EDITOR’S NOTE: The Newton Beacon is reaching out to all candidates for City Council for interviews and profile stories. The Newton Beacon is independent and nonpartisan, and coverage does not mean endorsement.
“There used to be a swimming pool here,” Holly Ryan said as she pointed toward the back windows of the UMass-Amherst Mt. Ida Campus cafeteria. “And we used to play hockey on the pond.
“Yeah, I’ve been here my whole life,” she laughed.
Ryan—a Ward 8 city councilor who uses that cafeteria for constituent meetings since it’s open to the public—has lived a life many kids playing hockey on that pond may not have imagined.
For starters, she’s transgender. She came out 33 years ago and has been an activist for transgender rights since before most people knew what transgender means.
Being the change
Ryan co-founded the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition 22 years ago, and that group spearheaded the state’s first transgender rights bill.
“We organized and got the sponsors of the bill at the state house in both the Senate and the House, and then we went through seven years of joint judiciary committee hearings,” Ryan said.
While Massachusetts has a long progressive history, in the 2000s many state legislators were not yet on board with transgender rights. But every victory made the next battle a little easier.
Over the years, Ryan has lived in the same neighborhood, helping out many of the same residents as she’s worked to carve out a place for herself and other transgender people.
Taking the leap
In 2019, no one else was running for the Ward 8 City Council seat, and Ryan was always helping other candidates with their races. So friends and neighbors urged her to go for the seat.
She did and she won, which wasn’t unexpected since she was unopposed, but the victory was historic. Ryan was the first transgender person elected to a city council in Massachusetts, and a step by one person in one Boston suburb became a leap for transgender people everywhere.
While today’s political climate is volatile for transgender people and their rights, Ryan said things have gotten better in the 30 years she’s worked as an activist.
“The edge is off—let’s put it that way,” Ryan reflected. “We were in some serious battles.”
Ryan said she developed the ability to bring people with differing viewpoints together when she was lobbying Beacon Hill for civil rights legislation. The first transgender rights bill was a tough sell, and Ryan said he side had to take out a few components—most notably the public accommodations component that gave transgender people the right to use the restrooms associated with their gender identity—that would have to be taken up by later legislatures.
Successive bills were a little easier. In 2016, for example, a transgender rights ballot question passed overwhelmingly.
Ryan ran for reelection unopposed in 2021. But this year, she faces her first challenger, Stephen Farrell, making Ward 8 one of the few competitive races in Newton’s municipal election.
Sidewalks, schools and trees
Despite her decades of work in LGBTQ rights, Ryan doesn’t want her local political career to be defined by her being transgender.
“[In 2019] A lot of reporters and a lot of other people wanted to make it about being trans, me running,” Ryan said. “But that’s not what it was about. I was running on the issues—roads, sidewalks, potholes, open space, tree canopy—you know?”
Ryan calls herself a “big coalition builder” and said her track record of getting compromises passed is needed in Newton, especially on the City Council.
One major area Ryan says needs more compromise is around the proposed Village Center Overlay District. Ryan, who serves on the Zoning and Planning Committee, said most people she’s spoken with want more housing options in Newton but don’t want any more housing zoned for than the MBTA Communities Act requires.
The most recent version of the VCOD does scale down the total units zoned for, closer to the state requirement.
The state has since deemed that mixed-use developments with first-floor commercial space can count toward the total units re-zoned for, which Ryan said she was lobbying for and was achieved with help from Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll.
“She’s a mayor. She understood,” Ryan said. “So got with Brookline and a couple other cities and towns and said, ‘You want us to build this. We’re in the middle of trying to make our village centers better. We have mixed-use. We have to retail on the ground floor. We want people to live in the village centers.”
Ryan has also raised two kids in Newton—her daughter, Kristin, is an activist in Detroit working on her master’s degree, and her son, James Dean, is an operations supervisor at Hanscom Air Force Base—both of whom attended Newton schools. and Ryan said she wants to help the city’s schools improve any way she can.
And she’s solidly on the side of the Newton Teachers Association.
“My father was a union worker. I’ve always been with the unions,” Ryan said. “And right now, with what’s going on with the contracts, I totally support the teachers. I totally support the schools, all aspects of school including school athletics, outside athletics so they have the best facilities.”
Of particular focus for Ryan is getting the schools enough money to hire kindergarten teacher aides.
“I don’t know how the hell you run a kindergarten with just a teacher,” Ryan said. “A lot of those kids can’t even go to the bathroom by themselves. It’s just ridiculous and it’s not safe.”
Ryan said helping constituents get things done is what she likes most about local government. She noted a man who has complained about a sidewalk in disrepair in front of a disheveled property that was in litigation. While Ryan couldn’t do anything about the property itself, she stood with the man and watched people have to navigate strollers and walkers around that portion of sidewalk, and she helped get it fixed.
“This morning, he sent me pictures, and it’s all done,” Ryan said, smiling. “That’s what it’s about, especially if you’re a ward councilor.”
Newton’s election will be Nov. 7, with early voting starting on Oct. 28.