When Ann Johnson ran for the state House in 2012, she was one of the first two openly gay candidates ever to seek a seat in the Texas Legislature. She lost, but if she wins next week, she’ll join a chamber where three other lesbians have already been elected.
There are currently 150 openly LGBTQ state legislators around the country. Their numbers appear certain to increase this year. “It is important to have open, out candidates at every level of government, of all diversities and backgrounds,” Johnson said.
All told, 1,006 LGBTQ candidates ran this year at all levels of government, an increase of 41 percent from 2018, according to Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ candidates.
Like many other out candidates, Johnson said she wasn’t motivated to run because of her orientation, preferring instead to talk about policy matters such as health care. Her father served in the state Legislature and her mother was a judge. “My parents taught me, do things for other people, that public service is an honor,” she said.
But openly gay and trans candidates say they recognize the importance of a form of representation that extends beyond ideology. “I work with homeless queer teenagers who have been put out of their houses,” said Kim Jackson, who will be the first openly LGBTQ Georgia state senator if she wins. “I recognize how important it is, particularly to this generation, that there is a black queer woman in the Senate who looks like them and loves like them.”
Candidates who are gay still face an average penalty from voters of about 7 percent, compared to support for straight candidates, according to Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at Princeton University. For trans candidates, the dropoff is 11 percent.
For many voters, however, sexual and gender identities are either a non-issue or something to be celebrated. Jackson said she encounters voters in her district who are “thrilled” to be casting a vote for her historic candidacy.
Sarah McBride drew national attention when she won nomination to the Delaware Senate last month. She’s a heavy favorite to win, which would make her the first transgender individual ever elected to a state senate in the country.
Sarah McBride, running for the Delaware Senate, is about to become one of the most prominent state legislators in the country, if only by virtue of her identity. (Sarah McBride Facebook)
McBride said that she never brings up her trans identity and is rarely asked about it by voters.
“It’s heartening,” she said. “The reception and fair hearing I’m getting as a candidate is a reflection of decades of community work that has opened hearts and changed minds.”
Unusual Number of Women
Of the 150 out legislators, 76 are women. That’s well above the share of women legislators overall, which is 29 percent. It’s also double the share of gay lawmakers globally who are lesbians or bisexual or trans women, according to Reynolds, the Princeton professor.
“There’s been a lot of pushback against older, white, wealthier gay men being the sole face of the movement,” Reynolds said. “Putting women and women of color in positions of power has been a significant driving factor of the queer rights movement of the last few years.”
More women in general have become activists or candidates during the Trump presidency. The record number of women candidates in 2018 and 2020 represent a break from the “traditional gender gap in political ambition,” as a 2016 Brookings Institution report put it.
“Just like anything, women are underrepresented nationally,” said Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, who would be the first openly gay woman in the New Hampshire Senate if she wins.
Just as the success of women candidates encourages more women to run, recent breakthroughs in LGBTQ representation are leading to yet more gay and trans candidates.
“Progress leads to more progress,” said McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. “When you have more out politicians, the impact of that is exponential.”
If he wins, Lorenzo Sanchez would become the first openly gay man to serve in the Texas House. He says his opponent is “using my Latino status” against him more than his sexual orientation.
Sanchez is hoping to unseat state Rep. Jeff Leach, who supported an anti-trans “bathroom bill” and the state’s “Save Chick-fil-A” law, which prohibits local governments from taking “adverse actions” against companies based on religious or moral convictions. San Antonio’s city council had blocked the fast-food franchise from opening at the airport based on its “legacy of anti-LGBT behavior.” The law’s sponsors maintained that they were upholding religious liberty.
Lorenzo Sanchez says his opponent has made more out of his "Latino status" than his sexual orientation during his run for state office in Texas. (Lorenzo Sanchez/Facebook)
Leach sponsored a bill aimed at blocking sharia, or Muslim law. He won re-election two years ago by a margin of 2 percentage points. His seat is a top target for Democrats hoping to take over the Texas House.
“People in the community who have felt discrimination are helping me make phone calls or just as volunteers,” Sanchez said. “People feel like their rights can be taken away at any moment.”
In recent years, the Georgia Legislature has debated religious liberty legislation viewed by gay rights groups as discriminatory. Jackson, the state Senate candidate, says her background as an Episcopal priest will help her combat such bills.
“There’s a lot of legislation that gets introduced and often gets passed in Georgia that's couched in language about God and Christianity, just short of saying ‘God would want us to pass this legislation,’” she said. “I’m theologically educated and can speak to a different way of interpreting scripture.”
Delaware’s Other Rising Star
McBride is about to become one of the most prominent state legislators in the country, if only by virtue of her identity. She has already made history as the first trans individual to work at the White House, as an intern during Barack Obama’s presidency. In 2016, she was the first trans speaker to appear at a national party convention. Through her work on the late Beau Biden’s campaign for Delaware attorney general, she became a friend of the family.
Joe Biden wrote the foreword to her 2018 book, Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality.
“She’s an important figure, not only because she’ll be the first trans woman to be elected to the state Senate, but because she is poised to go much higher,” Reynolds says. “She’s being groomed for that by the Democrats.”
Like many other politicians, McBride says she just wants to give back to her community. She notes that the issues that touch people most in their day-to-day lives, such as schools, health care and infrastructure, are hashed out at the state level.
“I’m running as a candidate who was born and raised here and knows how to make change,” she says. “The communities throughout the First District in Delaware helped raise me and make me who I am and helped me through some of the most difficult challenges in my life.”