On a recent Sunday morning in Sparks, Nevada, spring was in full bloom. Kids were riding bikes, people were working in their yards and a young couple was canoodling on the grass at a neighborhood park.
But Nnedi Stephens didn’t have time to savor the warm weather – they were busy pounding the pavement. That’s because Stephens is running in the Democratic primary election to be state senator for the newly redrawn District 13, which includes Reno’s downtown core and most of Sparks.
With Nevada’s primary coming up on June 14, Stephens is in full campaign mode. Working methodically through a mid-century residential neighborhood, they knocked on door after door. Stephens started every conversation by asking what each voter’s priorities are.
Some didn’t have a specific answer – instead concerned with “everything and nothing” all at once, as one voter described it. Those responses seemed to reflect the fraught political environment of a region that’s been battered by climate change, the pandemic’s lingering effects, inflation, dramatic shifts in employment, high housing costs and pervasive misinformation.
But Stephens was ready with a four-point platform.
“Ensuring that we’re thinking critically about: How exactly are we treating our teachers? Because they were overworked and underpaid before the pandemic,” they said. “Affordable housing, really making sure we’re protecting tenants. Supporting small businesses. And having open, honest conversations about mental health care.”
Stephens is nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns. According to the Victory Fund, a non-partisan political action committee, the number of nonbinary, trans, gay, bisexual and pansexual candidates has grown by 16% compared to the 2020 election cycle.
But right-wing backlash against that progress has been fierce. The Human Rights Campaign called 2021 the “worst year in recent history” for the amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in state legislatures around the country. But LGBTQ candidates like Stephens say that’s further motivating their campaigns.
Across the Mountain West, state lawmakers have introduced nearly two dozen such bills since January, according to a count by the Mountain West News Bureau. In Arizona, some legislators want to stifle conversations about gender identity in schools.
“You don't care who your neighbor’s sleeping with. You care that they're not an asshole. You care that they're not threatening to shoot your dog.”
An Idaho bill would allow school boards to prohibit on-campus clubs and require parental permission before students could join them. Taken out of context, the measure doesn’t appear to be aimed at any group in particular. But it’s favored by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Opponents of similar efforts say they place a burden on already vulnerable students.
“It’s difficult, especially when you feel like rights that we have worked so hard to achieve and have recognized are being actively stripped away,” said Shawn Reagor.
Reagor, a community organizer with the Montana Human Rights Network, says LGBTQ people in his state are seeing higher levels of harassment and discrimination.
Last year, Montana’s Republican-led legislature banned trans students from playing on teams that match their gender identity. Lawmakers also passed a bill making it harder to change the gender on birth certificates, and another ostensibly about protecting religious freedom that the LGBTQ community says only invites discrimination.
In response, Reagor’s network helped establish a support group for the families of trans and nonbinary folks. The wave of anti-LGBTQ laws also has prompted some people to get involved more directly, like Democrat Jacob Torgerson, a gay man running for Montana’s House of Representatives.
“It just made me sick,” he said. “It lit a fire in my stomach and I decided that I can't sit back and watch this happen.”
Torgerson estimates he’s knocked on almost 3,000 doors in his district in Helena. He says people mostly care about bread-and-butter-issues, like the high cost of housing and childcare – and the laws targeting LGBTQ rights just aren’t popular. He chalks that up to Montana’s live-and-let-live attitude.
“You don’t care who your neighbor’s sleeping with,” he said. “You care that they’re not an asshole. You care that they’re not threatening to shoot your dog.”
Some national polling suggests anti-trans laws aren’t even that popular among GOP voters. 46% of Republicans surveyed by the left-leaning firm Data for Progress said the government should stay out of decisions about gender-affirming care.
Meanwhile, Kimi Cole, a trans woman running to be Nevada’s next lieutenant governor, says those laws are making her community feel like the whole world’s turning against them.
“I personally view it as borderline criminal to put forth that kind of anger and hatred simply to score political points with a portion of any one base,” she said.
Cole, a Democrat, is focused on addressing climate change and drought. She also wants to connect with Nevadans who feel left out of the political status quo. Cole says that’s only possible thanks to her gender transition – and the feeling of authenticity it gave her.
“It makes it very easy for me, generally speaking, to connect with and talk with people from various different backgrounds,” she explained.
Nnedi Stephens isn’t focusing their campaign on gender identity either. But they do want to set an example for other nonbinary people – especially the young folks whose classrooms are on the front lines of the culture war.
“Being able to see themselves represented,” Stephens said, “Is something that I want to be able to give to the students, because they deserve it.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.