauty school — but it turned out she didn’t like being on her feet all day. So she enrolled at Newbury Junior College and earned an associate’s degree. She followed that by attending Suffolk University and earning a B.S. in business administration, and then an M.S. in management from Lesley College. After this, she got a certification in management from Harvard University. Afterwards, she decided she didn’t actually need to attend every college in the Boston area, and didn’t earn any more degrees.
In or around 1976, she transitioned into living as a woman and asked the courts to change her name. The court documents read that the name Althea Garrison “is consistent with petitioner’s appearance and medical condition and is the name by which he will be known in the future.” It’s a bit unclear what “medical condition” they’re referring to — and honestly, we’ll probably never know. To this day, Garrison has never publicly acknowledged her transition,
In 1980, Garrison volunteered with Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign. She says, this is when her interest in politics was sparked. When he lost, she reasoned that if she could campaign for him, she could just as easily campaign for herself. In 1981, she began working at the comptroller’s office and campaigned for a seat on the Boston city council. She was not elected. The next year she ran as a Democrat for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and was not elected. She ran for city council again in 1983 and 1985, and then ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives again in 1986. She tried for city council again in 1987 — and then left the Democratic party. She ran for city council as an independent in 1989.
She must have also run for office some other times, because in 1991 — running as a Republican for the city council — the Boston Herald stated she had run for office nine times. Garrison herself thought it was somewhere around ten or eleven. I only count eight, including the 1991 campaign but I’m admittedly really terrible at math. Anyways, in 1991 she came in third during the preliminary election for her district.
In 1992, she hit the campaign trail once more — still as a Republican, and gunning once again for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She took incumbent Nelson Merced to court, challenging some of the signatures he’d used to qualify for the Democratic primary. The court ruled in Garrison’s favor, and Merced was taken off the ballot. Irene Roman became the candidate for the Democratic party. Roman garnered 2,014 votes. Garrison beat her by a narrow margin of 437 votes — totaling 2,451.
Garrison quickly fell under attack. Many criticized that she had won disingenuously because she’d kept Merced off the ballot. (But, really, the court did that.) A reporter for the Boston Herald named Eric Fehrnstrom already had her in his sights. You may recognize his name — he was a top aid for Mitt Romney during his 2012 campaign. Fehrnstrom had discovered the court documents regarding Garrison’s name change — and according to colleagues he was positively gleeful. Two days into her tenure, the Herald published a front page story speculating about her gender.
I should note here, that technically Garrison still hasn’t come out. Even in the face of the ensuing scandal, and the remarkably unkind comments of her political opponents at the time in regards to her gender, Garrison has only ever stated that she is a woman. She has never addressed this, and probably never will address this. And that’s okay. Admittedly, it has made me feel awkward about writing this but at the same time the extremely ugly circumstances of her outing don’t take away from Garrison’s accomplishments, her impressive persistence, or the barriers she helped break down for transgender people in the United States. Because of Fehrnstrom, she’s part of our nation’s strong queer history.
Anyways, Garrison finished her term and developed a reputation for voting in favor of unions, and frequently reaching across the aisle and voting with Democrats. At the same time, she voted against marriage equality, against gun control, and against legalized abortions. When it came time for re-election in 1994, eight unions in Boston strongly backed her — as well as the Massachusetts branch of the AFL-CIO. Nevertheless, she was defeated. Charlotte Golar Richie, the Democratic candidate, won with 2,108 votes to Garrison’s 1,718 — an even narrower margin than her skin-of-her-teeth victory in 1992.
Since that time, Garrison has consistently run for office, running variously as a Republican, a Democrat, and an independent. She has run for Boston City Council in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. She ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2000, 2006, and 2010. She also ran in a special election for state Senate in 2002, and for mayor of Boston in 2001.
She did not win any of these elections. However, she is positioned to take over Ayanna Pressley’s seat on the Boston City Council when Pressley moves to serve in Congress.
In 2018, after 37 years, Garrison has retired from the comptroller’s office. But she has not retired from her political aspirations — despite being up for a position on the Boston City Council, Garrison ran as an independent for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the 2018 general election — which she lost to Liz Miranda.
I know this sounds like a whole lot elections that Garrison didn’t win — but the take away here is that she has never given up. Even when attacked for who she is, she never gave up. And that, if nothing else, broke down barriers and proved transgender people could hold office — allowing for Stacie Loughton‘s election in 2012 and Danica Roem‘s election in 2017 (both of which are whole other stories.)
UPDATE: Since writing this post, Althea Garrison was sworn into her new seat on the Boston City Council on January 9, 2019.