LGBTQ+ activist Emma Curtis launches campaign to be first transgender legislator in Kentucky

by Belle Townsend (she/they)

Emma Curtis grew up on her family’s tobacco and cattle farm in Woodford County in central Kentucky, and she considers herself lucky to call Lexington home. A graduate of Woodford County High School and Centre College, Curtis is an independent filmmaker who tells the stories of “interesting, amazing, and fascinating” people from the central Kentucky area. 

Curtis was a visible trans activist during the 2023 legislative session, where LGBTQ+ rights brought hundreds of LGBTQ+ activists and supporters to the capitol. In fact, a video of Curtis testifying on one of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills went incredibly viral on Tik Tok, where Curtis has garnered national attention. Today, Curtis has announced to “kick pride off in a really big way.” The 26-year-old Democrat has filed a statement of spending intent for the Lexington-based 93rd District, and she has announced her intent to run for the seat left open by the recent passing of Rep. Lamin Swann, D-Lexington. Curtis intends on being the first transgender person to be in the Kentucky state legislature. 

As Curtis became more visible this past session, she had people yelling at her to go back to California. She found this amusing, as she has traveled to LA, NYC, and Boston in her career as an independent filmmaker. She has spent time in those places as a queer and trans person, and she was always fed the narrative that in order for her to thrive in her identity, she HAD to go to these places. Curtis rejects this narrative based on her experience of growing up here, “I love living here and I am very proud to be a Kentuckian.” 

Photo provided by Curtis’s campaign

Although Curtis’s trans identity is a factor in her political involvement and her campaign, she is passionate about championing a multitude of issues. 

“I am running because I believe we are at a pivotal moment in Kentucky’s history. We are dealing with a historic teacher shortage, and I am running to address that by raising their pay instead of lowering our standards. I think we are at a historic moment in terms of reproductive rights and racial justice, and I am running to do tangible good on those fronts even in a Republican majority legislature.”

On the topic of affordable housing, Curtis shares, “As of right now, we only have one representative in the state legislature who is a renter and not a homeowner, and that is not reflective of the people who live in this district. I hope to bring that voice to the table and elevate their voices.” This was a tenant that the late Rep. Lamin Swann ran on, and Curtis is,  “running to continue Lamin’s passion for affordable housing, which is an issue that impacts everyone cross Kentucky, but is especially impactful for the 93rd district.”

The late Rep. Lamin Swann, D-Lexington

As Curtis was involved this past legislative session with fighting SB 150, she shares that she was, “very fortunate to have a state representative in Lamin Swann– who was incredibly encouraging of my desire to be more politically engaged.” 

Swann put Curtis in contact with more people to get involved with, paired with advice and support. This led Curtis to being involved with the Kentucky Young Democrats, where she now serves on the Executive Committee as VP of Recruitment and Expansion.

Curtis says she is not running to replace Lamin Swann, but rather to succeed him. 

“I have a whole world of love, respect, and admiration for him as a friend and a mentor. When he passed, members of his campaign team reached out and asked me to run for this seat. It was something I had to consider very deeply and think long and hard about. If you knew Lamin or the people he surrounded himself with, they are nothing if not consistent and persistent. After talking at length with them, I agreed I felt called to serve and carry on the legacy that he leaves behind. I am picking up the torch – where he left it for me.”

As Curtis gained increased visibility in this last legislative session, she sees the importance of providing hope to queer and trans kids out there who might not feel like they have a place in Kentucky. 

Photo provided by Emma Curtis’s campaign

“I want for them to see that there is somebody like them, that they do belong here, and that this commonwealth belongs to them too.”

Curtis recognizes the narrative that has been sold to people: that trans and queer people cannot get elected into public office in Kentucky. This reminded Curtis of the 2008 presidential election, where it was insinuated that a Black man at the top of the ticket would hurt the party down ballot. But, it turned out to be the opposite. Curtis knows that LGBTQ+ voters are more energized than ever before after this legislative session. For these reasons, Curtis’s visibility is not just a potential strength for her race, but for the Democratic Party as a whole. 

Providing this visibility to other trans and queer folks in Kentucky is critical in showing that this commonwealth belongs to “us” too. Curtis recognizes that there is a “huge problem” where “the people who would make the best elected officials don’t view themselves as qualified to run for office.” 

Curtis believes this is due to systemic inequalities that have been around for all of this country’s existence.

“It is not unique to Kentucky, but it is especially prevalent here. What qualifies someone to run for office is if they are a member of their community and active in the community and they have good ideas they want to bring to the table and they have the desire, energy, and capacity to serve. That is the most important thing. I firmly believe that public service is about serving the public, not about serving yourself.”