Tia Hopkins’ campaign for the Democratic Central Committee has been called historic and inspiring, but the nonbinary candidate’s bid in District 40 has generated deep discussions about gender roles and equity in electoral politics.
Hopkins, 33, a lifelong resident of West Baltimore, is attempting to make history as the first openly nonbinary candidate elected to the committee, which is the governing body of the Maryland Democratic Party. The term nonbinary refers to people who don’t identify with a particular gender.
“I don’t think I ever fit what people thought of as a woman. People would say, ‘You’re a tomboy.’ And at some point I said, ‘I don’t really fit in a box at all. I have always felt that way.’ I just never put it in writing or words other than a year and a half ago,” said Hopkins, who changed their gender to nonbinary on their license last year. “That was the first step. I said, ‘It’s on my license, it’s real.‘”
Hopkins’ strong showing in the July 19 primary has put a spotlight on the party’s efforts to be more inclusive from a gender standpoint when it comes to selecting members of the central committee. The DCC voted in 2018 to allow for nonbinary candidates to identify as such, and it subsequently established a third gender category to help guide committee elections. The party had required an equal number of male and female DCC members, but now says the candidacy of nonbinary candidates must be factored in.
Under the rules, Hopkins so far would make the cut for the eight finishers who will join the committee from District 40 — but it could take up to three weeks to finalize the results, according to Karenthia Barber, chair of the Baltimore City Democratic Party, citing a time frame elections officials provided.
According to state Democratic party officials, in a race where eight candidates received the most votes, no more than four members of any gender could be selected as a result of the election. The remaining spots had to be composed of an equal number of the remaining gender. The nonbinary category changes the equation somewhat. Because Hopkins finished among the top eight contenders under the party’s rules, Hopkins would get a seat on the committee. Had Hopkins finished outside the top eight, but candidates of one gender (say, women) had won more than four spots, Hopkins would have advanced to the committee in place of the fifth-highest vote recipient in the female category.
Hopkins’ joining the DCC would be “historic,” according to Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the general co-editor of Transgender Studies Quarterly.
“We have seen quite a shift of the increasing representation of LGBTQ people in politics,” Gill-Peterson said. “There are more high-profile people serving, but there is something important about that local perspective.”
LGBTQ people make up 0.02% of elected officials in the nation, according to Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ candidates. Meloy said that in the last five years, the country has gone from no trans elected officials at all levels to double digits in 2022. There are 11 nonbinary elected officials in the United States, according to the Victory Fund’s database.
“There is a long, long way to go,” said Meloy, who is chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “In order to achieve baseline parity, we need to add more than 35,000 [LGBTQ] elected officials.”
“Overall, this year we made some history,” said Meloy. “It looks like we will have other opportunities for trans candidates across the country. We want to make those numbers grow.”
There have been discussions between the DNC and the LGBT caucus about how the addition of trans and nonbinary candidates will affect gender parity, according to Meloy.
”There is definitely confusion,” he said. “Some are making changes. Some are not. We have had some issues in Pennsylvania. We are actively working to find a solution. Eventually we want to make recommendations to make sure there is a uniform solution across the country.”
He added, “No matter what happens, education is going to be needed to make sure the party understands this. Because change doesn’t come quickly.”
Mia Mason, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party’s LGBTQ diversity leadership council, praised the addition of a third gender category in central committee contests.
“We’re the only party that has pretty much listened to our community,” said Mason, of Frederick. The change, he added, prevents candidates from being “misgendered and forced into the wrong category.”
“With this opportunity, we no longer have to divide them into a class or citizen that they are not or how they identify,” Mason said.
Mason did not have any criticism of the current process. “This is just starting out,” Mason said. “We’ll see where this progresses to for the next election.”
This year’s election is the first in which candidates for the DCC have had the option of identifying with one of three gender categories: male, female or nonbinary.
The expansion of choices has caused unexpected confusion, according to candidates and election officials.
Barber said she began to receive inquiries from voters about the addition of the nonbinary category when the public started receiving sample ballots a month ago. In all, Barber said she has fielded a half-dozen questions related to the additional gender category.
Barber said she predicted that the gender-majority stipulations would be confusing to some voters.
“That was the concern raised when this was implemented,” Barber said. “People have asked. But they were asking out of curiosity, not because there was a nonbinary candidate in their district.”
Even Hopkins is somewhat confused by the inner workings of each voter turnout scenario.
“It’s complicated,” said Hopkins, who planned to call the state party for more clarity. “But I don’t really hurt either side. I don’t count toward the women or the men.”
“We worked through several scenarios,” said Eva Lewis, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. “We talked to our lawyers and the DNC. We had multiple meetings with central committees. We had to talk to the state board of elections. They had to get on board. It was a long process, but necessary to make sure we got it done right.”
In 2018, the DCC passed a resolution requiring gender balance on the committee in all 24 jurisdictions, according to Lewis. Most of the questions the office has fielded have solely dealt with achieving gender balance, Lewis said. “We got questions on the ballot that did confuse people. But we’ll clarify for the next election.”
Hopkins sees the addition of the nonbinary category as progress.
“I think the party is definitely evolving. I think they are trying as hard as they can,” Hopkins said. ”This was to give us an opening to get us a seat at the table.”
Hopkins continued: “I think it was unfair before that — forcing me to be in a box that I didn’t want to be in. The party is now allowing us to express who we are.”
Londyn Smith De-Richelieu, director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, also sees the changes as progress.
“It’s affirming. It’s very inclusive … This is the party trying to amplify and bring in voices,” she said.
Instead of questioning Hopkins’ motives for registering as a nonbinary candidate, which Smith De-Richelieu said reeks of transphobia, the public should acknowledge the realities of the situation and the “bravery” Hopkins needed to make this leap.
“Maybe [the addition of the nonbinary option] caused them to run when they saw how open and inclusive the Democratic Party was. They were able to live authentically and audaciously — their true self,” Smith De-Richelieu said.
Hopkins previously ran as a Democrat for the Maryland House of Delegates to represent District 40, losing in the party primary in June 2018. Hopkins also served three terms as the Mid-Atlantic region director for Young Democrats of America and a stint as a national committeewoman.
“I have always been knocking on the doors for other candidates,” they said. “Now I can be the candidate.”
Ultimately, Hopkins hopes to inspire other nonbinary people to get involved in politics and run for office.
“I would tell them that we have to walk before we run. This isn’t possible without people acknowledging that we are changing as a party. It wasn’t an intent of anyone running to make history in 2022. But someone has to be it first,” Hopkins said.