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Transgender candidates could make history in upcoming races

(Reuters) - Transgender candidates, running for political office in unprecedented numbers in the United States this year, could make history in upcoming primary elections by securing Democratic Party nominations in races in three states.

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Kim Coco Iwamoto is up for the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor of Hawaii on Saturday. Christine Hallquist leads in fundraising among Democrats seeking the nomination for governor of Vermont on Tuesday. And Alexandra Chandler is among 10 Democrats running in Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District on Sept. 4.

Any of them would be the first openly transgender person to win a major party nomination for such an office in the United States.

“I do recognize the historic importance,” Hallquist said in an interview. “That said, people in Vermont are going to elect me for what I’m bringing to Vermont. Very few people are going to vote because I am transgender.”

The elections come at a time of uncertainty for transgender rights, which expanded under the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama. They have been reversed under Republican President Donald Trump’s administration, a victory for religious conservatives who only recognize traditional gender roles.

The Trump administration has sought to ban transgender people from serving in the military, revoked anti-discrimination protection for transgender people in employment and rescinded guidelines directing public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

This year, 43 transgender candidates have run for political office at all levels in the United States, most of them Democrats but a few running as independents, for the Green Party or for nonpartisan offices, according to Logan Casey, a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Only four have won primaries so far, all at the statehouse level, and have a general election ahead. Sixteen have lost primary or general elections and 23 have yet to face voters, Casey’s research shows.

Transgender candidates are hoping to build on the breakthrough year of 2017, when at least 10 won office across the country at levels ranging from state legislator to zoning board - the most ever recorded.

“It was so thrilling. It felt that we had entered this moment as a community in entering political space,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, director of external relations of the political arm of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Danica Roem won her race for the Virginia House of Delegates last year, and Minneapolis elected two transgender people to the city council, Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham.

This year transgender activists are pinning their hopes on Hallquist, who has raised $132,000, more than double the $50,000 raised by her nearest Democratic competitor, James Ehlers. Both are part of a five-person field seeking to challenge incumbent Governor Phil Scott, the likely Republican nominee, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Hallquist enjoys name recognition as the former David Hallquist, the onetime chief executive of the Vermont Electric Cooperative who publicly transitioned to a female identity while leading the power utility in 2015.

Most transgender candidates are running in liberal locations. But in the conservative state of Montana, Amelia Marquez won the Democratic nomination for a state House of Representatives district in the Billings area and will run against Republican Rodney Garcia on Nov. 6.

The National Center for Transgender Equality is supporting some candidates through its Action Fund, which has endorsed Hallquist and Iwamoto and will be issuing more endorsements.

“We, of course, want them to win. But win or lose, it shows the community that we’re here,” Freedman-Gurspan said. “We’re going to be speaking out.”

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis