‘Urgency to run’: LGBTQ candidates make history in US midterms

At least 678 LGBTQ candidates running for state and federal posts, the highest number ever in US history says report.

Gay united States
The rainbow Pride flag flutters from the flag pole at the state Capitol in Sacramento, California [File: Rich Pedroncelli/The Associated Press]

At least 678 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) candidates will appear on ballots across the United States during the upcoming midterm elections, a historic number that comes as advocates say a flood of state legislation has attacked gay and transgender rights.

The candidates running in the November general election were among a total of 1,065 publicly LGBTQ people who launched elections in 2022, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

Voters will head to the polls on November 8 to decide the partisan makeup of the US House of Representatives and Senate, as well as state officials and legislators.

Victory Fund President Annise Parker said the number of LGBTQ candidates in the general election, which represents an increase of 18.1 percent from the 2020 election, creates the opportunity to “elect more LGBTQ people to office than ever before”.

“Bigots want us to stay home and stay quiet, but their attacks are backfiring and instead have motivated a new wave of LGBTQ leaders to run for office,” she said in a statement. “Sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option when our rights are on the chopping block.”

Across the country, many LGBTQ candidates have been motivated by a recent deluge of bills considered anti-LGBTQ, with transgender rights particularly “exploited in recent years as a wedge issue that is used to mobilise voters in the most conservative base of the Republican Party”, according to Gabriele Magni, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“When we ask LGBTQ candidates why they are running for office, many say that they feel the urgency to run in order to protect LGBTQ rights,” Magni told Al Jazeera.

Massachusetts Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey [File: Mary Schwalm/The Associated Press]

“They know that they need to be in office at every level, including school boards, to make decisions about kids and the possibility of losing rights of trans youth,” Magni said.

Prominent candidates include Democrats Maura Healey and Tina Kotek, who are running to be governors of Massachusetts and Oregon, respectively, and could be the first lesbian state governors in US history.

Becca Belint is also set to be the first LGBTQ person, and the first woman, to occupy Vermont’s sole Congressional seat, while North Carolina, Oregon, Maryland and Illinois are among states that could elect their first LGBTQ candidates to Congress.

In California, former Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who immigrated to the US from Peru as a child, is running to be the first LGTBQ immigrant elected to Congress in history. In Alaska, Andrew Gray is running to be the state’s first LGBTQ state legislator.

All told, at least 119 LGBTQ candidates ran for Congress during the midterm season, 416 ran for state legislatures, 41 ran for statewide office, and 412 ran for local postings and school boards, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

Robert Garcia is running to become the first LGBTQ immigrant in the US Congress [Ashley Landis/The Associated Press]

In another political first in the country, two openly gay men in New York – Democrat Robert Zimmerman and Republican George Santos – are vying for an open US House seat. Nearly 90 percent of all LGBTQ candidates in the midterm season ran as Democrats and about 4.5 percent of LGBTQ candidates ran as Republicans, according to the Victory Fund.

In interviews with the Washington Blade in September, Zimmerman said his experience as a gay man in the US shaped his political ideology, while Santos said his sexual orientation has no bearing on the issues Americans care about, including the economy and crime.

“It’s great to see that opportunities are equal to all in this country,” Santos told the news site, adding: “I think it’s a distraction, really about the real issues plaguing our country right now. I’d rather talk about that stuff all day long than talk about my sexual preference.”

Still, the uptick in candidates came amid a surge in recent years in overwhelmingly Republican-backed state legislation that advocates have said restricts LGBTQ rights.

That included 238 bills filed by state legislators in the first three months of 2022, according to an NBC news analysis of data maintained by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom for All Americans advocacy group. The number represented a massive increase from 2018 when just 41 bills were introduced. At least 191 bills were introduced in all of 2021, according to the analysis.

As of August, about 180 bills introduced in 2022 have targeted the transgender community, according to the GLAAD advocacy group. Those bills typically seek to restrict youth gender-affirming healthcare, which the American Academy of Pediatrics calls “medically necessary and appropriate” and, in some cases, “lifesaving”. Other legislation sought to ban transgender youth from playing on sports teams of the gender with which they identify.

Other legislation included Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law, which has banned teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. Four other states have passed similar laws, which the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide prevention organisation, has said “erase young LGBTQ students” and run against research showing open discussions of LGBTQ issues lead to lower reported suicide attempts.

Urgency has further increased amid fears the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v Wade, which nixed federal abortion protections, could lead to rollbacks on federal gay rights protections. In his opinion in the case, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas argued that Obergefell v Hodges, which federally legalised gay marriage, was among several cases that should be revisited based on the reasoning used to overturn Roe.

The rulings, he wrote in the legally non-binding opinion, “were demonstrably erroneous decisions”.

Florida 'don't say gay' bill
Demonstrators gather at the Florida State Capitol to protest the ‘don’t say gay’ law [File: Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press]

Meanwhile, voters identifying as LGBTQ are expected to make up an even bigger proportion of the electorate in years to come, rising from just more than 11.3 percent nationwide in 2022 to 14 percent in 2030 and then an estimated 18 percent by 2040, according to a study (PDF) released by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Bowling Green State University in Ohio in October.

The trend is even more pronounced in several influential states, including Georgia, Texas and Arizona.

In another shift, research showed that, in recent years, gay candidates have fared as well as straight candidates in general elections, while lesbian candidates have outperformed straight candidates, according to Magni.

“I think this is a big change,” he told Al Jazeera. “Because conventional wisdom for a long time has maintained LGBTQ candidates would be penalised because maybe moderate voters would not feel comfortable supporting these candidates”.

Source: Al Jazeera