When Danica Roem became one of the first openly transgender candidates to win a seat in a state legislature last night—besting “chief homophobe” and Virginia bathroom bill author Bob Marshall—it was a particularly savory win. The same night, a 77-year-old woman named Althea Garrison quietly lost what could be her 15th election. She didn’t even come close.
The day after an election, there’s always a scramble to start handing out accolades. But some got the exact significance of Roem’s win last night wrong. She isn’t the first trans person to serve in a state legislature. That was Garrison, decades ago. A constant minor figure in Boston politics, she was serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives when she was outed as trans, against her wishes, by the press. Garrison has spent the last 20 years trying to regain the footing she lost.
Althea Garrison was born in Georgia and transitioned in Boston, after attending beauty school. She later went to Harvard and worked for a handful of state agencies, spending much of her career as a clerk in the Comptroller’s office. Described recently by the Globe as “Boston’s most perennial of perennial candidates,” Garrison, who lives in Dorchester, has run for city seats more than 14 times over a three-decade-long political career.
Garrison, often photographed in pantsuits and American flag scarves, found herself at the mercy of Massachusetts’ particular brand of socially conservative politics shortly after she won a seat in the state’s house in 1992. (She’d run as a Republican.) At the time it was something of an open secret in Boston’s political circles that Garrison was transgender. But soon after the election, then-Boston Herald reporter Eric Fehrnstrom, later a top Romney aide, took it upon himself to swiftly bring her down. “I can remember his glee when he found the birth certificate,” a colleague would tell GQ years later.
Fehrnstrom confronted Garrison to ask if she was a man. She answered, truthfully, that she wasn’t. The Herald ran a story about her leaving “questions about her past life unanswered.” Another columnist for the conservative paper, Howie Carr, wrote: “I’ve always liked Althea. She has a big heart. Not to mention big feet. And very, very big hands.”
Garrison served only one term and was never elected again.
She has since been unable to set aside her identity as a transgender person to focus on the small-time local politics she’s spent her life chasing, much as she might have wanted to. In a 1992 op-ed she wrote about the historical and personal significance of getting the chance to hold a seat on the city council as a black woman.
Through the decades Garrison’s relationship to the LGBTQ community and the press has continued to be uneasy, at best. In the ‘90s she generally sided with Democrats and had a close relationship with the city’s unions, but came out strong against against same-sex marriage and abortion. And as recently as 2005 the now-shuttered Boston Phoenix ran a profile pegged to one of her campaigns in which it described her as a “compulsive candidate,” “pitiful” and “bizarre.” It was padded with quotes like these:
“No one talked about it,” recalls Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “No one even broached the subject.” To this day, Garrison won’t discuss the topic, and the precise nature of the aforementioned “medical condition” remains a mystery.
The revelation didn’t stop Garrison from impressing her colleagues, at least on a personal level. “She’s a transvestite or transsexual black woman, with an Adam’s Apple, who’s a Republican, who you run into in the members’ ladies’ room,” recalls one former colleague. “That being said, when you get past all those obvious things, I always found her to be very pleasant and very kind.”
Last night, in an election for Boston City Council, Garrison got 7% of the vote. In the coverage of last night’s election, she and Joanne Conte, a transgender city council member who was also outed during her term, have been mentioned in frequent asides. It’s awkward to write about the things they both wanted kept out of the public eye, but both were pioneers of a more tragic kind than Roem: People who lost a lot, with little reward, and at whose expense we got an election where being “first” is a good thing instead of a nasty secret to expose.