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Vermont's first trans lawmaker gets engaged at rainbow-lit White House

Vermont state Rep. Taylor Small said she wants her engagement to her partner, Carsen Russell, to show queer people that they can find the same joy.

Vermont Rep. Taylor Small, the state’s first transgender lawmaker, got engaged to her partner, Carsen Russell, while the White House was lit with rainbow lights on Tuesday.

The two traveled to the nation’s capital to attend the signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act, a federal bill that will provide additional protection for same-sex marriages. 

Vermont Rep. Taylor Small got engaged to her partner, Carsen Russell, after the Respect for Marriage Act signing at the White House on Tuesday.
Vermont Rep. Taylor Small got engaged to her partner, Carsen Russell (left), after the Respect for Marriage Act signing at the White House on Tuesday.Courtesy Rep. Taylor Small

As the event was wrapping up, Russell said he asked Small if she wanted to take a photo. Then he got down on one knee. “I was just like, ‘I want to spend my life with you, and will you marry me?’” Russell told NBC News on Friday in a joint interview with Small.

Small recalled saying yes “immediately.”

“I swear I could not have taken my glove off fast enough,” she said, after announcing the news on Twitter. “It was really just the perfect backdrop and the perfect moment for that celebration.”

Small, who was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 2020 and re-elected in November, said it was a “full-circle” moment for the couple, who met in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier, in December 2017 at a drag show. 

Before going into politics, Small was a local drag performer who went by the stage name Nikki Champagne. She said she and her drag partner wanted to do more performances outside of Burlington so that queer and trans people in more rural areas of Vermont could see “thriving community members.”

After a performance in Montpelier, Small said, Russell came up to take a photo with her. Then, the next day, “in true millennial fashion, he slid into the DMs,” or direct messages, on social media. After chatting, she invited him to a New Queer’s Eve event to celebrate the New Year. 

“We got to share our first kiss that night at midnight, going into 2018,” Small said.

Russell moved away for work after that, but they stayed in touch until a year later, when he came to the New Queer’s Eve event again, and they “rekindled the flame,” Small said. They made the relationship official in March 2019, and Russell moved back to Vermont. 

The two say that their relationship is grounded in safety, communication and laughter. 

When asked what he enjoys about Small and their relationship, Russell said, “Wow, I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Taylor is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met in my life, if not the most,” he said. “She inspires me every day to be my authentic self, and has provided me the safe space and just a grounding force to become exactly who I have always been meant to be, and that is in large part why I fell in love with her. But beyond that, her laughter is one of my favorite things. Her sense of humor.”

Their communication and growth is “really something that I could not have imagined for myself in a partner,” he said.

A telling example that they work well together, Small said, is that they’ve done many long car rides together “and are able to just stay in the moment and entertain one another.” 

“I’m a great co-pilot and playlist-maker,” she said. “Carson is wonderful at navigating the roads with such confidence.”

Carsen Russell, Vermont Rep. Taylor Small's partner of nearly four years, said he wasn't sure he would be able to get a ring into the White House without Small noticing. He ended up wearing it under his glove.
Carsen Russell, Vermont Rep. Taylor Small's partner of nearly four years, said he wasn't sure he would be able to get a ring into the White House without Small noticing. Courtesy Rep. Taylor Small

The two of them had been talking about getting engaged for about six months, and Russell had initially planned to propose at the end of December at the Vermont state capitol, where Small works. But when Small received an invitation on Saturday to attend the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act, Russell said he quickly texted her best friend and his sister about a change of plans. 

“I was like, ‘How do I get a ring into the White House without her noticing?’” he said.

He ended up taking it out of the box and putting it on his finger under his glove to go through security, and then when Small wasn’t paying attention he took it off and put it back in the box and in his pocket.

Since taking office in 2020, Small has led a successful effort to ban the “gay/trans panic defense,” which has allowed people accused of homicide to receive lesser sentences by saying they panicked after finding out the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and she has championed a bill that makes it easier for people to update the gender marker on their birth certificates. 

Small said the Respect for Marriage Act is an important step in protecting marriage equality, but that “it is just a stepping stone for the larger work that needs to be done on cementing LGBTQ rights on both the state and federal level.” 

“It’s amazing to know that still, to this day, we don’t have federal protections for LGBTQ people, when it comes to credit, when it comes to public accommodations, and that, only in 2020 did we get employment protections, which feel like they might be on the chopping block given our very conservative Supreme Court and the precedents that they are setting forward,” she said. “I think we can take a moment to celebrate as we did on Tuesday, but I know both here in Vermont and nationally, that celebration leads to even more action that needs to be taken.”

Since their engagement, the couple said they’ve received widespread support, but one message that really stood out to Small was from a local community member. 

“I had a young trans woman reach out and say, ‘Your engagement is so powerful, because it validated that I can have a similar future, that me having a loving relationship can happen, that I can move into leadership positions just like you,’ and that is the message I really want to pass along — that my experiences are not unique,” Small said. 

She added that she wants queer people to know that the nationwide backlash to drag performances and trans rights “is just a storm that will pass, and that at the end of the day, we have each other.” 

Russell echoed that sentiment. He said that he grew up in rural Vermont without access to support and resources, and that it’s easy for young people in those situations to feel alone. 

“What I have found, especially with Taylor and every part of her world that she has exposed me to, is that the community exists and they’re going to love you,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time until you find that community, because they’re everywhere.”