ABERDEEN, Wash. (AP) — A crowd is pouring into a parking lot on Broadway Street in Aberdeen.
People in booths are hawking homemade goods. There’s rainbow flags. Tweens with kitchen-sink dye jobs. Old folks and strollers. Everyone is cheering for the drag performers swaggering between rows of folding canvas chairs.
Compared to big city Pride events, this is small – but so meaningful in places where being queer isn’t always easy.
City Councilwoman Tiesa Meskis is beaming in her tie-dye shirt and magenta eyeshadow. She and her wife, Julie Meskis, are setting handmade lotions and essential oils on a table. It’s been a side business for six years.
“This is our first drag show,” she told KNKX Public Radio with a smile.
Tiesa Meskis is easygoing. You wouldn’t know it, but she had a wild summer that peaked with an international news story that turned ugly. But that’s not why we’re talking.
When I first heard about Meskis, I didn’t know there was a trans woman politician in Washington state. I checked in with the LGBTQ Victory Fund, and it turns out they hadn’t heard of another one either. Meskis is Washington’s first openly transgender official that we know of.
I revealed this on her couch. Her eyes shot open.
“I thought there had to be at least one or two more,” she said. “That’s kind of amazing.”
Big, crunchy Northwest cities like Seattle and Olympia have a reputation for accessible health care and safety, which appeal to transgender people.
But Aberdeen isn’t that at all. It’s rural, coastal and conservative by comparison.
It’s small, a 10-minute drive end to end, with one-way streets on the main drag. It’s got tough roots. Logging and fishing built this place, and Aberdeen’s never quite recovered from those industries’ implosion. Some here proudly trace their lineage to pioneer roots. Others would leave – if they had the money.
Meskis isn’t from Aberdeen. She grew up in Santa Cruz, California, a confused Catholic kid who found release and community through the campy, bold queerness of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” For decades, fear kept her in the closet, but about two years ago she started inching out and experimenting with her presentation in public using subtle makeup, women’s clothes and long hair.
After a while, people began asking if she was transitioning. She’d tell them that she wasn’t quite ready to admit it, a wishy-washy sentiment that weighed on her.
By July, she just couldn’t wait.
Meskis was more than a year and a half into her term on the city council when she came out. It was a bit of a non-event. The local paper, The Daily World, didn’t cover it as a standalone story.
Walking around Aberdeen, people were familiar with Meskis but said her coming out wasn’t a big deal around town.
I ran into locals David Jackson and Albert Cummings outside Key Bank. They said people here mind their own business.
Cummings, who is Black, recalled when he moved to Aberdeen more than 25 years ago.
“When I first got here, I met a lot of people who were racial,” he said. “And I mean racial. But now, since I’ve been here for so long, we all get along good.”
Meskis’ appearance may have changed, but her politics haven’t. She was elected on bread-and-butter issues like roads, police staffing and budgeting.
Her number one issue is building a levee to take Aberdeen out of a floodplain, which she says drives out investment. If you spend enough money refurbishing a house or business, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gets involved. It’s a nightmare, she said.
She described Aberdeen as a town searching for its next new venture.
“It’s been dilapidated and not ran so well for a few years,” she said. “And we have this kind of rival of the old school trying to keep things in the past and revive that old-school logging and fishing nature. The rest of us are going, ‘No! We need to move forward!’ We’re a town a little at odds with itself at times.”
Political races with transgender candidates, even small ones, can make national news — but only when there’s conflict. The casual, live and let live attitude in Aberdeen could explain why nobody has heard about her.
And why everything was quiet until Meskis heard about a transphobic sign posted at The Sucher & Sons Star Wars shop.
“It said, ’If you’ve got a d--- you’re not a chick,” Meskis said.
She’s unsure if the sign was about her, but it hurt all the same. She marched to the store with her wife, who filmed an interaction with owner Don Sucher. It turned personal with Sucher asking, “Do you know how many people you’ve embarrassed in city hall?”
In the days after the video went viral, activists planned to protest the store, but canceled when far-right Proud Boys from Oregon announced they’d attend a counterprotest. A few dozen Sucher supporters showed up. The Daily World wrote that hundreds more dropped in to buy up “Star Wars” memorabilia.
Meskis stayed out of it, but people in Aberdeen and around the world started harassing her online. Some conservatives claimed she’d duped people into voting for her.
All of a sudden, her identity mattered. A lot. Meskis felt angry, hurt and that who she was distracted from what she wanted to do.
“My objective was never to trick anybody, you know,” she said. “When I ran for office, I ran on my ideals and those are still my ideals. Your gender identity, your sexuality, I don’t think should be a determining factor in whether or not you’re suitable to fill a position within government.”
It’s been two months and the online harassment has died down. At the drag show, queer people said Aberdeen is getting better, although it’s still behind the times on LGBTQ issues.
Ashton Lanning is a transmasculine person who was bullied mercilessly in middle and high school.
“If I were more out, or less passing, and worked regular jobs, I would be screwed. And there are a lot of genuinely good allies here. I’m not going to s--- on my community. They’re half the reason I’m still here.”
In Meskis, he feels there’s someone on his side. Considering what he’s experienced, her historic status made him wide-eyed.
Meskis is proud that queer people here see something in her. But her goal was never to make a grand point about gender or social issues. It was economics and infrastructure.
And in the end, it’s not transphobia, the video or the bullying on social media that may run her out of town, but the very issues she cares about.
The business with her wife Julie? They want a brick-and-mortar store. The floodplain makes insuring a house or business here nearly impossible. She’s not sure if she’ll have the opportunity to run again.
“If we’re still in the area, I might run again,” Meskis said. “There’s a lot about Aberdeen that I still really like. I’d feel I was abandoning people if I left too soon.”