“Breaking into a space that wasn’t built for you is incredibly difficult.”
Rosemary Ketchum has been a community organizer in Wheeling, West Virginia, for about a decade. Now, she’s the state’s first out transgender elected official.
As the associate director of the city’s local drop-in center for the National Alliance for Mental Illness, she worked with community members experiencing poverty, homelessness and mental health issues. A lot of the problems with access to mental health care in the area were systemic, she said, and, over her decade of advocacy work, she saw that they still weren’t being addressed properly.
“The issues I have advocated for as a community organizer could directly be impacted or in many cases completely resolved with thoughtful people in elected office,” Ketchum told Rewire.News. “So I decided I would be one of those people.”
On June 9, Ketchum won the Wheeling City Council race for Ward 3, beating her opponent by 15 votes. As when Danica Roem became the first out transgender person elected in Virginia, national media expressed shock when Ketchum was elected in a small town in a conservative state. Her victory is historic: In addition to being the first in her state, Ketchum is also one of only 27 out trans elected officials, while there are an estimated 1.4 million trans people in the United States.
But Ketchum says she isn’t surprised that trans people are winning elections in conservative states. “When folks say, ‘I cannot believe a trans person could win in a place like West Virginia,’ I think, ‘This is the very place I believe a trans person could win elected office,’” she said. “I completely understand what it’s like to feel unwelcome in a place that feels like my home—in the United States, the state I live in, sometimes the city that I live in. For people I speak to who may not look like me, sound like me, live like me, I feel still able to connect on some level.”
National headlines about Ketchum’s win mostly focused on her identity, but her platform didn’t. She highlighted her experience as a mental health advocate and her plan to address the opioid crisis in Wheeling. She said the city’s “lack of vision or drive” when it comes to providing opportunity for people with mental illness and those experiencing homelessness factored into her decision to run for office.
“What we’ve done in the past has not worked,” she said. “Oftentimes when we look to address homelessness, poverty, mental health, we do it piecemeal, and the solutions that we have created are not connected or comprehensive.”
Ketchum wants to see Wheeling become a case study for holistic resources that are all interconnected. “We actually had meetings with folks who are interested in building this model where the hospitals, the [psychiatric] units, the advocacy centers, and the homeless shelters are all on the same page,” she said. “These aren’t issues that are separate, they’re kind of inherent to one another.” Once her term starts July 1, she plans to create a task force that would help build this new connected system.
Ketchum’s policy proposals all share this interconnected theme. She says she hopes to also work on police reform, but that would require many other social services to expand or change. For example, after the Ohio Valley Medical Center hospital in Wheeling closed down in September 2019, she says law enforcement had to drive people who were experiencing mental health crises to an inpatient psychiatric unit at a hospital 75 miles away. “That is a complete misuse of resources and it’s inefficient, and it’s dangerous for both the person experiencing the crisis and law enforcement,” Ketchum said.
“Demilitarizing law enforcement across the country should be a focus,” she said, acknowledging that the country has “dealt with racial injustice for centuries, and it’s no different in small towns like Wheeling.” Ketchum said a citizen review board, where people could submit complaints about law enforcement, is among the public safety reforms she would consider.
After her win, Ketchum tweeted that trans people “don’t run for office to make history. We run for office to make a difference. I guess if history is made in the process then so be it.”
Though she believes West Virginia is exactly the kind of place where a trans person should be elected, she told Rewire.News running wasn’t exactly easy. “I’ve been called a radical … and not because of my plans or policies or visions, but because [of] how people perceive trans people,” she said.
Overcoming those misconceptions is just one of the barriers trans people face when running for office.
“Breaking into a space that wasn’t built for you is incredibly difficult,” Ketchum said.
Before she was elected, there were two women serving on the Wheeling City Council—now Ketchum will be the only woman.
Across the country, trans people are repeatedly targeted by anti-trans policy on both the state and federal level, which contributes to—and often enshrines in law—the discrimination and harassment they face. Ketchum pointed to the recent move by the Trump administration to erase anti-discrimination protections for trans people in health care.
“Transgender folks, LGBT people, are some of the most vulnerable, especially those of color,” she said. “And to not have health-care services that include basic medical services, including mental health care is absolutely horrendous.”
Due to a system that is built to exclude them, trans people face higher rates of poverty, homelessness, and are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured. These are just some of the barriers they face when navigating day-to-day life, let alone running for public office.
Being a transgender candidate in West Virginia “perhaps [posed] more assets than it did detriments to me,” Ketchum said, “because people were so energized by the idea of that representation”—in addition to the policy proposals she had for Wheeling. Trans candidates bring desperately needed representation, and they have a unique understanding of the needs of marginalized communities.
“Trans people could not afford to be anything but resilient,” Ketchum said. “Building that resilience has really prepared trans people to lead in a very specific way in their communities and their states and organizations.”
This article was originally published by Rewire.News.