WATERBURY, VERMONT – It’s been 50 years, but Christine Hallquist hasn’t forgotten the blows she used to get on the way to school, at school and on the way home. “The boys would hit me because I was effeminate and didn’t get involved with sports,” she tells me in a small café in this northern Vermont town. Three days earlier, she’d made history by winning the Democratic primary to become the party’s nominee for governor of the state of Vermont, in the election this November. Should she win, she would be the first transgender governor in U.S. history.
The nuns and clerics in the Catholic school she attended, growing up in upstate New York, also had no patience for the unusual boy, then named Dave, who bugged them with irritating questions. “There was a lesson where we were taught about the difference between all kinds of sins,” recalls Hallquist, “and I asked what was meant by a venial [lesser] sin. Instead of answering, the nuns hit me with a ruler just because I dared to ask questions.”
Hallquist, now 62, wasn’t out to foment a religious revolt with her questions. Perhaps it’s her sensitivity and the exceptional personal story of someone who felt, when growing up, like a woman imprisoned in a man’s body that sparked her inner urge to cross boundaries from an early age.
“When I was a girl, we never talked about gays and lesbians, not at home and definitely not in the Catholic school,” she says. “It just didn’t come up. Gay people were in the closet, nobody even knew what a transgender person was, these people had to live in the shadows.”
In eighth grade, the school’s senior cleric called Dave's parents to say that their son needed to undergo a religious rite to exorcise the demons in his head.
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“And here’s what a loving parent does,” she recalls now. “The Church said I needed an exorcism, and my parents said to them: ‘There is nothing wrong with our child.’ And they pulled my whole family out of Catholic school and sent us to public school. The good news is that in public school, I did not get beaten by the teachers.”
However, the beatings by students continued, for about a year. “By then I had learned how to act like a man,” she notes. “When I got to ninth grade, I realized I needed to act like a man, toughen up, be like a man, otherwise my schoolmates might even kill me. I took up running and skiing, and I was tough and scrappy. I became an intellectual terrorist – I used my intellect to beat people up. But I also got physical, until nobody ever bothered me again.”
Even today, she could be considered by the conservative Christian religious establishment to be the personification of the ultimate sin, defying the act of divine creation. But Hallquist emphasizes that even after all the changes she’s undergone, she sees herself as a religiously observant woman who believes wholeheartedly in the Trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. “I never stopped believing in Jesus,” she says, adding, “But I also recognized that I am very much a person of science. The beauty of humans is that we can have faith and science in the same brain. Faith is not based on any science at all, faith is somewhat irrational.”
She refuses to forgive the nuns who abused her in school. Her faith, she says, boils down to three words: “God is love.” Accordingly, “I evaluate everything based on those three words. Is this a loving act? If it’s a loving act, then you are doing the work of God. If it is hatred, murder, anything that deviates from love – it is bad. And what the nuns did to me was in no way a religious act. I remember, in eighth grade, after the teacher beat my head against the blackboard, I said, in front of all the students, ‘Forgive her, God, because she does not know who I am.’”
'Twenty years into our marriage, I discovered on the internet that there was a whole community of people out there like me.'
Now just about everyone in the United States, and many across the Western world, knows who Hallquist is. This November 6, she has a good chance to become the first trans state governor in American history. To accomplish that, she will have to defeat the incumbent Republican governor, Phil Scott. But, she says, “After transitioning from man to woman, everything looks a lot easier to me.”
Hiding from life
Hallquist grew up as one of seven children in a Catholic family in the small town of Baldwinsville, in northwestern New York State, some four-and-a-half hours from Manhattan. After high school she attended Mohawk Valley Community College, in Utica, New York, and at the age of 20 moved to Vermont. She started her professional career as an engineer at IBM, then entered a training program at the University of Massachusetts to become an electrical engineer. In 2000, after working as an engineer and a consultant for several small companies, she joined the Vermont Electric Cooperative – a consumer-owned company providing power to much of northern Vermont – and served as its CEO for 12 years.
She always knew she was different. “I remember that when I was 7, all the boys were interested in this girl, because I guess she was cute,” she relates. “But I just wanted to know what her perfume was, so I immediately realized that I was different from the rest of the boys because I was interested in the feminine things. I had another friend whose parents owned a women’s clothing store, so I was able to try things on and played dress-up, and I actually took clothes home.”
And all this time your parents didn’t notice anything?
“When I was about 11 years old, I got my mother to dress me up as Little Red Riding Hood for Halloween, and I remember how good it felt. I told her that I wanted to be a girl, and she said, ‘Never say that to anybody.’ I don’t think she understood, but she just realized that it was dangerous for me to say things like that. But you know, later on, when I was a teenager, I realized that they put people in mental institutions at that time for wanting to be a girl. My mother just wanted to protect me, as a good mother does.”
From that point on, Hallquist says she went into a mode of repression. “I just knew I wanted to be a girl. And I knew that was not even in the realm of possibility and that I had to hide from my life and act like a man, which was what I did.”
Didn’t that lead to great frustration or to an inner crisis – the need to be in denial all the time?
“No. It was just like, okay, something unusual, I can live with it. I used to say to myself that sometimes people have serious things happen to them, maybe they lose their limbs. So you’ve got everything, you should be grateful. And believe me, I was grateful. I had a very successful career, three wonderful children, a wonderful wife, living in a beautiful state. So I am very grateful.”
Hallquist has been married to Pat for 38 years. She’s careful to leave Pat out of the election campaign, and when she talks about her, something in her face softens. “Love is a beautiful thing,” she declares. “Before I met my wife, I thought the most important thing was to be the smartest person in the world. But she taught me something that is more important, and that is to simply be a loving person.”
And you love her?
“Yes, absolutely. I will take care of her until the end of time.”
Does she loves you?
“Yes. Even though she wishes Dave was back. It’s hard for her.”
How did she find out about you?
“Six years after we were married, she discovered my stash of women’s clothing and asked me about it. I explained that I always wanted to be a woman, and she thought it was something that would pass. She said, ‘I don’t care, I just don’t want to see it and I don’t want anyone else to see it.’ She didn’t marry a woman, she married a man.”
Was there no drama or crying?
“Not really. Some men like to hunt; her man just liked to dress up.”
Is it true that Pat limited you to wearing women’s clothing for only two hours a day, and only when you played the piano? Looking back, aren’t you angry at the regimen she imposed on you?
“Well, let’s call that a contractual agreement. She was afraid for me. It was truly a loving response on her part, she was afraid of what would happen to me if I went public with it. I found the piano almost like meditation; playing it was a time of reflection and peace for me. So we incorporated the dressing as a woman with that. It worked, and it was enough for me for quite a few years.”
The conspiracy of silence lasted 14 years, until in 2000, after 20 years of marriage, there was a watershed moment from which there was no going back: “Twenty years into our marriage, I discovered on the internet that there was a whole community of people out there like me. And that’s when I learned what the term ‘transgender’ means – I didn’t even know the word existed until the year 2000.”
'I am not trying to look like a woman; I am a transgender woman.'
She started to attend meetings of trans people. “I told Pat that I wanted to join these groups, and that’s when she realized things were changing. And I also told her that I couldn’t live with taking this secret to my grave. It’s one thing if you think you are the only person with this experience, then it’s okay to take it to your grave, because there’s nothing to learn from it. But when I realized there was a whole group of people out there, it becomes an injustice.”
“Because these people are living in the shadows and they deserve to live in the light. And I immediately felt an obligation to that community.”
Hallquist decided to share the secret with her children, who until that moment were unaware of it. They told her that, in retrospect, there had been a few signs that could have hinted at the truth. “For example, whenever we were at a family gathering, I was always with the women, never with the men; you would find me in the kitchen with the women, just naturally. So the men would be watching some sports game and I was going to be with the women. And, you know, the women had more fun.”
The next stage, after the conversation with the children, was family counseling. That went on for three years and was meant to prepare the family for the phase of acceptance of the upheaval and the public transition from Dave to Christine. “Our family grew closer, everyone grew closer, through this,” she says with a smile, “because that’s what unconditional love is.”
She describes the process of going public in terms of a military operation. Her senior post in the state’s electric cooperative had made her a well-known figure, a regular participant in business forums and the dominant figure in the professional life of dozens of employees. Clearly, she needed to take a cautious approach, as this was a big story in local terms.
“I gave one TV station an exclusive interview and I gave a newspaper an exclusive interview, on condition that both interviews would be available to the public at the same time in that month, September 2015,” she recalls. “In July, I started calling people in the company and preparing them, and I called people nationally, because I was in a couple of national organizations. I contacted everybody in my business community ahead of time, to let them know that the story was coming out in September, when Pride Week was held. So that’s when I publicly transitioned.”
Furthermore, as of that December 21, she told them, she wanted everyone to address her as a woman. Nearly all the responses were positive, she says now.
I spent two hours with Hallquist in that small-town café. She seemed to enjoy the popularity that she hopes will pave her way to the governorship. Nearly all the customers came over to shake her hand, congratulate her on her impressive win in the primary and wish her success. Even people unfamiliar with her personal story would have a hard time overlooking her presence. On the one hand, she wears obviously feminine clothing and is heavily made up, but she also has a very muscular body.
Hallquist takes pride in that contrast. “My daughters give me a hard time about it, like, ‘You have to lose those muscles now’ – but I don’t want to lose those muscles, I like those muscles! Just consider me a strong woman. Before the campaign, I was at the gym three days a week and I would lift 90 pounds in weights and I ran four miles every three or four days, so I was in good shape. And I wasn’t about to give that up. I am not trying to look like a woman; I am a transgender woman.”
Do you plan to undergo surgery or treatments?
“I’m at peace now. Being happy is not my goal. I will be happy when the world is at peace. And when everybody is treated with decency and love and respect, then I will be happy. I feel good. I love it when these trolls call me ugly – I’m 62, I’m allowed to be ugly, get over it. I have no intention of undergoing surgery, it’s a waste of time and energy. I do take estrogen, which is supposed to provide some level of feminization. But the only effect seems to be that it definitely makes me cry more.”
Emerging from the ‘cocoon’
Hallquist’s win is probably the most spectacular example of the historic wave of victories of diverse, non-traditional candidates that has swept the Democratic Party primaries. Some would interpret this as a response to the conservative, divisive and, in the view of many, racist presidency of Donald Trump.
Hallquist joins two more women who made history in the party. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim of Somali origin and a member of the Minnesota state legislature, won her party’s primary for U.S. Congress, and, by all assessments, is set to defeat her Republican rival, Jennifer Zielinski, in November. If that happens, as the analysts are predicting, Omar will be one of the first two Muslim women in the U.S. House of Representatives. The other will be Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, who earlier won the Democratic primary in a Michigan district where she will run unopposed.
Tlaib, the eldest of 14 children, is the daughter of a Palestinian father from Beit Hanina, an East Jerusalem neighborhood, and of a mother who grew up in Beit Ur al-Fauqa, near Ramallah. And there’s also Jahana Hayes, who won the primary in her district in Connecticut and, if elected, will be the first black woman to represent that state in the House.
To them we can add Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who perhaps provided the biggest surprise of all in the current round of primaries. An unknown 28-year-old field activist of Puerto Rican descent, Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, stunned the country by defeating Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, for the nomination in New York’s 14th Congressional district on June 26.
All told, no fewer than 90 candidates of Muslim origin and another 200 transgender people are running for public office across the United States, at both the local and the national levels.
But Hallquist, as she made clear repeatedly in our conversation, has no intention of becoming the face of a social movement and is unwilling to be tagged in terms of her gender identity. “I am here to be the voice of Vermont,” she asserts, not of the LGBT community and not the trans community. In reply to a question about how, if at all, she will work to improve the situation of the transgender community, which has felt under constant threat since Trump’s victory two years ago, she says simply, “The best thing I can do for the transgender community is being successful, as governor.”
Are you willing to accept the definition of “liberal” or “Democratic,” or are they also irrelevant in your view?
“That’s why I’m glad I had nothing to do with politics, because what you’re talking about is a construct of politics. The attempt to divide us by labeling us Republicans and Democrats is a strategy that started with Ronald Reagan, and it was really a systematic attack on the working class. I will never accept a label personally. Providing people with a living wage and with health care isn’t a matter of Democratic or Republican, it’s something a civilized society does.”
Don’t you think that the fact you’re a trans person played a part in your primary victory?
'I am here to be the voice of Vermont,' she asserts, not of the LGBT community and not the trans community.
“I don’t think my win has anything to do with my being transgender. The people of Vermont chose me because of the plight of the two-thirds of them who live in rural farming areas. That’s a phenomenon that goes beyond Vermont. What’s happening in Vermont is happening across rural America. We’re seeing increasing rates of poverty, we’re seeing people fleeing to the cities and we’re seeing an aging demographic, meaning we’re losing our young people.”
You need to be familiar with Vermont politics to understand why Hallquist is so determined not to be tagged along party lines. In many ways, this is a state of opposites. On the one hand, Vermont is one the most liberal states in America – in 2016, it gave Hillary Clinton one of her largest victories over Trump. But it’s also a state that supports the almost-unrestricted right to bear arms, and its residents buy weapons the way people elsewhere buy shoes.
Hallquist, who says she was never attracted to “masculine” pastimes such as ball games or hunting, nonetheless admits that she herself possesses no fewer than six licensed firearms. “Well,” she explains, “my son wanted to hunt, and people gave me guns, and somehow I ended up with a few more than I needed.” In Vermont, she adds, “We never thought of those guns as killing machines. If you look at our politics, this gun issue is really recent. We’re seeing these mass shootings, and that’s certainly new to our culture.”
So you have no problem with the state’s gun laws?
“I support common-sense gun laws. We’ve already passed two gun laws in the legislature this year, which make it possible to take weapons away from people who are at risk to themselves or others. That’s a mechanism that will take time to complete and to set clear criteria for, but if elected I will work to determine the procedures and parameters. The second thing is background checks for everyone who wants to purchase a weapon, and I would also support any additional legislation that would ban the sale or possession of assault weapons, because we don’t need assault weapons to hunt. In fact, automatic weapons are very poor for hunting, because they’re not accurate.”
It was only earlier this year that Hallquist says she decided to enter politics. “After Trump’s election, I was in a bit of denial, because I thought Vermont is a wonderful state, it’s a loving state, I believed we were in a cocoon in Vermont and were protected from those negative headwinds coming out of Washington. But at the end of 2017, we started to see white supremacist activity in Vermont. We haven’t seen that since 1983, and in 1983 it totally failed.”
The turning point was an event known as the “March for the Future” that was held in Vermont in January. “I heard these four young women do slam poetry – they were high-school seniors, they called themselves ‘Muslim Girls Making Change,’ and they talked about what it was like to be Muslim in Vermont. They talked about the bias they face every day here in Vermont in their schools and it brought me to tears, and that’s the moment I decided I would run for governor. I will do everything I can to make sure Vermont remains a loving state and a beacon to the rest of the country of what good democracy looks like.”
How dangerous do you think Trump is?
“After Trump won, I thought maybe America would revolt against this bigoted despot, but things just continued to get worse. Nobody called him on his bigotry, nobody called him on his hatred, nobody called him on his divisiveness. He is using the tactics of an autocratic leader from the Third World. I’m hoping that a couple of years from now we’ll be proudly flying the American flag, saying, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that our democracy has survived a despot!’ Because we will turn this around.”
She talks about the desire to restore America to its days of glory, but is vehemently opposed to the Trumpian slogan, “Make America great again.”
Hallquist: “I’ll never say I’m great, because that implies that I’ve made it and I don’t need to do any more. America’s always been aspirational. Our greatness comes from continuing to improve in providing justice and opportunity for all. I wouldn’t say, ‘Make Christine great again’ – when the hell was I ever great?”