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'Rainbow Wave' Hits Statehouses

Seven states had never elected an openly gay or transgender legislator before this year. Three of them just did in an election that substantially increased the number of LGBT lawmakers overall.

A state worker unfurls a rainbow flag in front of the Washington state Capitol.
A state worker unfurls a rainbow flag in front of the Washington state Capitol.
(AP/Elaine Thompson)
Five years ago, Tippi McCullough got married. Within the hour, she received a call from the school where she taught telling her she had two choices: resign or be fired for having married another woman. That dilemma she was forced into spurred McCullough to become more politically engaged. 

Earlier this month, McCullough was elected to the Arkansas House, becoming its only LGBT member. She was part of a "rainbow wave" of successful LGBT candidates around the country this year.

The previous record for openly gay and transgender people serving as state legislators was 119, according to Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. Following the midterm election, there will be 129.

Colorado Democrat Jared Polis, who in 2008 was the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. House, made a similar breakthrough with his victory in the governor's race this month. Democrat Kate Brown, who is bisexual, won reelection as Oregon's governor. 

Although Democrat Christine Hallquist, the nation's first openly transgender major party nominee for governor, lost her race in Vermont, three openly transgender legislators were elected -- two in New Hamphire and one in Colorado -- bringing the total nationwide to four.

"I was inspired by Danica Roem [who won last year]," says Lisa Bunker, who won a seat in the New Hampshire House. "I thought, if she could win, then I could win."

Seven states had never elected an openly gay or transgender legislator before this year. Three of them -- Indiana, Kansas and Nebraska -- just did.

"I was very honored to be the first here in Indiana," says J.D. Ford, an openly gay man who will serve in the Indiana Senate. "Obviously, we made state history here."

Ford is a Democrat, as are nearly all of this year's successful LGBT candidates. According to Reynolds, all of the 80 incumbent Democratic LGBT legislators who sought reelection won and will be joined by 34 newcomers.

On the Republican side, only five openly gay Republicans ran for reelection, and three of them lost.


A Global Outlier on Gay Rights

"The U.S. is idiosyncratic globally," says Reynolds, author of The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World. "Gay rights is still such a partisan issue here in a way that it isn't globally. Gay rights has been embraced by the right as much as the left in Latin America and Europe and the South Pacific."

Some prominent Republicans, including major political donors Peter Singer and David Koch, are supportive of LGBT equality. But the party as a whole mostly opposes same-sex marriage, and Republicans have blocked anti-discrimination bills in many states, city halls and Congress. 

"Around 30 percent of voters will say they're at least less likely to vote for an LGBT candidate," says Donald Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas and author of Out and Running: Gay and Lesbian Candidates, Elections, and Policy Representation. "The vast majority of them wouldn't vote for a Democrat anyway."

President Donald Trump -- despite pledging on the campaign trail to be more supportive of gay rights than his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton -- has sought to restore the ban on transgender people serving in the military. Last month, the Trump administration announced it would deny visas for same-sex partners of diplomats and United Nations employees.

"The LGBTQ people running for office this cycle were doing so for a number of reasons," says Elliott Imse, senior communications director for the Victory Fund, which supports gay and transgender candidates. "There was certainly concern that the federal government and states were targeting LGBTQ people and rolling back the protections and gains we had made."

Brandon Woodard, an openly gay man who won a state House seat in Kansas, says the thought of running for office first occurred to him when his local representative expressed support for a so-called bathroom bill to ban transgender people from using facilities appropriate to their gender identity. But like many LGBT candidates, Woodard says, his political career was motivated primarily by issues that concern everyone.

"I got in the race because I feel like we've underfunded our education system for so long, both K-12 and higher ed," he says. "That was the driver."


LGBT Candidates on the Campaign Trail

Bunker says her gender didn't come up in conversations with hundreds of voters.

"If there was any tension or discomfort, it was about politics and issues," she says, recalling the time she had a man slam his door in her face when she expressed support for gun control.

Being transgender was not "a platform," says Brianna Titone, who won election to the Colorado House. Her focus was on what voters talked about when she knocked on their doors, including schools, roads and health care. But she says that being openly transgender helped voters to see her as an open and honest person -- a welcome characterization for any politician.

"To be a trans person who's out in public is the definition of authentic," Titone says. "We're being our authentic self, despite what people may say or do to harm us."

Some LGBT candidates are inspiring others to be their authentic selves. Since Woodard's election to the Kansas House, he's had two young people tell him that his race has made them comfortable enough to come out as gay to their families.

"That hits you right in the feels," he says. "You didn't think that getting in a race for your district can make an impact in other parts of the state."


How Will LGBT Politicians Influence Policy?

There's a "dam-breaking" effect when LGBT candidates run and win, says Haider-Markel. Other LGBT candidates are inspired to run, and the public becomes accustomed to seeing them in powerful roles from which they'd long been excluded.

Imse, the Victory Fund spokesman, says there's less novelty to LGBT politicians than there was even a decade ago. They can be covered in the media without their first two names constantly being "openly gay." Still, they're rare enough that their mere presence in statehouses is likely to draw heightened media attention.

There's evidence that the presence of LGBT people serving in the legislature influences the LGBT-related legislation that gets introduced and how such legislation plays out, says Haider-Markel.

While Jolie Justus, who is openly gay, was serving in the Missouri Senate, she was able to convince a colleague who'd sponsored the state's ban on same-sex marriage to cosponsor a bill barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and employment. The bill won support from other conservative lawmakers but hasn't been passed into law.

"It's one thing for a state legislator to propose an anti-trans bathroom bill in their state legislature when there is no trans person in the room," Imse says. "It is much harder for legislators to put forward hateful legislation when they know they are affecting the lives of one of their colleagues."

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Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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