Political Notebook: Trans candidate Gonzalez seeks Los Angeles Assembly seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 7, 2023
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Assembly candidate Justine Gonzalez. Photo: Courtesy campaign website<br>
Assembly candidate Justine Gonzalez. Photo: Courtesy campaign website

Should Justine Gonzalez win her bid next year for a Los Angeles Assembly seat, she could be one of the first transgender members of the California Legislature and one of the first bisexual women to serve in Sacramento. A resident of her city's Silver Lake district, Gonzalez is running to represent the 52nd Assembly District.

The seat will be open next year as the incumbent, Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), is seeking to unseat embattled Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León, her former ally. Caught on tape making racist comments, a recording of which was leaked last year, de León has ignored demands that he resign and seen several attempts to recall him fail.

In announcing her legislative campaign last month Gonzalez noted she decided to seek the seat "because as a renter, a parent, and a transgender woman, I feel a responsibility to step up and uplift the voices of those who are left behind. And I am running because in the face of hundreds of attempts across the country to strip LGBTQ+ people and women of their individual and reproductive rights, I believe California must set an example for a more just and inclusive nation."

Gonzalez, 33, is one of two transgender candidates running in 2024 to be elected to the Statehouse. Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton is seeking the open 19th Senate District seat that includes the LGBTQ tourist and retirement mecca of the Coachella Valley.

Middleton would be the first transgender person elected to Legislature's upper chamber, while Gonzalez would be the first in the lower chamber and serve alongside the Legislature's first bisexual member, Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose), who is likely to be reelected next November.

Also seeking to join them in Sacramento are several other bisexual female candidates, including Palm Springs City Councilmember Christy Holstege. After losing her bid last year for an Assembly seat by 85 votes, Holstege is now running to unseat the winner of that race, Assemblymember Greg Wallis (R-Palm Springs), next year from his 47th Assembly District seat.

Middleton and Holstege both have been the targets of personal attacks and vitriol on social media due to their gender identity and sexual orientation, respectively, during their political careers. As Middleton noted in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter last month during a visit to San Francisco, although transphobic and homophobic attacks against candidates across the state and the U.S. have "exploded in the last two years," it has only emboldened her to stand for legislative office.

"It has convinced me, even more, that we need to see committed, strong, capable candidates are in these races," said Middleton, 70, of the current political landscape.

Talking to the B.A.R. recently by phone Gonzalez also said that the increasingly hostile environment for out LGBTQ candidates, rather than being a deterrent, had convinced her it was "fundamentally important" that she wage her first bid for elected office.

"As I see my child grow, I don't want to imagine a world where we don't step up and ensure our voices are heard," said Gonzalez, the co-parent of CJ, a 9-year-old who is questioning their own gender identity. "I don't think this is something I can wait on. What are we supposed to do? I should never run for office? What would my child think? What would future generations think?"

Gonzalez is one of a number of younger LGBTQ people, some also parents, who are seeking legislative seats in California next year. She is still adjusting to being in the public eye as a parent while trying to protect the privacy of her family and co-parent, whom she told the B.A.R. is not yet ready to be publicly identified.

"It is a big deal for the community to have more parents within the LGBTQ community running," said Gonzalez. "We know there are structural challenges for any parent running, let alone aspiring candidates in our community who have family planning obstacles to that as well."

It is set to be a record year for out candidates in the Golden State, with at least 22 LGBTQ individuals already having pulled papers to run in 2024. (According to a tally kept by the B.A.R., the 2020 election saw a record 23 LGBTQ legislative candidates.)

"We still have work to do in the Legislature," said Gonzalez. "Trans women, men, people can be legislators. We deserve a chance. We deserve this, and I can't back down from that."

Growing up

Her tenacity likely is rooted in her being born and growing up in the Bronx, New York, to parents of Puerto Rican and Afro-Latina descent. Gonzalez is the middle child of five siblings.

At age 12, her family moved to the suburbs of New York City, and three years later, she had relocated to Los Angeles, graduating from a high school in the San Fernando Valley. She struggled financially while in college, and briefly found herself unhoused at the age of 20, just as she was coming out of the closet, and resorted to couch surfing with friends as she sought housing.

"I was an undergraduate student working and trying to make ends meet. There just came a point where it became too much," recalled Gonzalez. "That small experience of it just showed me how difficult it is to go through this. We know so many on our streets in Los Angeles have been searching a long time and can't find the housing or assistance they need."

Homeless services and building more affordable housing are among her top priorities she would work on if elected to the Legislature. Legislation is needed to make it easier to build different types of housing throughout the state, argued Gonzalez, adding she would look to find incentives for such construction to be done faster.

"I feel it as a parent and as a renter. The idea of where can I go, how can I buy a home, all these things seem increasingly out of reach," said Gonzalez. "This is a moment to act. We need legislators willing to take tough votes to build more housing and pass a pro-housing agenda."

One of four Democrats to already have pulled papers for the Assembly race, Gonzalez has a wealth of local political experience. She was a legislative aide for former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and served as the external affairs coordinator and LGBTQ liaison for former mayor Eric Garcetti.

In 2017, she helped establish a transgender advisory council in Los Angeles then became the first transgender person appointed to the city's Human Relations Commission. That year Gonzalez was also part of the inaugural class of LGBTQ Victory Fellows who took part in a training for aspiring candidates for political office put on by the LGBTQ Victory Institute.

She has worked for both the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Currently, Gonzalez is employed with the California Charter School Association.

"I feel really prepared in terms of what I need to do to win and build a strong campaign," said Gonzalez, adding that she is excited about the prospect of serving alongside Middleton in the Legislature. "I am really excited for us and by the possibility of both us both making history as trans candidates."

To learn more about her campaign, visit justineforassembly.com

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the politicization of Pride merchandise.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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