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Jessica Katzenmeyer, a candidate for the Wisconsin State Senate, would become only the second openly trans woman in that position in the country (and first in her state) if elected. But that’s not the only reason she’s running. The self-described “proud humanist” earned her service stripes while working at UPS and serving in a leadership capacity for the local Teamsters union.

After a personal tragedy in 2019, she nearly died in the hospital. Without the Affordable Care Act, she would have had to pay more than $80,000 in medical bills. She considers herself one of the lucky ones, and now she’s running for office to help others who may not be as fortunate.

Katzenmeyer spoke with OnlySky about being a trans candidate, what the stakes are in Wisconsin, and what gives her hope. (These statements have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Being an openly trans candidate

I am openly transgender. There’s never been a transgender representative here elected to the state legislature in Wisconsin. I would truly be honored to be the first.

I was the first transgender woman to win a contested partisan primary care in Wisconsin back in August when I beat Tom Palzewicz by nearly 10 points. State Senate District 5 is a very diverse district, and the thing that I bring to it is a different perspective, because there’s been nobody that looks like me in this legislature before. This is one of the big reasons why I’m running: because I believe representation is so important. We need people with different views, different ideas, to bring to the table.

I do get some pushback for being trans, and I’ll get occasional hate messages that come in my inbox from the campaign email. It’s unfortunate that there are people out there who feel like they have to take the time to say those things…

I always like to take the high road. If they want to go low, go ahead. I’m just not gonna respond to it. I’m gonna stay high and keep on my positive message that we’re bringing out in this campaign.

I’ve said this before: My identity as being trans is really important to me, but that’s not what this campaign is about. This campaign, at the end of the day, is about the people of the 5th Senate District. What can we do for them? How can we make a positive impact on their lives? How can we achieve our dreams and our goals?

Why health care access motivated her to run

About three years ago—I’m currently 43. I was 40 at the time—I almost died from a staph infection that got into my lungs. I was in a coma for three days. I was in a hospital for a week all together. When [you wake] up from a coma and you don’t know where you are and [you] find out that you nearly died, it’s like you hit this wall. Like, “Oh my gosh, I need to do something with my life, or I need to do something to take better care of myself.”

I find out that if I did not have health insurance through the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, it would have cost me nearly $80,000 to save my life. This led me to run for [the Wisconsin General Assembly] back in 2020.

What the stakes are for Wisconsin in 2022

When Roe was overturned, we went back to having on the books a law that was passed in 1849—173 years ago, one year after Wisconsin became a state in this union. In 1849, no woman was able to vote. No [woman] was allowed to be in a legislature…

Then we got these Republicans as candidates, and some of them are probably Christian nationalists, saying that [they] support this ban, [that] basically criminalizes all abortions. Doctors who perform abortions could go to jail if they are prosecuted. [These] are the scary realities that we could be headed into [if] bright people are not either re-elected or elected into office.

One of the things about my seat is the veto power of our governor, because Republicans are in majority. They’re one seat away from having a supermajority in our State Senate. Now, if the governor is re-elected, and somebody like myself doesn’t get elected, that supermajority could happen. They can push these things through. Whatever they want to. It could be a dark reality that we could be headed towards, which is why I’m working really, really hard. (No pressure at all here, right?)

What she’s fighting for in this race

Equality and justice for everyone. We should have things like affordable health care. We should be able to live in a place that we feel safe. We should be able to live in a place where we can be prosperous with our life, and live comfortably, and achieve our dreams.

I think that it’s important to figure out how we get to that point where Christian nationalists are not preventing that from happening.

Listen to the full podcast episode:

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.