A record-breaking number of LGBTQ candidates ran for office this election season — and as results trickled in, historic firsts were declared — from local to national races.
Joining the U.S. House of Representatives, Ritchie Torres, who is Afro-Latino, and Mondaire Jones, both of New York, became the first openly gay Black members of Congress.
On the state level, Sarah McBride became the first openly transgender state senator in the United States in Delaware. That also makes her the highest-ranking transgender state legislator in the country.
Stephanie Byers (Chickasaw), who won in the Kansas House, became the first transgender person of color elected to a state legislature in the country.
In Florida, Michele Rayner-Goolsby became the state’s first openly queer Black woman state legislator and Shevrin Jones became the state’s first out LGBTQ state senator. In Oklahoma, Mauree Turner, who is Black and Muslim, became the first gender nonbinary person to be elected to a state legislature.
Taylor Small became Vermont’s first openly transgender state legislator. Joshua Query’s win made them first openly gender nonconforming person elected to a state legislature. (When Query first won in 2018, they did not publicly identify as gender nonconforming.)
In Hawaii, Adrian Tam won a seat in the state’s House of Representatives, making him Hawaii’s only openly LGBTQ elected official.
“More and more, folks are approaching races saying, ‘This is who I am and I’m not going to hide who I am in order to win an election,’” said Annise Parker, president and chief executive of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Our democracy is stronger when everyone is represented within it and the LGBTQI community needs to be a part of that.”
According to Parker’s organization — a political action committee dedicated to electing LGBTQ officials — a record 1,006 openly LGBTQ candidates ran for office in the 2020 primaries and 574 advanced to Tuesday’s general election. Nearly a third of those candidates were people of color and a record 25 candidates identified as genderqueer, nonbinary or gender nonconforming.
Parker, who was the mayor of Houston from 2010 to 2016, served what was at the time the most populous U.S. city to elect an openly gay mayor. (Chicago elected Lori Lightfoot in 2019.) Thanks to that experience, she’s aware that LGBTQ candidates can win in unexpected places.
“We are running all across the country. It’s not the coasts that are the most exciting, it’s the heartland. It’s the South,” Parker said.
Byers was one of those candidates.
“It’s a big statement on humanity that even here in Kansas people cannot throw up barricades … and [instead] say, ‘Let’s elect who we feel can be the person who can represent us best and not worry about gender identity, not worry about sexual orientation, just who will work for us,’” Byers said.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, believes that LGBTQ candidates may actually have an advantage in local races.
“Those are smaller districts, so the voters can actually get to know the person,” said Heng-Lehtinen. “Someone’s gender identity becomes irrelevant when you actually get to know them as a candidate.”
Despite the homophobic and transphobic attack ads that targeted some LGBTQ candidates this election cycle, Heng-Lehtinen said, “Voters are much more tolerant than the divisive federal political environment would lead you to believe.”
That same logic may have translated into the record number of LGBTQ candidates of color who ran for office this year.
“LGBTQ candidates writ large are significantly more diverse than the general candidate pool,” Parker said.
Speaking specifically about the transgender community, Heng-Lehtinen said that the diverse pool of candidates could challenge traditional expectations based on how transgender people have been depicted in the media.
“I think when you look at people running for office and you see so much more racial diversity, you realize that transgender people are everywhere,” he said.
Although the number of transgender candidates actually decreased from 2018, the number of nonbinary, genderqueer and gender nonconforming candidates rose from six to 25 in the last two years.
“I think people running for office openly expressing that they’re genderqueer or nonbinary is about candidates being able to bring that kind of honesty to a race,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “No longer does being different have to be a liability.”
McBride is acutely aware that she’s both serving her constituents but also acting as a role model for LGBTQ youths across the country.
“I know how much of a difference it would have made for me growing up to be able to see these stories and these results,” she said. “I’m also mindful, though, of the fact that the only way for me to fulfill my obligation to the LGBTQ community is to do the best job that I can for the residents of the 1st Senate District.”
Vermont’s first openly transgender state legislator, Small, feels similarly.
“I think what has stood out most through this campaign are the young folks and the transgender folks or gender nonconforming or just generally queer folks who have reached out and said, ‘I didn’t know that I could run for this position,’” she said. Seeing Small run for office, many young and LGBTQ people told her that they saw space for themselves in politics.
Like many of her peers, Small is eager to tackle issues beyond those affecting LGBTQ voters. But she also knows that being in office will allow her to advocate for her community.
“We need to have our voices heard, and we need to be able to make legislation that is truly focusing on those who are going to be most impacted moving forward,” she said.
Parker said there’s real power to having even a single LGBTQ person in local elected office.
“We have seen in our statehouse races that if you put one person in a legislative body, the conversation changes,” she said. “If you’re going to have to sit next to somebody in a committee meeting and then vote to strip their rights away, it’s a lot harder.”
Ideally, Parker says, LGBTQ officials won’t just change legislation today but will inspire future candidates who could continue to change policies in the future.
“Every LGBTQ candidate, everyone who stands up and says, ‘I want to serve’ and approaches it openly and honestly, changes hearts and minds.”