39 | Queering the Campaign Trail

Meet the Guests

Martin Rawlings-Fein is a Jewish, bisexual, transgender, father of two & educator who specializes in building bridges across educational divides, and ran a trans/bi positive campaign for the San Francisco School Board in November of 2018. A firm vaccine proponent, he is a childhood stroke survivor and a neurodiversity advocate. From conferences in the San Francisco Bay Area to the White House, Martin speaks coast to coast & writes about the topics of EdTech in education, gender & sexuality in Judaism, and pedestrian safety in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Danielle Skidmore is president and founder of Danielle Skidmore Consulting. In 2018, she took a pause from her engineering career to run for Austin City Council. As a special needs parent and transgender woman, Danielle has been a strong advocate for disability and LGBTQIA rights in Texas and nationally Danielle was an inaugural member of the City of Austin LGBTQ Quality of Life Advisory Commission.

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Episode Transcript

Emily: In 2018 there was a record number of LGBTQ+ parents running for all levels of office across the country. They ran for school board, Attorney General, state legislatures, governor and more. Many won and many didn’t. Regardless, their visibility and outspoken political activism made a real impact no matter what the outcomes of the elections were. Our families were out and proud and taking a stand on all kinds of issues federally, at the state level and in our local communities. That passion and motivation is something to be admired. I know I have a lot of respect for the folks who ran for office and this includes the two people I have with me today to talk about their experiences as out LGBTQ parents running for office. Danielle Skidmore is president and founder of Danielle Skidmore Consulting. In 2018 she took a pause from her engineering career to run for Austin City Council as a special needs parent and transgender woman. Danielle has been a strong advocate for disability and LGBTQIA rights in Texas and nationally. Danielle was an inaugural member of the city of Austin LGBTQ quality of Life Advisory Commission. Martin Rawlings-Fein is a Jewish bisexual, transgender father of two and educator who specializes in building bridges across educational divides. He ran a trans and bi positive campaign for the San Francisco School Board in November, 2018. A firm vaccine proponent, he is a childhood stroke survivor and a neuro-diversity advocate. Welcome Danielle and Martin. Okay. So Danielle, who is in your family and how was it formed?

Danielle: There are three of us in my family: myself, Melissa and Peter. We have a beautifully complicated family. It was formed when I started dating Melissa 26 years ago and Peter was born in 2001. Peter is our biological son.

Emily: The best kind. The only kind! I have one too. So you were recently a candidate in an election. Can you talk a little bit about what you were doing? What was this particular role and was it the first time you were running for an elected position?

Danielle: Yeah, so I’m a civil engineer by training and, but last year I quit my job to run for Austin City Council. I’m pretty certain it was the first election that I’d run for since middle school, but I spent a lot of time at the Texas capitol in 2017 fighting the bathroom bill. That whole experience really demystified electoral politics for me and really helped me to see that if you feel really strongly about something it’s up to you to step up and run. For me as an engineer and somebody that loves Austin, I know we have real growing pains. I realized that the issues that both we and the city council face are the kinds of puzzles that I think I would be well suited to help solve.

Emily: That’s really interesting that you hadn’t necessarily thought about doing this in the past. The career trajectory wasn’t that you wanted to be a politician or you wanted to be an elective office this was something that really came organically from a particular experience. Do you think you maybe always had like a little inkling of it and this just pushed you to that next step?

Danielle: No, I don’t think I had seriously considered running for elected office until 2017. I mean, honestly, I would not have done it before my gender transition. I am a highly visible, out and proud, transgender woman. I’m very open about my whole history. My birth name was Joe; Joe would never have run for office. There were gifts that I gave myself by finally allowing myself to come out. I was able to tap into something and realize that I could run.

Emily: So, Martin, who is in your family and how was it formed?

Martin: I have my wife Shelly, my daughter Sadie and my son Matthew. That’s all of us. We also have grandma Nana, she lives nearby. My wife and I got married very quickly. We met at our synagogue, had a very quick courtship, and then we had kids. We started really young. I was 27. I was really trying to build a family. I had never thought I could actually have a family; that was really a big part of it. We had our kids through many trips to the sperm donation center and carrying canisters around. It took about three tries each for the kids. It’s an expensive process and it’s also very common in queer families. Our family was pretty unique, but it’s also pretty common in the Queer community, especially in San Francisco.

Emily: That’s awesome. I know I’m at the age now where I’ll say that I have a sperm donor and it sounds like I’m using as opposed to it being how I was made. I remember finally getting old enough that people would kind of be like, ‘Huh,’ because I was in college or something and talking about it. I’m a grownup now. It’s very different. So Martin, you were recently a candidate in an election. Can you talk about what office you were running for in 2018 and whether or not that was that the first time that you were running for an election?

Martin: It wasn’t the first time I ran for an election. 2012, I ran for a school board and I actually didn’t file paperwork. I pulled out, said “this is not for me.” I stepped back and let other wonderful candidates go forth. And so in 2018 I knew it was really a good time. This nobody’s running as an incumbent. This is a point where trans people are visible, we are able to do so much. Why not school board? I just went for it. I went through an entire campaign, a little rag tag crew of people. There were 19 of us running, two trans people, which was awesome. I got to run alongside Mia Satya who was a youth advocate. I was really excited that we were able to run such good campaigns and positive campaigns. We kept everybody else positive. When they went negative, you could tell. It was a very interesting campaign. I also ran against somebody who a traditionally transphobic person. They were growing and changing through meeting Mia and myself but I don’t think that people like that should be on school boards when they’re still evolving in their views, let’s just say.

Emily: Danielle, you had mentioned that there had sort of been a big political impetus. Texas was debating discrimination, public accommodations and bills. And so that was something that was part of your decision to run. Do you like being more involved in politics? You mentioned seeing things in action. How did that change your thoughts about what you could or should be doing. Do you have the mindset that they need someone like me here.

Danielle: When I was at the State Capital, talking to our senators and representatives, I realized that there are an awful lot of people who are in elected office who don’t really have the skillset the emotional aptitude that I expected. I sold myself short. I thought to myself: you’re a civil engineer. You can’t be an elective representative. It’s always lawyers. Or car dealers, if you’re a Republican in Texas, or radio personalities. Really I realized that it’s not a particular skillset. Obviously the skills to serve in elected office are different than the skills necessary to run for elected office. But in the end the best people, the strongest candidates, are people who have a really strong desire to serve our community. And that was something that the trans community in particular, but really the whole LGBTQIA community came together in 2017 to really push back on what was a full assault by our lieutenant governor. That bonded our community in a way that in retrospect I look back on as a perverse gift from our lieutenant governor. I joke that I sent him a Christmas card at the end of 2017 because he helped me meet like a thousand amazing people. And it was a surreal experience for me as somebody who had come out not long before I started my transition, around the end of 2014, professionally with a name and gender marker change. I kind of let everybody in on my story in 2016. So I had only been out for about a year. And, when I finally did come out in 2016, I was like, okay, I’m emotionally ready for all of this and everything that entails, that sort of visibility of transition, but through 2017 and through this fight, through bonding in our community, it really actually helped me to sort of galvanize my identity in ways that were really powerful and helpful.

Emily: Mm. So when I think about running for office I think about the candidate but then also their family, being so out and so visible, and you were just mentioning visibility. So when deciding whether or not to run, what kind of conversations did you have with your family about that additional visibility?

Martin: Those conversations were long and difficult. My family has been 100% behind me but my family is also very private. When we decided that I wasn’t going to run last time, a lot of it had to do with how many things were on our plate. How many things do we do right now, or how can pull back. Running this time we had very difficult conversations around the kitchen table about how out I wanted to be. I’d been out for 20 plus years; I can’t go back in the closet. I can’t shove myself back in there. But I’m not really one of those out there people. I’m very behind the scenes, getting things done. Being out there while running, I was kind of myself and very trepidatious. I thought, oh no, I’m going to be out there. I’m going to be talking to people. I’m going to be you know, shaking people’s hands. How are these things going to affect our family? Daddy’s going to be rushing everywhere and it’s not going to be fun for you guys. I think that in the end the right people won. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t Mia, but they were really good people won the race. It made me feel good that I helped to push that forward and helped to expand people’s minds.

Emily: Danielle, what was that decision or those conversations like for you?

Danielle: The election was in November of 2018 and the summer of 2017 is when I started seriously thinking about running for elected office. The first person I came out to was Melissa. It’s probably worth noting that I Melissa and I are a family, but we are no longer a couple. We had been married and are actually still married legally but when I came out and transitioned as a transgender woman, Melissa had to come out herself. She had to come out as a straight white girl. We realized that the biggest gift we can give each other is our honesty and our sincerity. So we redefined our family. We joke together now: I’m like, you’re queer now. And she’s like, no, I’m not. I’m queer adjacent. But, she is because she’s in this space where we still have an intimate relationship, an emotionally intimate relationship and our son turns 18 in a couple of weeks, but he is a nonverbal quadriplegic so we have a special needs child. We really have to surrender our care around them. So with that sort of context when I sat down to tell her, she knew it when she saw me. I was very visible at the capitol. I spoke in front of thousands of people and was interviewed by the media pretty frequently. When I finally came out, it just sort of played out because I was comfortable with doing it. I would joke that if my voice is deep as it still is, if I can help this conversation in Texas that I’m happy to do it. She saw me really come out of my shell and sort of embrace that. When I sat down with her I said, okay, I think I’m thinking about running for city council. And she said, you would be really good at it. And really the questions for us had more to do with the economic reality. I quit my job to run for council. Would that work for our family? I had very little angst about what it might look like in terms of visibility, for her and for our son. What I received from them was full support and excitement. It really was as the campaign evolved. It proved really interesting for me and sometimes hilarious because in Austin we got read as a family. And we still are a family, you know, but it all meant that now Melissa was read as my lesbian wife. So she was forever saying you know, yes, we’re a family, but I’m not a lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The other assumption we received when people would see the same last name they would assume that she was my sister and then ask, well, who’s who’s? Who’s son is that? We would tell them that he’s ours and then have that wonderful trans experience of like, what do you mean ‘ours?’ Oh yeah, we’ve been married 25 years and people are doing the math with the Obergefell decision and you know, just poofs of steam come out of their ears. I love it.

Emily: Did you find it to be important for your family to be physically present, not only morally, but also physically there with you at different events throughout the campaign? Was that important for the people you were interacting with?

Martin: When running for school board, it’s kind of like: look at us, we’re a perfect family. But being a queer family means that, in San Francisco especially, you have to be a two income family. We couldn’t afford childcare so I would take Matthew with me whenever I went to anything. Or my daughter was playing softball, always doing something else. My wife was always working. She takes them to school; I pick them up. I’m always the one who picks him up and takes them off to these meetings, usually bringing some toys with me so he can play. All the people were like, wow, you’re a child whisper. Your son is so good at this. I would say, well, he’s been coming to these events forever. He’s, he’s one of these kids who knows exactly what will happen. Okay, I’m going to go over here and play Legos for 20 minutes and come back and tell you quietly that I need another book. I went to several panels and there was little Matthew walking up behind the podium to, to chat with me for a moment and then sitting back down to play. It’s one of those things where, you know, family matters, but being realistic also matters. Your family doesn’t need to be with you all the time but it’s a social lubricant. I can’t expect my partner to always be with me because she has things of her own to be doing. We always look like a straight couple wherever we go even though we’re both bi, and I’m trans. When she wasn’t with me, when I would say I was bisexual, people would assume that my partner was a man. I would have to correct them and then they would scratch their heads a bit and try to figure out why I wasn’t just saying I was straight, why I wasn’t in the closet.

Emily: Yeah, There’s so much there that just makes me think of having to do education that you probably didn’t anticipate talking about. You want to talk about schools, you want to talk about, you know, what recently was happening in the Austin city council. I do want to ask about that, but I also want to comment that both of you brought up the financial implications of running for office and I think that’s something that’s not as often talked about, especially when on a local level and what that means for families. It’s just so interesting to think about families not being little kiddos in suits and smiling, ready for a photo op, and instead being like, we don’t have child care. This is what we’ve got to do. So our family is being present out of a practical necessity and families are just being families as opposed to like for that photo op. I think that is so interesting. So I do want to ask then, about that feeling of putting on a perception of being a perfectly happy, contented, you know, settled family, like being a poster family. Danielle I think I see you nodding there too. What was your experience with that?

Danielle: Well, Melissa and I are partners for Peter’s care. and there were very few times in the campaign that there was the family shot of the three of us. And some of that’s out of respect from my relationship with Melissa now and that we’re not a couple in that sense. And that is very important for both of our identities right now, me being true to me and her being true to herself. So for us when I quit my job to run I joked to Melissa. I was like, you’re my sugar momma now. She was still working full time. She teaches at the University of Texas. And it meant that for the first time in my life I was somewhat of a stay at home mom who was also campaigning. It meant that I had the flexibility to take my son to therapy or to his doctor’s visits and we very much 50, 50 split his care. Peter, just like so many, and you described it too Martin, Peter came with me to half of my events essentially because finding childcare is hard. Finding special needs care, attendant care for somebody like Peter is almost impossible. So people got very used to seeing him everywhere and most people found it really engaging and welcoming. There was a small section of folks, we actually took some real heat for it, people accused me of using my son as a prop. It frustrated me. I tend get along pretty well with everybody, whereas Melissa is much more of a fighter She was enraged about it. She’s very protective of me and our son. So we ended up writing about it and it ultimately got picked up by pantsuit nation because it was just this idea that no, my son is not a prop. You know, the dynamic in our race that was a little bit different was, yeah, I’m trans and I’m out but in many ways what informs my identity as being a parent first, being a special needs parent. So there was all these questions of disability visibility in our race. My son is tube fed and I remember I was doing a meet and greet at an apartment for voters. And so I did my thing, but I had my son with me and he needed to eat. I started feeding him with his feeding tube. Somebody afterwards said “that made us very uncomfortable. It was a very intimate thing to do.” And this whole question of people being exposed to somebody who’s not like them was really eyeopening.

Emily: Martin, do you want to add anything here?

Martin: Yeah. That idea that your child is a prop and that when you’re feeding your child that it would somehow make people uncomfortable-

Danielle: And there’s nothing like going to a candidate forum that you have to attend and showing up at the building at the neighborhood association meeting and seeing an inaccessible building.You’re with a wheelchair and everybody going: well I don’t know what you’re gonna do. And I have to just pick him up. He’s 75 pounds, but you know, it’s a little oppressive walking into a forum carrying your 75 pound son. I scare boys now.

Emily: Seemingly there were many moments when you showed up saying, I’m here to talk about a variety of issues, but what people are asking about is maybe not what you wanted to talk about or the most important topic for you that day? Like, that was not going to be the talking point today. How did you try to balance then being yourself, being out about who you are and what your family looks like and not wanting to have to educate people about something that was not what you were there for.

Martin: On the campaign trail we were asked about, special classes and things like that night. I had to come out as being in a special ed class in high school. I’m neuro-atypical, but partially because I’m trans. And so all of these little things became part of a bigger stew things so I came out in the forum. It became less about being trans. It was kind of interesting. It became less about being trans and more about neuro-divergence. This person is neuro-divergent. This person doesn’t think the same way as everyone else. Oh Wow. Now we know something new about this person. And I came out a lot on the trail. I came out a lot about a lot of different things throughout. I found that my story resonated with people, which is lovely but by coming out you keep giving and giving and giving. Your story really isn’t your own. At some point when you come out so much, it becomes everybody else’s. They hold on to it. So I think that’s an important part of running is that you have to represent. You have to say, you know what, I’m kind of putting aside my own things right now and I’ll represent and I’ll talk about things. They may not be what everybody else is talking about, but I’m going to keep bringing these things up. maybe they are going to be uncomfortable for people, like carrying your son into a forum. I think for every person who mis-gendered me on a forum board, every person who who called me, names in the comments of articles, if I educate just one of those people it’ll be worth it.

Danielle: What I saw was that in our local election in Austin people really were focused on the campaign themes, right? And in Austin, we know traffic is awful. So as an engineer I felt really strongly about approaching those things differently. Many of my topics were pretty mundane, parks and rec, local issues, traffic, taxes, and sustainability. How do we build more housing for more people close to where they live and work? That I was sort of running to be, at the time, the first openly transgender person elected in Texas history was necessarily part of the conversation because people knew that, but it was always sort of a little bit in the background. I don’t think I ever had a question in a forum about about my trans identity but it is part of my lived experience. The best candidates people resonate with. They see something of themselves in there. So it was always unspoken, at least in a larger conversation. The key to winning an election or being competitive is knocking a lot of doors. And I knocked 4,000 doors, our team knocked somewhere around 25,000 doors in our election race. I had thousands of conversations with individual people and those conversations sometimes really went in directions that I didn’t expect, but amazing and gratifying. I can’t tell you how many people whose doors I knocked, once they kind of put two and two together and realized I was trans but I could see the smile on their faces. I knew their name and their age and their demographic and I was like, oh, okay, 53 year old lesbian and I would just see them smile. I would always wear my trans pride pin. They would say “you’re trans too!” Those were the moments that really hit me. The first time that happened I started crying and then I got a little better. But the visibility and that representation was amazingly gratifying. It really ism even in defeat, realizing, what an impact within our community we had.

Emily: So that brings me to one of my final questions. That is, after that, that experience, will you be running again, some day?

Martin: I’ve had extensive conversations with my children, my wife, with my family about this and I don’t know. That’s the big thing. 2020 is next year. Depending on what the field looks like, maybe.

Emily: And Danielle, do you think maybe someday running again?

Danielle: You know, I’ve realized that if a candidate or former candidate like pauses for more than two seconds to answer that question, the answer is yeah, we’ll probably run again. Pretty much if you don’t come back saying a hard no I am done, it means that it’s still in your blood. And I mean, it’s true. I don’t know that I’m changed from the experience of that second coming out for me as a politician but it was an amazing growth experience. I have all these opportunities that I didn’t have before, even as I go back to my engineering career. So I will run in the future. Melissa is going to kill me when she hears that on the podcast. If it’s the right thing to do at the right time. But I know I’m not running in 2019

Emily: For any youth, adults, anybody in an LGBTQ family listening, if there’s ever going to think about running for any kind of election, what would you say to them?

Martin: Well, I would say do it, just flat out. The more people we get involved in these things. The more people we get involved in the process, the better it is for everybody.

Danielle: I think I would agree with that answer. I think that for me, like just the opportunity to run, The eight month long process, the eight month job interview, it didn’t pay me anything and it didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped, but it was still an amazing experience. So I think that if your heart’s telling you to do it, then listen to your heart, but I’m going to be a little bit more cautious and real. Quite honestly, it was a level of vulnerability for me and for my family that was greater than me coming out as transgender woman. I mean if I look at it and I’m honest about it, I had moments last summer as I was learning how to be a candidate that were emotionally even more challenging and different from what I was used to doing. It was was easy when I finally came out as trans because I was just finally being me and I knew how to do that. I just had to free myself to actually take that space and be me. But the task of being a political candidate is learned behavior. Follow your heart to do it, but go into it realistically and know that it is intensely vulnerable.