As told to Emily Blobaum
Aime Wichtendahl became the first openly trans elected official in Iowa when she was elected to the Hiawatha City Council in 2015. This interview, which has been formatted to be entirely in her own words, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you were to pick the place where the first trans person was elected in Iowa, I doubt anyone would say Hiawatha.
I was born in Minnesota and raised in Iowa, so I have a Midwestern tendency to not think of myself as a role model. I’m flattered by the attention, but I’m not used to it and I don’t want to let it go to my head and inflate my ego. At the end of the day, I hope me being first makes lives better for other people who didn’t have that kind of support or inspiration. If it makes it easier for people to be their authentic selves, that’s all I hope for.
I was inspired to run by my friend Liz Bennett, who was then starting her 2014 campaign for the Iowa House, and Anthony Brown, who was running for the Cedar Rapids City Council. I thought that if these younger progressives can stand up and run for office, why can’t I?
I’ve always been a political science nerd. The election of 1988 was the first election that I remember following. I was 8 years old and I was trying to figure out how the Electoral College worked and I had a general fascination with politics and American history.
I came out in an era where it was still a huge risk to come out as trans. It was just after Massachusetts had legalized same-sex marriage. I had seen the backlash that occurred during the 2004 election because of it. I remember Ellen Degeneres coming out as gay and watching her career almost implode. It was relatively scary.
When you run for office, there’s an old saying where you either run opposed, or you run scared. The first time, I was definitely running scared. It was a very competitive election. There were five candidates and I was also running as an outsider, not an incumbent. I remember driving home and watching the election returns, and having won, I’m like, “Oh, God, that technically makes me the first trans person in Iowa and probably one of the first nationally.”
It’s great being a first, but I am also always hoping that I’m not the last. I think it is an important milestone, but I know that it wasn’t necessarily the reason why the people of Hiawatha elected me. I think my general understanding of how the people of Hiawatha see it is, “You do you, but just don’t raise my taxes.” Trans elected officials generally put the focus on local issues and what we can do for the people that we represent rather than making it about ourselves.
I was at the Capitol a few years ago and I was talking with a gentleman who was running for Congress and he said, “My parents live in Hiawatha and they are Fox News-watching Republicans and they were so proud of you when you got elected.” As a whole, Iowans will give people a chance, as long as you’re honest and forthright with them about who you are and what you’re looking to do. They’ll give you that chance if they think you can make their lives better.
Visibility of LGBTQ folks in politics is definitely important. I was reading an article about how Wyoming’s lone gay Republican in the Legislature was instrumental in making sure the anti-LGBTQ laws weren’t being passed. That is important not only because he was visible and open about who he was, but that he was able to build relationships with his peers within the Legislature. When you don’t have that visibility, people don’t necessarily know how issues might impact us. At the end of the day, the stories that people carry with them are the most important thing. When you can tell those stories and build that real-life connection, it makes it harder for terrible things to become law.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in where Wichtendahl was born. She was born in Minnesota, not Iowa.