Trans activist Shéár Avory to run for Assembly seat in Hudson Valley

If elected, Avory would be the first out trans elected official in New York state.

Assembly candidate Shéár Avory (center)

Assembly candidate Shéár Avory (center) Michael George

On the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the start of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, Shéár Avory is looking to make some history of their own. The Black and Indigenous nonbinary trans femme activist formally announced their run for the Assembly. If they win, they would be – to the best of advocates’ knowledge – the first out trans person elected to any level of government in New York, joining a small group of trans lawmakers around the country. 

Avory, who most recently worked as the lead statewide community organizer for the New Pride Agenda, is challenging incumbent Assembly Member Jonathan Jacobson in the Democratic primary for the 104th Assembly District, a Hudson Valley seat that includes the cities of Poughkeepsie and Newburgh. “I think it’s past time for New York, the home of Stonewall, to also have adequate representation for the trans community,” Avory told City & State. “So I’m running because of my lived experiences, and because of the community I have found here in my neighborhood.” 

Typically, trans candidates may be more associated with runs in liberal New York City. Longtime LGBTQ+ activist and Queens District Leader Melissa Sklarz ran against Assembly Member Brian Barnwell in 2018, while New Pride Agenda Executive Director Elisa Crespo vied for a City Council seat in 2021. State Committee Member Emilia Decaudin is currently weighing a run against embattled Assembly Member Juan Ardila in Queens.

But Avory’s campaign is further to the north, at the very end of the Metro North’s Hudson River line. They join the likes of Kristen Browde, who unsuccessfully ran for Assembly in Westchester in 2020, and Jillian Hanlon, who last year ran to be Dutchess County sheriff. “There’s no escaping the trans factor in this election, especially in an election outside of New York City,” Avory said. “I’m not passable, and I don’t aim to be… And there’s just no escaping the identities that I hold.” They said they’re “addressing the trans factor… out front and proudly,” which in part went into the decision to announce on the anniversary of Stonewall. “Being trans and running in a neighborhood like this I think is that much more impactful,” Avory said. “It is our time to be represented, to be heard and to win.”

Avory, 24, moved to Poughkeepsie in November of last year, after experiencing what they called anti-trans violence outside their home in New York City. They said that a gun was pulled on them while they were walking to the subway, which led them to lock themself in their home for months out of fear. “I decided I needed to move to start anew, to be healthy again,” Avory said. They were already familiar with the Hudson Valley, which they frequently visited, and felt unsafe remaining within the five boroughs, so they decided to move out to Poughkeepsie. “I’m a nature girl, I Ioved being able to get of the city and take the train,” Avory said. 

Although many in the LGBTQ+ community make their way from rural, suburban and exurban areas to major urban hubs like New York City to find security, Avory found a robust community in Poughkeepsie with people like them, including others who had sought refuge from the big city. “There’s gay flags everywhere, there’s community here,” they said. “I live on Union Street, all my neighbors call it Gay Street.”

After settling in Poughkeepsie, Avory looked to get involved in the local political and civic scene of their new home. They have been involved in activism since they were 13 years old and bouncing around foster homes in California. They were a 2018 Biden Fellow for LGBTQ Equality at the Biden Foundation and previously worked as a policy associate for both the American Civil Liberties Union and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. They said they have worked on successful advocacy campaigns to repeal the so-called “walking while trans” law in both California and New York and to raise the age of eligibility for homeless youth in New York to receive services. Most recently, they said, they worked to get the Trans Safe Haven Act passed. 

Connecting with local government in their new home was natural for Avory. But they said they hit dead ends when trying to reach out to local political leaders like Jacobson. “I wanted to feel like I was part of something and reached out to my Assembly member – nothing,” Avory said. “I showed up to his office, the doors were locked, the lights were off… So while I found community and safety, I found a lack of leadership.”

Jacobson’s office disputed Avory’s claims that the office was not open to constituents. His chief of staff Julie Shiroishi, who herself unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate last year, said Avory’s characterization of the Assembly member couldn’t be further from the truth. “Anyone who knows Assembly Member Jacobson knows that he is fully present in the district and accessible to anyone who wants to meet with him,” Shiroishi told City & State in a text message. “His door is open to all, including groups who have requested multiple meetings. That is simply not a credible allegation.”

Jacobson has a long history in the district and in government. He is a former Newburgh City Council member who served as the chair of the Orange County Democratic Party for more than two decades. He previously worked as an assistant counsel to the Assembly speaker and state attorney general. Jacobson grew up in Newburgh, where he attended public school, before attending Duke University and New York Law School.

Avory’s background is very different – and they acknowledge that their status as a much more recent transplant to the district and the state will likely come up in the race. Avory grew up in California, entering into foster care at the age of 10 after their mother suffered an overdose and their father allegedly subjected them to attempts at conversion therapy. Avory said they attended 13 different public schools while growing up before aging out of the foster care system into homelessness. After turning 18, Avory moved to New York City, where they still did not have access to stable housing, even as they started working in the advocacy and political world. They said they were largely transient until the age of 21. “I’m ready to bring those lived experiences and the skills that I have gathered over the years in doing this work to be in service of my neighbors who are ready for change,” Avory said. “And I have known change all my life.”

Avory said that they are still building out their full campaign platform based on conversations with neighbors and constituents, but they plan to run a progressive grassroots campaign focused around five main pillars of a socioeconomic revitalization platform: housing and homelessness, health care and overdose prevention, criminal justice and community safety, municipal resources and public services, climate change and small business innovation. Avory noted that Dutchess County has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country. “It seems like everybody is okay passing the blame, and not getting anything done,” they said.

Avory said that Jacobson does not represent “the change happening organically at this moment,” and that he’s part of a “culture of complacency” among Democratic incumbents at a particularly turbulent time, as Republicans are making inroads in the Hudson Valley.

Poughkeepsie’s most recently-elected mayor was Republican Rob Rolison, who won a Democratic-leaning state Senate seat last year. It is part of New York’s 18th Congressional District, which Democrats just barely held onto in last year’s general election, and the neighboring 19th Congressional District is represented by Republican former Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. “I’m worried that if we have an incumbent who sleeps on the job like Jacobson does, this district too will flip,” Avory said. “I’m worried that this district too will flip red, and I just got here! I’m making this my home… I don’t want to leave, I don’t want to move again.”