Mac McGregor spent the first 40 years of his life as a professional athlete and small business owner. Prior to transition, he was the highest-ranking female martial artist in the world cumulatively. He owned a martial arts school and personal training studio. He empowered people all over the world by teaching them self-defense. Motivated by the sexism he faced in the world of athletics, he fought for women’s rights. Though he loved what he was doing, he wasn’t able to truly be himself. He last competed in the world championships at age 39.
Shortly after, he moved from the Bible Belt of the South up to Seattle, where he had more resources to transition. In Seattle, he used his skills as a public speaker and teacher to educate people on diversity and defend LGBTQ rights. As a member of the Seattle LGBTQ Commission, he has fought for marriage equality, trans-inclusive healthcare for city employees, and gender neutral bathrooms. He also worked with the Seattle Women’s Commission for paid family leave and sick leave. In 2011, he was appointed as a City Commissioner.
Mac worked with the City Council and Mayor’s Office till 2016, when he stepped down to prepare to run for office. He is currently running for Position 8 on the Seattle City Council and hopes to be the first transgender person on the council.
I spoke with him recently about his career and campaign. Below is a transcription of our interview, edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into politics?
What started me in all of this is working for the rights of the marginalized communities I’m a part of. During my time as an athlete, when the world perceived me as female, I worked for women’s rights, and then for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
My work as a teacher, public speaker, and negotiator also got me into politics. I’ve been trained by the Olympic committee to be a negotiator/arbitrator to handle disputes in competitions. When someone has a complaint, they have arbitrators who come in and hear from all sides to make a fair decision if somebody feels like they were treated unfairly in the competition. That skill is very helpful in negotiating in the world of politics.
I actually am not a politician, which is a good thing. I am a bridge-builder and I’m a fierce advocate for people that are marginalized. And we need more people like that stepping into these positions.
The other day, I had someone attack me online for running for office. It was a trans person and basically what they said was: “I can’t believe that you’re doing this! Why would you do this! I loathe politicians!” And my response to that was that I loathe a lot of politicians as well, but if we don’t have some people who are willing to step up and make a difference, how is any of this going to change?
If you want something to change, you gotta get up and be a part of creating the change. You have to make that change, not just think about it. I’m very action-oriented in that, and I’m an optimist; I truly believe that one person or a small group of people can make a difference. I won’t give up on that.
When did you first know that you wanted to make that change by running for office?
I’ve been considering it for the past two years. I was of course motivated by this last election and by the fact that we, more than ever, need people from marginalized communities to step up and say we’re not going into the shadows again. We’re here and we’re going to stand strong and stand together.
There are 535 members of Congress. Less than 20% are women. Less than 50 are African-American. There’s only one Muslim. There are seven out lesbians and gays. We have a long way to go. There are 535 people that are supposed to represent us, but there’s such a small part of them that actually represent the diversity in our country.
How did your family and friends react to your announcement?
I mean, a few people asked me if I’m crazy, but I’ve had a great deal of support. I would say there aren’t many cities where people would be so thrilled to have somebody who’s unique running. There are people who say they love that a trans person is running. There are straight, cisgender people who are supportive. This is really the next movement.
Why did you choose City Council?
I would actually run for the United States House or Senate in the future, but my wife and I have a son who’s a sophomore in high school and we don’t want to do that until he’s graduated. I also love the city.
I believe that even though Seattle is a very diverse city and supports a lot of civil rights, with what we’re facing federally right now, with them threatening to pull our federal funding here because we’re a sanctuary city, we’re facing some things we never thought we’d face two years ago. And we need diverse voices at the table because if all that funding is pulled, it’ll most affect marginalized communities. We need voices from those communities figuring out how we’re going to handle that.
What’s so special to you about Seattle?
It’s a city that doesn’t just tolerate diversity, but actually celebrates it. It’s a city that you can be true to yourself in, and there’s just a great deal of rich diversity that’s genuinely enjoyed here.
How have your past experiences prepared you for city council?
I faced a great deal of obstacles in my life and overcame them. I didn’t come from a silver spoon – I came from a troubled family and became a world champion. I didn’t have the family support that most of the other people on the US Karate Team or traveling on the competition circuit had, and I overcame that. One reason I overcame it was because community members helped step up for me – teachers and coaches and parents of friends – and that helped teach me to give back to the community.
I didn’t back down. I didn’t become a world champion in martial arts by not overcoming adversity. Those experiences of not giving up, that perseverance, it’s huge. When I believe in something or I’m fighting a battle for something I believe in, I’m not going to give up, I’m going to stick to it. There are going to be bumps in the road and a lot of people won’t stick it out, but I’m going to stick it out.
What are your top issues?
We have a growing critical problem with homelessness in Seattle. There’s a few reasons for that. One, housing has gotten so expensive here that we’re seeing a lot of people forced out of their homes. And the other thing is that Seattle has been a city that has many more services available than most, and being a sanctuary city as well, more people come for the services they need. So I want to work on that, help make housing more affordable and accessible.
There’s a Martin Luther King quote that sums up my campaign: “If America is to remain a first-class nation, it cannot have second-class citizens” And I am saying that about not only our nation but our cities, and right now the homeless are definitely being treated like second-class citizens.
I also want to work on the gender pay gap. Unfortunately, as progressive as Seattle is, we still have a big problem with that here. And I believe that we need to start with city employees. There was a study done two years ago that showed there’s still big disparities between men and women that work for the city – in pay, advancements, and opportunities – and we need to fix that. The city has to set the example.
I’m also a small business advocate because I was a small business owner for 23 years, and right now, we don’t have a small business advocate on the council. A lot of our small businesses are being forced out of the city because of how expensive it is. The regulations are tough, and they really aren’t giving breaks to minorities that open small businesses or people that open small businesses in lower-income areas of the city. I would like to make our city more small-business-friendly. Right now a lot of small businesses feel like corporate interests are pushing them out.
I think it’s also very important to recognize non-binary as a legal gender. I would love to see more options on birth certificates, and that’s just a start. I want to work with our city and county to change the options for gender on our driver’s license and all of our documentation so people actually recognize gender as a spectrum.
How does your identity affect your candidacy?
I have a unique perspective. I have lived part of my life as what the world viewed as female. I know what it’s like to live and walk in the world as female and own a business and the struggles of that.
I understand the in-between phase. A lot of people don’t talk about this, but when you go through transition, there’s this in-between phase when you’re walking across the gender bridge where people don’t even know what category to put you in.
I’ve always presented as masculine, but now I’m perceived as male. I don’t get questions. So now I’ve experienced three sides of how the world treats a person. That’s a unique perspective. I have experienced what it’s like to be part of a couple of marginalized groups. It’s an experience I won’t forget, and it makes me very aware of how all marginalized people are treated and the importance of education around that and understanding and creating access to opportunities.
What will you do in the city council to help marginalized Seattle residents?
I want to close the gender pay gap, which I think affects women and everybody on the trans scale. Unemployment is a huge issue in the transgender community as well. I want to work with the Office of Civil Rights on access to housing. They did a study not too long ago about housing discrimination against people of color and people with disabilities, and they wanted to do a study on discrimination against LGBTQ people and I’d like to see that happen. I’d also like to see a study done on housing discrimination against immigrants.
You mentioned earlier that you’d be interested in running for Congress. Do you have any other plans beyond City Council?
I’d like to run for the House or Senate after our son graduates. Our government is never going to change unless we get people to step forward who are doing it because they actually care about the people and making things better for the average person.
My wife and I, one of the dreams we’ve had for a long time is to open a retreat center for all kinds of education and growth and to help all kinds of people, from women who have suffered from domestic violence to people questioning their gender. Basically, a retreat that hosts all kinds of great events that create a safe space to grow and explore and connect.
What advice would you give to trans youth hoping to run for office?
Get involved with a local campaign that you really believe in. Volunteer and learn everything you can about the process. That will help you learn what areas you’d be interested in running for and what you’re passionate about.
There’s so many different areas and a lot of people don’t understand the importance of local positions. Just get in there and volunteer and you’ll learn from all kinds of great people and learn about yourself as well.
How can folks get involved in your campaign?
There’s an area on my website where you can sign up to volunteer. We do our best to put people in areas of volunteering that fit their personalities so they can flourish and enjoy the experience.
For instance, not everyone is an extrovert, so canvassing isn’t for everyone. Not everyone’s comfortable going out and talking to people they don’t know. So one of the questions we have when people sign up to volunteer is “would you rather a job that is extroverted or introverted”? because we have all kinds of behind the scenes jobs, like data entry. We need help on both ends and I think plugging people into an area that their personality and their gifts better just makes volunteers happier and more likely to come back.
Any closing thoughts?
There was a time when the first woman ran for office. There was a time when the first person of color ran for office. Those were essential moments in our history.
Someone asked me the other day, “why should I vote for you because you’re trans?” And I said you shouldn’t vote for me just because I’m trans. That alone doesn’t make someone a good candidate, being from a marginalized community. But that perspective and having various diverse perspectives at the decision-making table is of the utmost importance if we’re really going to represent our diverse population. So that’s where it makes a huge difference, and we’ve never in my state or city had a voice like mine at the table. And never in many states or cities. I think it’s time.