Connecting state and local government leaders
Martinez-Wright, the first transgender woman to run for the Missouri House of Representatives, says the her campaign is “about showcasing the true beauty of diversity.”
Last week, Kendall Martinez-Wright watched as Missouri legislators debated a proposal to require transgender children to play on sports teams that correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth. Martinez-Wright, 27, had seen hundreds of floor debates in her decade as a lobbyist and legislative strategist, but this one hit differently.
This one was personal. Last June, Martinez-Wright came out publicly as a transgender woman. In February, she declared her candidacy for state office, an announcement that came as record numbers of state legislatures advanced proposals targeting transgender youth, touching on everything from participation in athletics to access to medical care. Last week, days after the Missouri House of Representatives approved the sports teams proposal, she re-announced her candidacy on Twitter, promising to represent everyone, including “Trans folks here in Missouri.”
Though she’s the first Black and Puerto Rican transgender woman to run for the Missouri House, Martinez-Wright hadn’t intended to make her gender identity the focus of her campaign. But the timing of her announcement ensured that it became a talking point. Here, she discusses her journey with Route Fifty.
Route Fifty: If you’re willing, would you share your transition story?
Kendall Martinez-Wright: I came out to myself roughly two years ago, which is a huge step. Last April, I came out to my immediate family, and then in June 2020, I came out publicly. I definitely had a wide range of emotions, but the main one was actually a breath of relief. For so long, I had been struggling—I had contemplated suicide, and made attempts at taking my own life before I came out—so it was definitely a relief.
But that doesn’t mean it was all gumdrops and lollipops. There were some people that still referred to me as my former gender. I don’t have major qualms about that because I identified as gender-noncomforming before I came out as trans, so I have more leeway with my pronouns—but when I’m in the Capitol or doing any kind of business, I’m more strict about it. Generally, though, I tell everyone that as long as they don’t say super horrible words to me, they’re good.
Was your family supportive when you came out?
Wright-Martinez: My family was definitely supportive. They weren’t really surprised, and I think they also took a breath of relief. But I will say that with Black trans women being subjected to more violence, there is that concern. I tell my mom all the time that when I walk out from the house, I always pray that I’m able to return, because it is uncertain. I think that opened up not only my mother’s eyes but my sister's eyes, too, knowing that even though we live in a small community, things can happen.
Had you thought about running for office before now?
Wright-Martinez: The thought of running for office would come through my head, but then it would kind of disappear off into the wind. About a year ago I was really going back and forth, and I talked to my mom about why I wanted to run and why I didn’t want to run. And she was like, ‘Kendall, you have one opportunity sometimes, and you have to take it and go, because you never know if it’s going to arise again.’ So that’s what it came down to for me.
What were your reasons for wanting to run, and what were your hesitations?
Wright-Martinez: I wanted to run because I grew up here in District 5. I went to school here, from elementary all the way through high school. We have family history and ancestry in this town, too. I’ve felt inclined to run in a rural community because a lot of folks, especially in urban and suburban areas, have this notion that rural Missouri isn’t truly diverse, but when it comes down to it, it’s actually quite diverse. It’s just a smaller version of it. That was a big thing for me.
I think there needs to be a person in office who can not only be proficient but also showcase transparency and compassion as well. There are a lot of areas in regards to human rights that people would say are taboo, so my vision is to try to showcase and embrace the beautiful diversity that makes up this state and this district.
My main reason for not wanting to run was because it’s easy to get deterred as a Democrat running for a heavily Republican seat. You feel like they’ll seat you and not really acknowledge you. Another hesitance was that I just came out as trans. It was one of those situations that needed to be looked at with a microscope, just because of my own safety, and the safety of my family as well.
What was it like to make the decision to run for office at a time when record numbers of states, including Missouri, are introducing anti-transgender legislation that essentially seeks to deny who you are?
Wright-Martinez: As a trans woman, I’m obviously very personally affected by anti-trans legislation. But as a candidate, I feel like it’s giving me the opportunity to really showcase not only who I am as an individual, but other individuals who are not able to speak out. It gives me a good platform to let people know we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and what we want is compassion and respect and for you to educate yourselves. I understand that some people feel like it’s a crazy messy topic, and I try to let people know that as long as they're not being intrusive, I will always be an open book—because you don’t know until you ask.
Last week, the House discussed HJR53, and after, I had, on both sides of the aisle, a good amount of people that really wanted to make sure that I was OK. And I think that’s really good, that they were able to recognize that maybe this isn’t a good idea.
A lot of those people knew me before I transitioned, and I think it’s still a learning process for them—but I also think it helps, in a way, to let people know who I am, and with my expertise in this area specifically, I can let them know that it’s not as difficult a topic as they think. You have to have those conversations, where both parties are completely transparent, because when those lines of communication are being met, that’s when people start to have that “A-ha!” moment.
To clarify, you were getting text messages from legislators who are supporting this legislation asking if you are OK. What does that feel like? What do you say to them?
Wright-Martinez: It was a very hard day. I think when I had to see them face to face, I had to maintain that part of who I am and have that persona of being not only an advocate but representing myself well as a private entity. But it is a huge area of conflict. They have to know that it’s going to affect me, but when they ask if I’m OK it feels like, to them, it doesn’t affect me because I’m a friend. And it just goes beyond that scope. I let them know that I was furious. But I also let them know like, “Hey, I’m still here, and you can always talk to me. Don’t hesitate just because we’re in this beautiful marble building. At the end of the day, I’m here to help you learn about this issue.” I guess I have that unique trait where even through anger and disappointment, I can still showcase compassion.
Why do you think you’re able to do that—to maintain that compassion and take on the burden of educating others?
Wright-Martinez: I could have easily been like, “This is too much, I’m done.” But then I think about the people who are like me who have died or been murdered just because of who they are. A few weeks ago, a trans woman a year younger than me who lived only 2.5 hours away from me was killed. And that amplifies why I’m doing this and, in a way, it keeps me going. Because here I am. I’m in the people’s house, fighting to ensure equal rights and equity.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen these spikes in violence within the Black trans community, and there’s no real discussion of that here. And yet here is another person that died. And here’s trans youth being targeted by legislation. I find that appalling, to say the least, and it reminds me why I’m doing this, and why I stay in that building for sometimes 19 or 20 hours at a time. It’s for those voices that are silent, and those voices that have been silenced forcefully.
Is it scary to run for office in that culture—in a state where anti-trans legislation has been so prevalent and at a time when violence against trans people is spiking?
Wright-Martinez: I’m cautious, but I would not say that I’m scared. I have a good strong support system that ensures that I stay safe, and they also have that ability to come quickly to my defense, which is very important. Being a person that’s a super-minority—a Black and Puerto Rican trans woman—can present some really huge issues, so being able to have people that will not only back you up but ensure that you are mentally, physically and emotionally sound is a really good plus. If it wasn't for them, I probably wouldn’t even be running for office.
Wright-Martinez: I want to say that I’m pretty optimistic, so I think my chances are around 45%.
When you begin campaigning and canvassing and door-knocking, do you plan to tell people immediately that you’re trans, or will you just wait and let it come up in conversation?
Wright-Martinez: I don’t really say it unless I’m asked. If you feel comfortable with me and we’re having an open discussion, that’s perfectly fine with me. Because it’s such a rural and conservative area, I definitely use ‘trans’ very discretionarily, out of concern for my own safety. The campaign, really, is not about that—it’s about showcasing the true beauty of diversity, not only in my district but in Missouri. I want to work extremely hard to ensure proficient funding for our schools, and let people know that while our schools are small, they’re mighty, and we can hold our own. Infrastructure is also a top priority. I’m just excited for this race.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
NEXT STORY: Why States Didn’t Go Broke from the Pandemic