Colorado’s only transgender lawmaker called out what she described as dangerous rhetoric by Republican House members Friday, one day after GOP lawmakers sought to inject anti-trans language into a resolution about women’s rights.
“Whether you like it or not, I am your colleague,” Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat and the General Assembly’s first openly transgender member, said from the House floor Friday. “Whether you believe me or people like me should exist, I do exist. And I am your equal in this chamber. I accomplished the same thing you did to be here.”
Mornings in the House and Senate often begin with votes on resolutions, which are typically symbolic, noncontroversial signs of support for veterans or Martin Luther King Jr. But Thursday’s resolution to commemorate efforts to pass a federal Equal Rights Amendment sparked pushback from some Republican lawmakers who accused Democrats of not caring about “unborn women,” while invoking culture war issues like bathrooms and women’s athletics.
The comments and attempts by Republicans to insert anti-trans and anti-abortion language into the resolution drew an increasingly angry reaction from House Democrats. Many walked out of the chamber or turned their chairs around. But the more forceful response came Friday, when Titone stood in front of the House and looked across the aisle at Republican lawmakers.
Titone, who sits 10 feet in front of the podium from which the Republican representatives made their comments Thursday, said that none of them would make eye contact with her as they assailed infringements on women’s bathrooms and athletics teams. Republican Reps. Ken DeGraaf and Scott Bottoms cast the Equal Rights Amendment as a long-failed effort and the resolution’s language as only selectively supportive of women. As Republican Rep. Richard Holtorf spoke about sex chromosomes and women’s sports, Titone tried to make him look at her by putting two fingers to her eyes.
The comments, which Titone called “insulting and demeaning,” come amid a broader backdrop of anti-trans rhetoric across the United States and what the Human Rights Campaign has called an “epidemic of violence” against transgender people. More than 150 bills targeting transgender people have been introduced in American statehouses this year, according to the organization.
House Democrats earlier this year defeated a bill that would regulate trans students’ participation in athletics, and the Republican nominee for governor last year spread unsubstantiated stories about schools accommodating students who identify as animals, which LGBT groups have decried as thinly veiled attacks on trans people.
Titone told the Post about attacks faced by Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker in Montana, and the impact of anti-trans rhetoric nationally.
“Today I’m standing up for myself and the people like me, for kids who are like me, for your constituents who are like me who you refuse to acknowledge,” she told the House on Friday. “I would like to see ways we can disagree without being disrespectful. I would like to see us able to disagree with each other and look each other in the eyes when we say these things.”
Three Republicans — Reps. Ron Weinberg, Stephanie Luck and Rod Bockenfeld — all stood while Titone spoke, traditionally a sign of respect in the chamber. Weinberg grew emotional and wiped his eyes. He told the Denver Post that he was “disgusted” by his colleagues’ comments and that he called Titone on Thursday night to apologize.
“I see her as a person,” he said. “I don’t care. It’s not on us to judge anybody.”
But Titone, in comments to the Post after her speech, said it wasn’t enough to be quietly supportive. The implications of anti-trans rhetoric are real, she said, and they inspire violence and bullying.
She said she and other Democrats were “dumbstruck” by what happened Thursday. Some of her colleagues came to Titone’s seat and stood behind her as the Republicans spoke. After Holtorf began talking about sex chromosomes, House Speaker Julie McCluskie reprimanded him. When he did so again later, he was warned to “tread very lightly.”
Eventually, much of the Democratic caucus left the floor entirely, though Titone never did. She likened her decision to stay to staring down a bully.
After Titone spoke Friday, she spoke with Holtorf on the floor. Titone said that Holtorf didn’t apologize but did offer to sit down with her and talk.
Holtorf and the top Republican in the House, Rep. Mike Lynch, met with McCluskie after the House finished its work Friday morning. Holtorf said afterward the meeting was about “decorum” in the chamber. He told the Post that his comments Thursday weren’t personal and that they reflected “policy differences.” He declined to comment when asked if he regretted his statements but said he didn’t mean to attack Titone.
“I have to represent my constituents, including women. If we want equal protection for women, we have to respect women, including biological women. They have rights, too,” he said.
Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who walked off the floor in disgust Thursday, said the anti-trans comments were dangerous. Democratic leaders in the chamber, he said, were discussing how to combat what he described as hateful remarks made by their Republican counterparts. For a long time, he said, Democrats would allow Republicans to say what they wanted, knowing that Democrats hold the majority and could still pass their bills. But there’s interest now in pushing back more forcefully.
Though Titone was surprised that Thursday’s proceedings spiraled in the manner that they did, she said she wasn’t at all shocked that some Republicans harbor anti-trans views. She didn’t want lawmakers who made anti-trans comments to be punished but said their words had impact and shouldn’t go unchallenged.
“I’m in the majority. We’ll win. But there’s a lot of people who lose every day because of things said like this,” Titone said. “And I’m not going to just sit back and let this slide if I have a voice and a podium to say the things that need to be said about it.”
Stay up-to-date with Colorado Politics by signing up for our weekly newsletter, The Spot.