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In West Mesa, a legislator reaches across the aisle, while challenging gender norms

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In West Mesa, a legislator reaches across the aisle, while challenging gender norms

Dec 04, 2023 | 6:23 pm ET
By Lisa Abelar
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In West Mesa, a legislator reaches across the aisle, while challenging gender norms
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Rep. Lorena Austin on Nov. 6, 2023 in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari | LOOKOUT Phoenix)

When a West Mesa woman opened her front door to Rep. Lorena Austin last year, she immediately told the Democratic state legislator that her son would not want to talk. Austin was canvassing the district, one that has historically been a Republican stronghold, and was hoping to connect with the woman’s son because he was someone data showed who sat “in the middle.”

Despite that initial rebuff, Austin learned after a few minutes of conversation that the woman’s son was having difficulty entering a training program. At the doorstep, Austin told her exactly how to get the resources she and her son needed. When they parted ways, the two shook hands.

This article was originally published by LOOKOUT, a nonprofit queer-focused news organization covering Arizona’s LGBTQ+ communities.

“That was one of my favorite interactions,” Austin said, noting that knocking on doors has become comfortable, especially with undecided voters. “We agree on so much more than we disagree on.”

But Austin said knocking on doors that have long been represented by conservatives—many of whom have been against the rise and continued conversation around gender identity and sexuality—comes with an added layer of context.

Austin is nonbinary, a term used interchangeably with gender nonconforming, and uses they and them pronouns. They also are Chicane, recognizing Austin’s Mexican heritage.

Austin, along with Seth Blattman, another Democrat, flipped Legislative District 9 in last year’s midterm election, with a victory margin of just a little more than 2,000 votes.

The recently redrawn West Mesa district runs from McKellips to Baseline Roads between Val Vista Road and Country Club Drive, and stretches south of Guadalupe Road to University Drive, reaching Price Road on its westernmost edge. It’s a diverse district, where devout Mormons and higher-income individuals live on sprawling, orchard properties, and where working class, ethnically diverse families make ends meet in neighborhoods where day laborers congregate and locals support the nearby carniceria—a neighborhood butcher store.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Committee has labeled the district as “highly competitive.” In some ways, it’s not unfair to say the area represents an older Arizona clashing with a newer, evolving one.

Austin, a fifth-generation Arizonan, is perhaps a living example of the old versus new dynamic within their district.

“We’re the first Democrats to serve in this area,” Austin said of them and Blattman. “People, in my opinion, want representatives who look like them and know how to stretch a dollar and know what social services look like. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but I think others were very surprised and will be very active this next cycle to challenge us.”

Austin’s introduction as the nation’s first nonbinary Chicane legislator earned them headlines across the country, from political juggernaut news outlets such as Axios and Politico to youth-focused Teen Vogue and beyond. It also meant they would be positioned to give a voice to bills proposed by Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature that took direct aim at the state’s LGBTQ+ community in the same way other conservative legislatures did across the country.

Austin will be the first to say it was never their intention to run for office and become the first of anything, especially not one of Arizona’s most prominent voices to fight against the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ bills. But, the moment presented itself during committee discussions regarding what has become known as the “pronoun bill.”

“I grew up in a community where I knew I would not be accepted. I knew I would not be supported at home or in public. I need you to hear that. This is my lived experience,” Austin said during a committee meeting while declaring their vote against a bill that would regulate the use of pronouns in school.

Austin’s statement inspired a viral response for a bill that would pass the Arizona legislature but not make it past the desk of Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. But it also illustrated how the LGBTQ+ community needed a voice and advocate in a position of power, more than ever.

Months later, it remains one of Austin’s proudest moments, knowing they spoke up for the rights of the community. It’s what a legislator should do, Austin said.

“I didn’t even know I was going to react that way. After hearing the misinformation and the hatred and misunderstanding of what this bill would do, I have never felt the type of emotion that I did and that was very apparent in my response. It was organic and I didn’t know I had that in me,” Austin said. “It’s almost like the moment will present itself to you and you’ll recognize exactly why you were there. It’s very validating.”

Oscar De Los Santos, a Democratic legislator representing District 11 in Phoenix, readily calls Austin “inspirational” for the work they are doing. The two work in the legislature together and serve alongside each other on the legislature’s LGBTQ+ caucus.

He said the “pronoun bill” moment was more than a viral clapback: It humanized a legislative issue because Austin gave a face and a voice to it.

“In this space, that has been nothing short of horrifying to people like Lorena, it takes an immense amount of courage and bravery to do that job. And at a time when you see a horrific resurgence of attacks from the far right on queer people,” De Los Santos said. “To be able to speak to the attacks on a personal level — it’s really powerful to hear on the floor.”

Austin’s pride in their work includes the representation they’ve offered for LGBTQ+ issues, but it extends beyond it. As a community-focused leader, Austin advocates for accessible housing and higher education. They pull from their lived experience working in higher education, coming of age during the Senate Bill 1070 era—which was marked with anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric—and growing up with a grandmother who was a farmworker and their “biggest fan,” they said.

In their first legislative session, six of the bills Austin sponsored were approved and enacted. A sizable number of others were not, perhaps reflecting the challenges faced by political newcomers in a party that doesn’t have control of either the House or the Senate.

For their part, Austin sponsored at least 10 bills related to housing and homelessness, 16 bills related to education and at least two related to issues of equality. Beyond the legislative floor, Austin champions parent and community involvement at school board meetings for Mesa Public Schools, they have advocated for the passage of the district’s bond measure, they’ve spent weekends on the streets participating in neighborhood beautification initiatives and they’ve been lauded by Progress Arizona for their voting record on issues related to education, climate justice, healthcare and more.

All the while, Austin’s work has been done against an unsettled backdrop. In recent weeks, the conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ Moms for Liberty convened a town hall with a number of elected conservatives and earlier this year, the city faced criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship for suspending an art exhibition at Mesa Arts Center that was critical of police brutality.

And, in mid-October, a queer ASU professor was followed, harassed and shoved to the ground by activists from the right-wing, Turning Point USA organization. Upon hearing about the altercation involving David Boyle, Austin alerted the legislature’s LGBTQ+ caucus.

“Lorena was one of the first people to know and she raised the issue quickly,” De Los Santos said.

As for the learning curve they’ve experienced while getting acquainted with political life, Austin points to parents who instilled in them an acceptance for an “iterative process,” mentors who emphasize that “feedback is love,” and a mother who taught them about resilience and resistance. In fact, Austin’s mom took them to their first protest when they were little.

“People aren’t looking for polished politicians anymore. They aren’t looking for those who went to Harvard. They aren’t looking for attorneys. They are looking for real people who understand and empathize and actually show up,” Austin said. “I’m not here to make anyone become a Democrat. I just believe in me showing up as a community member wanting what’s best for my community.”