Being Seen: A Count of LGBTQ+ Elected Officials
Despite steady gains, the LGBTQ+ community is severely underrepresented in elected office.
More than 7 percent of Americans are members of its LGBTQ+ community, but persons from it hold less than a quarter of one percent of elected offices. That from the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute's just published annual census of LGBTQ+ officials, which found the total number serving as of May 2023 to be 1,185.
While small, this year's national total is more than double the 2017 count of just 448, the first year the institute conducted the census. For context, the total count of local, state and federal elected positions is estimated at more than 500,000.
LGBTQ+ representation has been growing steadily, if gradually, since 2017. The 2023 total was up almost 14 percent over the previous year.
In some states legislators have put forth proposals to rethink or limit the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, so much so that the Human Rights Campaign declared a “state of emergency” during Pride Month. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the president and CEO of the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, has described increased representation in public office as the best “firewall” against a wave of homophobia and transphobia.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the LGBTQ+ community and our allies: We must double down on our efforts to inspire, train and support future LGBTQ+ candidates – our rights will depend on it,” said Parker in introducing the 2023 findings.
Big Strides in States
Equitable representation in state legislatures seems to be more within reach than in some other sectors. According to the institute, equity would require the addition of another 319 state legislators from the community. The current number increased by 192 to 226 in 2023 alone, the largest year-to-year increase to date.
The bill passed. “Instead of being disheartened, she got really fired up and decided to run for office herself, and she won,” says Fujii. The first transgender lawmaker in her state’s history, she has become a national spokesperson encouraging more LGBTQ+ people to run for office, he says.
At present, four states have no members of the LGBTQ+ community in their legislatures — Idaho, West Virginia, Louisiana and Mississippi. The last two have never elected an “out” state legislator.
A Local Hill to Climb
An estimated 96 percent of all elected positions are at the local level. That is also where there is the greatest challenge; the institute says equitable representation won’t be achieved without hundreds more mayors and more than 15,000 local officials from the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s difficult to find an exact count of the number of people serving as mayor in the U.S. The United States Conference of Mayors has more than 1,400 mayors from cities with a population of over 30,000 in its database. There are more than 19,000 incorporated cities, towns and villages in the U.S. Not all of them have mayors, and about three-fourths have populations under 5,000.
By the current count, there are 58 LGBTQ+ mayors. That number only increased by one in each of the last two years, though it’s a statistically significant improvement over the 24 of 2017.
Fujii thinks that a “snowball” effect is possible over the coming years. “One of the biggest barriers for an LGBTQ+ person to think about running for office is whether or not they've seen other LGBTQ+ run and win — now that more and more folks are serving, more people have seen ‘out’ representation and are encouraged that they can win,” he says.
The biggest increases in the number of LBGTQ+ candidates have been at the local level, Fujii says, and the institute has been devoting time and resources to recruiting and training people to run for local office. “We invest heavily in school board races and city council races — those are the folks who are going to be running for Congress five or 10 years from now, and we’re really encouraged by the depth of our bench.”
Seats at the Table
An interesting mosaic comes into view when total (local, state and federal) counts are considered by state. Twenty-seven states have 10 or fewer LGBTQ+ elected officials serving at any level. (Idaho and Mississippi have none.)
Florida has taken on an anti-gay reputation due to its "Don't Say Gay" law — and a war with Disney over its public disapproval of this law — or its restrictions on gender-affirming care. But it has the same number of LGBTQ+ people in elected office (41) as New York. Texas, another state that has pushed back against classroom discussions of gender issues and transgender care, has 39.
To be sure, these are states with large populations and more public offices for candidates to seek. They are also predominantly Republican states, and three out of four LGBTQ+ elected officials are Democrats.
Virginia is the country's 12th-largest state by population, but 33 states have more LGBTQ+ representation than it does. Vermont has just 11 percent of Wisconsin's population, but its 30 officials are nearly equal to Wisconsin's 32.
It’s not strictly a numbers game, however. “Having even just one LGBTQ+ person in the room really pays dividends in terms of killing or stopping an anti-LGBTQ+ bill,” says Fujii.
On the other hand, if three or four are present, that increases the potential for legislation that safeguards the rights of the community — something which is also on the upswing, he says, though it doesn’t get much attention.
“All signs are showing that we’ll get there at some point, hopefully in the next decade or so. But we do have a way to go.”