Colorado’s First Transgender Legislator Made History, Now She’s Proving Her Worth

The 2018 elections made a huge impact on national politics. While the fallout from that impact has been… dramatic, Colorado voters made history. In addition to a blue wave that elected Colorado’s first openly gay governor, we have the first House session with a majority of women while a record number of Latinxs joined the state legislature. While those results weren’t particularly surprising given national trends last year, one district took everyone by surprise. House District 27 in Jefferson County elected a Democrat despite its Republican domination since it was redrawn. The district’s voters also elected Colorado’s first transgender legislator, Brianna Titone.

With her first year in the House wrapping up, Representative Titone is still very much the candidate who knocked on close to 9,000 doors in her district. Hers was one of the few open doors in the Capitol on the day of our interview, which reflected her promise of transparency. Also, she still doesn’t speak like a politician. Instead of a plastic smile and carefully crafted answers, Titone was real and candid, two traits that no doubt contributed to her election.

I would tell people at the door things that they would never hear from a politician,” said Titone. Rather than make empty promises, she told her constituents, “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or unaffiliated, there are going to be votes you’re not going to agree with. I want to give you the honesty, the availability and the accountability you deserve.”

Titone sits in her office

“I knocked on doors where people said they had never seen anyone, not even a volunteer. I was the only person to ever knock on their door since they’d lived there, and some of them had lived there for 20 years,” said Titone. “That’s a big impression to make on someone.”

Luckily for Titone, impressions matter. House District 27 consistently has a better voter turnout than most of the country let alone the rest of the state. After 79% of the district’s eligible population voted in 2018, Titone won by a slim margin – a margin that she fought incredibly hard for.

I had to convince people to vote for me,” said Titone. People who didn’t usually vote weren’t going to vote anyway, so it was an uphill battle. “My district is 41% unaffiliated, 28% Republican and 24% Democrat, so it’s not a walk in a park for me to win a race. People didn’t think I had a chance at all at winning that race.”

So how did she convince her voters? As mentioned before, Titone isn’t your typical politician. She doesn’t use a lot of buzzwords that she thinks people want to hear and she doesn’t steer the conversation to topics she wants to talk about. She’s also not afraid to talk about her identity if it comes up, but more on that later. Instead, she focuses on her background and her strengths.

Brianna Titone's office corner

“I knew what people were saying about politicians and how they distrusted them,” said Titone. “They didn’t have faith in what they were going to do and they felt like they were unqualified at times.”

So she decided to show people that she had a history of doing things in the community. In fact, it’s a history that reaches back to high school when she was a volunteer firefighter at the age of 16. She served as a junior firefighter for two years before she joined the department for another five years.

“I found the value of doing work for the community and showing up to help people. It was very rewarding, so I knew that volunteerism was in my blood,” said Titone.

After getting her two Bachelor’s degrees in geology and physics from the State University of New York at New Paltz, she went to Stony Brook University in New York for her first Master’s degree in geochemistry. However, the native New Yorker witnessed 9/11 during her time as an undergraduate.

“I watched that happen and as someone who’s a volunteer firefighter at the time, it was kind of personal to me that all the first responders that went in sacrificed their lives to help people,” said Titone. “I told myself that I never want to see that happen again, I want to make sure that we can prevent that.”

The military wasn’t an option for Titone because, while at the time she considered herself to be a crossdresser, she knew she couldn’t be herself. Instead, she pursued a path to the FBI. During that pursuit, she attained her master’s, moved to Colorado and started working in the mining industry.

Titone in her office

The process to become an FBI agent is very long, but it all ended on her 37th birthday. As it turns out, if you’re not in the academy by the time you’re 37, you won’t be able to join. Her 37th birthday proved to be a pivotal one for Titone in myriad ways.

“The job that I was looking forward to doing for 15 years I couldn’t do anymore,” said Titone. “It was time to go do something else and I had to go figure out what my next move was.”

Titone’s next move was to leave the mining industry and enter software development. She got her second Master’s degree in information communications technology from the University of Denver. She finished her degree last August, which means she was not only a graduate student, she was also running a campaign. That wouldn’t be the only major shift, though.

As mentioned earlier, during Titone’s younger years, she considered herself to be a crossdresser. That was a result of the lack of positive role models to whom she could look toward and identify with. For most of the 1980s and ’90s, the only time we saw trans people, they were being jeered and harassed on daytime talk shows like Phil Donahue. It took a long time and many brave actors like Candis Cayne to see a shift in representation in the media.

“I started to know a lot more about trans people through the years, but it was still very difficult for me because if I came out as being trans I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I did,” said Titone. “When I finally started to figure out my next chapter, I decided to look into myself. I started to become more aware of what was going on in the community that I was entering into. I realized that the LGBT community needed more people fighting for them. As someone who wanted to be an FBI special agent, I wasn’t going to sit around and watch my community get pushed around. I was going to fight back.

Titone's bookshelf

That was the beginning of Titone’s activism, which was shaped at the Capitol through her work with One Colorado. She began helping shape bills that affected the LGBTQ community. Those efforts culminated with the first-ever proclamation against conversion therapy in Colorado. That proclamation came when Titone was serving as the secretary and treasurer of the Jefferson County Democrats LGBTQ+ caucus.

Following her success with the proclamation, people starting encouraging Titone to run for office. She was initially wary of running because of her trans status. However, something happened in Virginia that changed her mind.

“It wasn’t until Danica Roem won in 2017 that I really decided that since somebody else did this, it’s really possible,” said Titone. “I’ll give it a shot.”

Titone’s also continued volunteering outside of her activism. She’s the president of her Homeowner’s Association, and she does work with Necrosearch International helping law enforcement. Her tireless and often thankless community involvement helped her win her election, but it also shaped how she approaches representing her district.

Her two major pieces of legislation during the 2019 session were House bills 1228 and 1106 that focused on increasing affordable housing as well as the access to it. She also co-sponsored a Senate bill with Rachel Zeninger that increases federal funding for community schools. For the 2020 session, Titone is working on multiple bills that will address access to mental and reproductive health.

The first bill will improve access to information for suicide prevention and general mental health. Titone recognizes that a lack of resources isn’t the problem, it’s that people often don’t know that there are many groups out there that can help. The second bill promotes mental health first aid. She has already put some work into this by coordinating a class in her district with the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.

“It’s essential for the community to get the knowledge to help each other,” said Titone. “That’s what’s really going to help out with our suicide rates – bringing people together as part of the solution. There are plenty of experts, but they may not get to somebody soon enough. When the people in the community are there with the proper information to help them, then they can be there before there’s a crisis.”

The third major bill she’ll be working on was brought to her by students in her district who didn’t have feminine hygiene dispensers in their bathrooms. After those students raised money for their own machines, they approached Titone to help them get dispensers for students across Colorado. Titone agreed, but she recognized that these students are future leaders so she told them she’d help get a bill if they participated in the process.

“We’re going to do the stakeholder meetings at the schools, we’re going to have them testify in front of the committee, and I’m going to bring them down here for the whole process so they can really see how the bill becomes a law. When they leave school, they’ll be the ones who know it better than anyone,” said Titone.

Brianna Titone in the Capitol

In addition to preparing for 2020, Titone has remained active in the LGBTQ community. Whether she’s speaking at Gay-Straight Alliances throughout Colorado, participating in Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20 or serving on the board of TYES (Trans Youth Education & Support),  she continues to show up. It’s important that she continues to show up because she’s aware of the pressures she has in her role.

“As one of only four elected representatives that are trans, I feel a pretty good amount of pressure because we’re setting the bar for everyone else who comes after us. We have to prove that we’re capable of doing this job and doing it right,” said Titone. “I have to be on point all the time, making sure I’m making the right decisions and saying the right things.”

“It’s an extra pressure that I have to deal with all the time, but the way I look at it is, I’m only going to be in this role for a certain number of years. I want to make the most good with this position as I can while I’m here because every single day makes a difference in someone’s life. I’m making a difference to the people of Colorado and the people in my district, but also the tens of thousands and millions of people around the country and the world who need me to be here for them.”

She’s also engaged to Elysia who’s been supportive of Titone as she takes on her increasingly busy schedule, and she’s helping Titone figure out how to balance her personal and professional lives. Her engagement and preparation for next year prove that Titone is always looking toward the future. And it’s a future she’s ready to shape.

“I didn’t do a lot of the substantial bills that a lot of people did last year, but I’m hoping to this year. I’m trying to stand out as someone who is really doing the good work that people need me to get done,” said Titone. “I’m listening to my constituents, I’m doing work that my constituents are asking me to do. The ideas are coming from them …That’s what I want people in my district to realize when they vote for me. It’s important for me to set that standard. I’m not just great because I’m a trans person, I’m great because I really put the work in. I want my legacy to be the good work that I do.

Editors Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Titone was going to reintroduce a bill to repeal the tax on feminine hygiene products. She will not be doing so in 2020 because the cost to the state is too much with the restrictions of TABOR.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas

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