Jasmin Lewis says she knows she is just the type of person her school board needs.
The 33-year-old Palm Beach County teacher wants to provide more support to her transgender and gender nonconforming students, who she says often come up to her and ask which bathroom they can use.
As a Black, openly bisexual single mother, Lewis wants to push her school board to make more inclusive decisions that would support Black and LGBTQ students, like making it clear that they are welcome to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. But she feels unprepared and uneasy about the amount of money she would need to raise for a political campaign — the thought of asking cash-strapped families for campaign contributions is particularly tough for her.
She also fears that the qualities that would make her a transformational school board member — her sexual identity, her race, her experiences as a single mom — could be used against her in a political campaign.
“I don’t want to ever put my children in a situation where they are being ridiculed or discriminated against because of me,” Lewis said.
A new report from the LGBTQ Victory Institute finds that Lewis is far from alone.
The report is the first to analyze the motivations and barriers for LGBTQ women running for public office. It pulled data from two surveys: one from LGBTQ women who had considered running but had not, and one focusing on LGBTQ women who had already run for office.
“The same barriers that impede cisgender heterosexual women from running have a tremendous impact on LGBTQ women running for office, but there are additional challenges and barriers” said Annise Parker, Houston’s first openly gay mayor and president of the Victory Fund, which works to support LGBTQ candidates running for office.
Even though there are more LGBTQ officials than ever before — in November, a historic “rainbow wave” saw more than 200 candidates endorsed by the Victory Fund win their elections — LGBTQ women still run at lower rates than LGBTQ men, even though they win at higher rates.
Of the nearly 1,000 LGBTQ elected officials currently serving office, 40 percent are women, and nine percent are women of color.
Many of the concerns that affect women running for office more broadly are “amplified” for LGBTQ women, Parker said.
Anxiety about raising money for campaigns was a top concern impeding LGBTQ women running for office: 2 out of 5 survey respondents considering running for office said financial concerns made them “severely” hesitant to run. Most women did not feel adequately tapped into donor networks, while others expressed discomfort in asking supporters for donations. Parker noted that running a campaign can also require candidates to take unpaid leaves of absence from their jobs — something many women, especially those balancing caregiving responsibilities, cannot afford to do.
Respondents also reported concerns of various personal attacks: on their gender, LGBTQ identity and/or race. This was especially pronounced for women who had not run before: 3 out of 5 said they were “somewhat to very” concerned about threats of violence based on their gender and sexual orientation. These fears tended to drop off for women who had run for office, but fears about racial attacks persisted among seasoned candidates and those who were still contemplating runs.
“I don’t know a woman politician who hasn’t been threatened in some way, or insulted and attacked on social media,” Parker said. “But for LGBT women, the threats go up.”
She noted that it was “particularly virulent” for transgender female candidates.
LGBTQ women also struggled with “external and internal” perceptions that they were unqualified, Parker said.
“There is a broad tendency among women to feel that they are not prepared, they don’t have the right credentials,” she said.
A lack of political representation was a big motivator in pushing LGBTQ women to run for office, but those contemplating runs also fielded doubts about whether their “outsider” status made them unqualified for office.
Those surveyed told the Victory Institute that being encouraged to run was important. These candidates also felt more confident in running for positions where someone who looked liked them — queer, women, people of color — had already won.
Kansas state Rep. Stephanie Byers (D), the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, said she was encouraged to run in 2019 after a conversation with then-Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers (D), when Byers drove Rogers and his wife in Wichita’s annual pride parade.
Byers, a longtime music teacher, was familiar with Rogers’s family after teaching his children. She had not considered running for office, she said, until Rogers suggested she would be “a good person to have in office.”
It just so happened that her local representative was going to run for state senate in 2020, leaving the seat open.
Byers can’t hide her identity — when she Googles her name, “retired transgender teacher” was the first descriptor that came up.
“I said, you know, this is it, that’s going to be a part of who I am, because it is who I am,” said Byers, who is also a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
She focused tightly on health-care access, economic issues and education, leaning on her 20 years of experience as a teacher in the state’s largest public high school. Byers said she didn’t face attacks over her gender identity during the campaign.
Her campaign inspired a swell of national attention — and fundraising — from folks eager to support a transgender candidate in a conservative state. Byers said Virginia delegate Danica Roem (D), the country’s first openly transgender state lawmaker, also reached out to ask how she could support Byers’s candidacy.
But what moved Byers was seeing how local voters were more focused on her platform than her identity, a sign that Kansas is “really more accepting than people think we are.”
She now sits on oversight boards that address water accessibility, as well as education policies and the budget. As conservative lawmakers attempt to stop transgender girls from competing with their cisgender peers, Byers, who once protested on the steps of the statehouse, is now a voice pushing back inside legislative committees.
Parker highlighted the importance of LGBTQ legislators, particularly women, to help finish the work of activists and grass-roots organizations.
“A march is a moment in time. A movement can be a tremendous force for change, but it stops at the door of the council chamber or the State House,” she said. A democracy is “better and stronger” when lawmakers have a deep understanding of the issues the most marginalized Americans face, Byers said.
“When you’re talking about a marginalized group, especially trans kids, knowing that there’s another adult in their life that lifts them up and affirms them and does so in a public space and does so in politics, it gives hope,” she said. “And that’s probably the most important part.”