Breaking the “Lavender Ceiling” 

Why Authenticity Matters in LGBTQ Politicking

Photo: Capitol building, Washington, D.C. US | Lunamarina

The year 2020 has been a significant one in American political history. Not the least of which has been the unprecedented voter turnout, the cliffhanger election and the consequent results, ending the Trump presidency. Overshadowed in the maelstrom has been the tremendous strides made with the election of some 221 new out, LGBTQ officials (a few remain undecided) who will hold government office at the federal, state and local levels. Of the 574 candidates that appeared on the November ballot, 39% won their races thus far. The sharp increase is both representative of a shift in attitudes towards LGBTQ people and the adroitness of political advocacy work to recruit, groom and support new candidates. While staggering, the total number of out LGBTQ officials is still quite low. As of June, there were a total 834 of over 500,000 elected officers or fewer than 0.17 percent across the nation. This includes the gains from races for senator, US representative, governor, statewide executive, state legislator, mayor, councilmember and judge. The achievement is still only a fraction of the estimated 5-13 percent of LGBTQ Americans in the overall population, depending on which survey you consider. 

Notable names include Bronx native Ritchie Torres, 32, the first openly gay Afro-Latino elected to the House of Representatives and Southern New York’s Mondaire Jones, 33, the first openly gay Black senator elected to serve alongside him. Delaware’s Sarah McBride, 30, became her state’s first openly transgender state senator-elect. Vermont’s Taylor Small, 26, is the state’s first openly transgender person to be elected state legislator and fifth in the nation, as well as Kansas’ Stephanie Byers, 57, the first openly transgender Native American elected official to serve in the same position. The “lavender ceiling,” often used to describe the obstacles that prevent LGBTQ political ascendancy, is crumbling. 

“There are many reasons that people are driven to run for office, but we did see the first large spike right after the election of Donald Trump,” said Elliot Imse, senior director of communications at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee whose aim it is to increase the number of LGBTQ people running for public office. “Many LGBTQ people that ran in the years following cited his victory as motivation to join the ranks of elected officials and make change from the inside. So, there was certainly an anti-Trump element. But it goes beyond [that]. We know that America has become increasingly more accepting of LGBTQ people and with that it has given people the freedom to run for office more openly than they would have just a decade before.”

Imse says the visibility inspires other LGBTQ candidates to run, creating a virtuous cycle that results in record breaking numbers every election year. 

The Victory Institute is a non-partisan non-profit organization that operates The Victory Fund. Together they are partly responsible for 202 of the 221 winning LGBTQ candidates in the November elections. Their only criteria for endorsement are that candidates must be pro-equality and pro-choice. The fund’s endorsement and financial support carries significant weight for the viability of candidates and provides them visibility before donors and national media. Figures from 2018 show that of out LGBTQ candidates who ran, the fund’s win rate of endorsed candidates was more than double that of candidates who were not endorsed; of 274 endorsed-candidates 174 won races while 100 lost (63.5 percent); of 437 non-endorsed-candidates 126 won while 311 lost (28.8 percent). Imse says this year’s win rate is at 57 percent and growing. The institute offers internships, fellowships, training programs and support to potential candidates they recruit or who come recommended as being active political members or organizers in their communities but who may not have thought a run for office was within their grasp.  The Victory Institute also operates internationally in six other countries, including Colombia, India and South Africa. 

A similar emergence of out LGBTQ political leaders has been observed at even higher levels of government in other international territories outside of The Victory Fund footprint, where there are no other known LGBTQ political action committees. In 2009, Iceland elected Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, a lesbian and the first openly LGBTQ person ever elected head of state in any country; in 2011 Belgium elected Elio Di Rupo, who is openly gay, as prime minister; in 2013, the people of Luxembourg voted in Xavier Bettle, a gay out man, who still remains as its prime minister; Serbia’s Ana Brnabić, a proud lesbian, was elected in 2017 and is currently prime minister; and, the same year, Leo Varadkar of Ireland has been serving as the predominantly Catholic country’s first out gay prime minister. The accomplished South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, came close but didn’t win the Democratic nomination, raising questions on whether the United States was ready for an out gay president. 

Imse sees Buttigieg’s performance as a great start: “Never before had we seen an openly LGBTQ person run in the Democratic primary for president. Pete was able to win the first contested state. So, that is enormous progress. Pete is someone who, regardless of his sexual orientation, outperformed all expectations; he is a mayor from a small city with no name recognition. So, to us, Pete’s story is actually a sign of what is possible more than it is a sign of any limitations of what an LGBTQ candidate can do at the federal level.”

Notwithstanding, there is a formula that has been working to help boost the success of LGBTQ candidates in the US which doesn’t make them electable because of their sexuality or gender identity but in spite of it. In the not so distant past a surer shot to the top required discretion and or duplicity, which is likely the modus operandi for some closeted elected officials currently serving in office. The new formula that seems to be appealing to the electorate is simply showing authenticity and owning the narrative that sexuality or one’s gender identity is an inconsequential detail for good leadership. 

In a profession that has led many a career to a short shelf life because of secrecy and scandal, it should come as no surprise that what resonates better with today’s voters, even in some traditionally conservative districts, is being your truest self unapologetically. What would have been yesterday’s scandal has become today’s boon when lain bare to see in the light of day. Imse explains why: “LGBTQ people who run openly have an authenticity about them that tends to resonate with voters. So, when an LGBTQ person runs openly and is able to talk about their personal lives, it helps voters better understand the person that they’re voting for and that tends to play well with voters in an era when there’s such a lack of authenticity in politics.”

Photo: Stephanie Byers speaking at Kansas Equality Day, January 23rd, 2020.

A sentiment Stephanie Byers, who won Kansas state’s legislative seat in District 86, agrees with, “I believe voters look at who you are. Being authentic and open allows for discussion, and people appreciate the honesty and vulnerability this brings about.”

Byers won 54 percent of the votes in her first run for office over Republican challenger Cyndi Howerton. A retired orchestra and band teacher at Wichita North High School, Byers thought a win was achievable but was uncertain how voters would receive her, “Kansas House District 86 has leaned Democrat for the past 20 years, so I thought I stood a pretty good chance of winning, but, as a trans woman, none of us knew what to expect. When I had transitioned in 2014, I thought there would be pushback – especially since I was already a public figure in Wichita due to the prominence within the public-school music community. What actually happened then, was nothing. No one stormed a school board meeting, no one wrote hateful letters to me or my administrators. What I received was a tremendous outpouring of love and encouragement.”

Despite getting a blistering of negative attack ads, none mentioned her gender identity. Even her opponent had expressed to national media outlets that she wouldn’t make an issue out of it, and neither the advertisers nor her opponent misgendered her.

While Byers was trained by The Victory Institute and endorsed by The Victory Fund, she independently decided to run because she thought she could make a difference: “I was in Washington, D.C., speaking at the ACLU’s “Don’t Roll Back Our Rights” Rally, on the sidewalk, outside the US Supreme Court Building, on the day they were hearing oral arguments for Bostock v Clayton Co. There, in front of a crowd, with the US Supreme Court Building behind me and the dome of the US Capitol building in front of me, I realized that I was being given the opportunity to lend my voice to issues that could potentially become law. I came home and began talking with advisors about what a run for the Kansas House of Representatives would entail.”

The platform she ultimately ran on that brought her victory were meat and potatoes issues that voters care about and that were a contrast to the message of her Republican adversary: “The people of House District 86 were looking for a candidate who would support expanding Medicaid, who was concerned with protecting public school funding, who would work to help reopen Kansas safely,” referring to the city-wide lockdowns during the pandemic.

A shared opinion of The Victory Fund’s Imse, “Openly LGBTQ candidates win not because of their sexual orientation or gender identities but because they have proven to voters that they care about the same issues that they care about and will work hard to get them done.”

Photo: Jessica Katzenmeyer

Jessica Katzenmeyer, 41, was the first transgender woman to run for a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly to represent District 15 on the Democratic ticket. The political newcomer, who previously was an activist, rideshare driver and labor leader, did not unseat the incumbent Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, who has held his seat in the district for eight years. She came within a 3,000-vote margin—closer than any other candidate that had previously challenged him. 

The seed for a political career was planted in 2016 when Katzenmeyer ran a podcast and interviewed openly bisexual Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa of the Milwaukee Common Council. In that interview, Katzenmeyer said Zamarripa told her, ‘You know, Wisconsin has never seen a transgender woman elected to the State Assembly before. I think it would be great to see if you were the first one.’ It was the first time Katzenmeyer imagined a potential run for office at a time where there were already three other LGBTQ leaders in the State Assembly. 

But like Byers, it took a personal moment of reflection that gave her the impetus to run. Days after losing her home and all her possessions in a fire in June of 2019, she found herself suddenly unable to breathe while staying with a friend in Milwaukee. She regained conscious days later from a coma in the hospital, “I found out that I had a staph infection that almost killed me that night. I was in the hospital for a week and the hospital bill would have been $80,000 if I did not have health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. That is what really prompted me to run this year because I’m like, ‘This is wrong. This needs to change. No one should ever have to worry about going into debt or filing for bankruptcy over life-saving medical treatment.’

In January of 2020, Katzenmeyer launched her political campaign from her bedroom office and assembled a team. Unlike Byers, she was not trained by The Victory Institute, but received the fund’s endorsement, was able to appear on virtual panels to be seen by donors and the media, which helped her to build a network and meet other LGBTQ candidates. Like others running, her campaigning efforts were hamstrung by the pandemic and the lockdowns by mid-March. She needed 200 signatures to get on the Wisconsin ballot. After mailing out 700 return envelopes with signature packets and 600 follow-up phone calls, she got 282 signatures, meeting the requirement. 

Not knowing how she would put together a war chest in campaign donations, she started with $100 of her own money, “It was really challenging, fundraising, oh my gosh, I was a little depressed at that at the end of March for a while because I’m like, ‘How am I going do this? How am I going to get this done?” The inner strength in me just helped push me forward to know that my constituents deserved a choice in this election. That’s what really got me through everything and really motivated me.’

Through the help of her team and the fund, she managed to raise over $300,000 within 10 months. Hers was an uphill battle from the start, trying to unseat an incumbent in a district that was split Democrat and Republican. Unlike Byers she had no name recognition or knew how her identity as a trans woman would resonate with voters in her district, “I knew that one of my challenges was going to be to distinguish myself as the better candidate here in this race, instead of getting people looking at me like, ‘Oh, it’s a transgender woman.’ That’s not why I’m running for office. I’m not running because I am a transgender woman. I’m running because I believe I was the better candidate and I wanted to help and serve people in this community.”

While providing more and better access to healthcare was a core pillar of her platform, she also wanted to create better access to prescription drugs, increase funding for K-12 education, place a 10-year cap on college tuition and room and board, and legalize medicinal marijuana. 

In spite of her determination and given the makeup of her district, she showed more caution in her communication strategy about her gender identity, “I had to be really careful about how I messaged that. Of course, I had been open about myself. I had it out on my website. People can go to my website and it says right there in my description that, I’m an out transgender woman. I do not hide my identity but being in what was described as a “purple district,” I didn’t make it a key part of my messaging because I had won over independent voters. I had to be careful about how I worded things and how I messaged things.”

It’s unknown whether, had she made her trans identity a central part of her messaging, if it would have tipped the balance towards her favor. Katzenmeyer attributes her loss to the redistricting that gave the advantage to her opponent, “Wisconsin is one of the worst gerrymandered states in the Union. I had a win number of 14,000. I actually hit my win number. I got 14,134 votes, which is pretty incredible for a first run newcomer to the game.”

Of the importance of her visibility as an out trans candidate running for state office, Katzenmeyer said: “The more of us run, I think it brings more acceptance to our communities that we represent, because we’re putting ourselves out there. When I was running for office, I put my life out there, my privacy was gone, everybody knew who I was. People followed me on both sides— those who loved me, those who hated me. I think honestly, running for office you create necessary conversations. I got messages from people who said, they’re having conversations about me with their kids. This is part of the movement towards mainstream acceptance of especially the transgender community.”

“When Danica Roem [of Virginia] won her race back in 2017, she was one of the pioneers. It’s paved the way for a lot of success, especially in the trans community. I’m proud to say I’m one of the pioneers here in Wisconsin. I can almost guarantee you that there’s going to be more of us running in 2022, 2024, years down the road. I’m proud and honored to be a part of that movement whether I run again or if I inspire someone else to run.” 

Stephanie Byers, too, explained the importance of LGBTQ visibility, especially to LGBTQ youth, “Representation matters. Period. In my speech outside the US Supreme court, I talked about students who would come to me and express their frustration that they didn’t see people who looked like them, or had similar backgrounds, in places of leadership. Government should reflect back our total society, not just a singular aspect of it. Many of us who have been elected weren’t able to see those role models as we grew up. We know the importance of that representation and will work extraordinarily hard to not just earn the respect of our LGBTQ siblings, but of all of our constituents. We understand that we’re not just achieving something unique when we are elected to office, we are also holding the door open for the next generation.”

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