Election 2024

LGBTQ people are vastly underrepresented in elected office. Here’s how that could change

LGBTQ people are vastly underrepresented in elected office. Here’s how that could change

LGBTQ candidates are on the ballot November 8 in record numbers—and they’re younger and more racially and gender diverse than ever, fighting back at the local level against a wave of repressive legislation and helping to turn out the vote for Democrats.

Blaizen Bloom, 19, was inspired to run for office partly because of the surge of anti-queer legislation and rhetoric rising across the country. Laws rolling back trans students’ rights were passed in 2020 and 2021 in Bloom’s state of Virginia (and an even more restrictive one is proposed for 2022). 

Bloom was a high school student in Chesapeake Public Schools in those years and grew disenchanted with the handling of the pandemic, mental health, and LGBTQ students.

“Certain people running in this race have pushed to get Gender Queer [by Maia Kobabe] taken out of our school libraries and I’ve received emails that ask, ‘Should the LGBTQ agenda be exposed to K-3 students?’” Bloom recounts to LGBTQ Nation. “It’s certainly worrisome that we could pretty much have a school board that’s going to be acting on these kinds of impulses that we’ve seen across the country and bringing them to the Chesapeake.”

Now a college student, Bloom is one of at least 82 queer candidates running for school boards around the country, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which tracks candidates. If they win, Bloom would be the youngest out transgender person elected to public office in the United States. 

The majority-minority

Bloom is hardly alone as younger candidates start running at the grassroots level and rising through the political ranks, giving hope to what may be a dismal mid-term election for Democratic and pro-LGBTQ candidates nationwide. 

Millennials (ages 22-42) are the generation with more out candidates running than any other, more than Gen Xers (ages 43-57) and Baby Boomers (ages 58-76) combined. This younger crop of candidates differs considerably from the current field: The average age of the House of Representatives is 58; the Senate 64. (The average age of Americans is 39.) 

This trend will only grow. Nearly 21 percent of Generation Z (surveyed as 18-25) identifies as LGBTQ, a sharp increase over past generations—2.6 percent of Baby Boomers, 4.2 percent of Generation X, 10.5 percent of Millennials

Sean Meloy, the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s vice president of political programs, believes this shift is a political game changer over the long term.

“Generation Z has been able to flourish like no other generation when it comes to being authentically themselves, having no barriers to coming out, having supportive parents, being able to understand and identify their identities earlier than other generations,” Meloy tells LGBTQ Nation. “As those folks become part of the voting electorate and see that the environment that has helped more people to feel comfortable to come out is under attack, they will get more involved, vote, and run for office.”

Sean Meloy, the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s vice president of political programs. Photo courtesy LGBTQ Victory Fund

The LGBTQ pool of candidates reflects the country’s increasingly diverse demographics more accurately in more ways than age. About 38 percent of this year’s LGBTQ candidates are people of color, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, while 28 percent of all political candidates in general elections are people of color. (People of color make up 41 percent of the U.S. population.) 

Just as queer candidates are not quite as racially diverse as the U.S. population as a whole–but are more diverse than the non-LGBTQ political field–those who win elections follow the same trend. Thirty-two percent of LGBTQ elected officials are people of color, while elected officials overall are closer to 20 percent. Since 2021, the number of LGBTQ elected officials of color increased by 12 percent, compared to one percent for white non-queer identified elected officials. While 7.6 percent of all elected officials in the U.S. were Black in 2020, 13 percent of queer candidates are Black.

Only 28 percent of the candidates are women, making LGBTQ political representation a cisgender boy’s club. However, according to the organization, increasing numbers of non-binary and transgender candidates run and win each year. Fourteen percent of LGBTQ candidates this year have a gender identity other than cisgender, and the number of trans elected officials grew by almost 10 percent in the last year

All politics are local

These candidates are running not just for the powerful, attention-grabbing 535 seats of Congress. There are over 500,000 elected official positions in the U.S. LGBTQ people hold 1,043 of these—0.2 percent. With 7.1 percent of the U.S. population self-identifying as queer, voters would need to elect 35,854 more out candidates to achieve equitable representation.

Colorado governor Jared Polis and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, both prominent Democrats, have national name recognition. Still, Meloy says that far less powerful and hyper-local positions are the key to reaching this daunting number. This has been the key to the rise of the religious and radical right–a laser-like focus on local school boards and other decision-making bodies that fly underneath the national political radar and media coverage.

“We need to keep going,” Meloy says. “We need to make sure that we’re on all these school boards, we are in all these legislatures, we are on all these councils.”

Exactly that is starting to happen. Some local candidates include:

Aurora Hurd & Thomas Renner running for Winooski City Council in Vermont

Janice Li for Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors in California

Darlene Martinez for Maricopa County Constable in Arizona

Alicia Mousseau for Oglala Sioux Tribe Vice President in South Dakota

Evelyn Rios Stafford for Washington County Justice of the Peace in Arkansas

Tina Ward-Pugh for Jefferson County Clerk in Kentucky

Rae Vander Werf for American River Flood Control District Trustee in California

Mary Moriarty for Hennepin County Attorney in Minnesota

Jesse Walker for Goodlettsville City Commissioner in Tennessee 

Meloy points out that running for these offices does more than increase representation. They are also the pipeline to achieving increasingly higher office and political power. With experience as a city councilor, for instance, a candidate can run for mayor. With experience as mayor, a candidate can run for Congress.

These building blocks are already paying off. LGBTQ people are running for higher office this year and are more competitive than ever, including 16 candidates for Congress alone.

Long Beach, California mayor Robert Garcia LGBTQ Victory Fund

Robert Garcia, 44, hopes to follow that path, leveraging his experience as the popular mayor of Long Beach, CA, to represent California’s 42nd Congressional district. He’s a trailblazer by nature: He was the first Latino and first queer mayor of his city of half a million residents. If he wins, he will become the first LGBTQ immigrant to serve in Congress. 

Garcia’s mom brought him to the U.S. when he was five. He lost her, a healthcare worker, to COVID-19 last year and threw himself into coordinating Long Beach’s response to the pandemic.

He felt called to affect change at a higher level. “I didn’t run for Congress to break a barrier or to be the first of anything,” he tells LGBTQ Nation. “I ran for Congress to help our country because I believe Republicans are intent on destroying our democracy. But I understand that I also will make some firsts and those I take seriously, and I’m honored to do so.” 

After running for city council, then mayor, and now Congress, Garcia says that “some pieces are better and some pieces are worse” than 13 years ago for candidates when he first ran. While he notes more out candidates are running and have more support from organizations like the LGBTQ Victory Fund, he also sees a concerning pushback on the progress that affects those candidates.

“There’s always been homophobia, always been attacks on gay people. Even a few years ago, that was a little bit more muted or a little bit less aired out in public. I think today we’re seeing much more hateful rhetoric that is being amplified by the far right.”

Voting bloc

But there is still hope for a fairer future. With more out Americans in every generation, the community is projected to become “one of the fastest growing voting blocs in the country” according to an October 2022 report from the Human Rights Campaign

HRC’s research, conducted in conjunction with Bowling Green State University, shows that in the 2022 midterm elections, LGBTQ people account for 11.3 percent of the voting-eligible population. By 2030 this is projected to reach 14.3 percent and 17.8 percent by 2040, nearly one in five voters.

“The surge in LGBTQ voters is expected to transform the American electoral landscape, most critically tipping the scales in ‘red’ states that are on the cusp of no longer being categorized as reliably ‘red’ helping to push those states into ‘purple’ territory,” the report states.

Of course, these candidates cannot count on LGBTQ voters alone. They depend on non-queer Democrats and Independents. The challenge is that it’s increasingly difficult to get Republicans to cross over and vote for Democrats, even though polls show Republicans increasingly support same-sex marriage—55 percent in 2021, according to Gallup.

The parties have become more polarized, and issues are less important than adherence to partisanship, especially for Republicans. The Republican party has also found new ways to attack queer people to turn out their base, such as legislation targeting transgender people participating in sports or school or banning queer-themed books in school libraries.

As a result, only four percent of the LGBTQ candidates in 2022 are registered Republicans, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, and three percent of currently serving elected officials are Republicans.

LGBTQ candidates will need to ensure voters who may feel complacent post-marriage equality participate in the political system, too. Those in safely blue areas whose congressional representatives are unlikely to change may not vote, thereby ignoring down-ballot races and those key local offices needed to achieve equal representation. 

“I think more folks need to understand how underrepresented we are in government,” says Meloy. “Even in the bluest of places or that have the most protections for LGBTQ people, we must be constantly vigilant.”

Even when they do show up to the polls, Democrats—those more likely to vote for LGBTQ candidates—face an uphill climb in having their votes sending a candidate to Congress. “We’ve seen incredible gerrymandering by Republicans and Trump judges that really distorted the map this year,” Garcia says. He believes that the national Republicans’ “scorched earth strategy” gives them “a natural advantage as it relates to redistricting” that puts the Democrats on defense. 

“But we’re still gonna build a majority,” he’s quick to say. “We have to have to elect more gay people to Congress. We have to elect our community to Congress because I think we have that shared experience, that lived experience that really matters.”

Challenges remain

The number of LGBTQ elected officials increases every election cycle, as does the number of candidates who run, but being open still comes with challenges.

Bloom said they sometimes feel pigeonholed into being “the LGBTQ candidate” with the rest of their platform ignored. While Bloom does care about fighting anti-trans legislation and book bans, their agenda is equally focused on bolstering mental health support for students and teachers and restructuring the approach to student discipline.

“I’m out, I don’t hide it, but I can’t really show it off, because otherwise, it takes away from everything else on my agenda,” Bloom tells LGBTQ Nation. “People will just put me in that trans box and disregard everything else I have to say that is actually popular with people across the political spectrum.”

Being put into a box is another challenge many minority candidates face, a fear that likely keeps many in the closet still.

Yet the number of those who are out continues to increase. According to the LGBTQ Victory Institute’s Out for America 2022 report, the number of elected officials grew by 5.8 percent from 2021 to 2022, with 22 states experiencing an increase.

But these numbers remain a far cry from parity. With 35,854 more elected officials needed on top of the 1,043 currently serving, the community is barely past the starting line on the long road to equality.

Meloy says that the movement needs to mobilize at a far faster pace in the face of this task, especially considering that anti-gay candidates have already won so many seats at all levels of government that they are well-positioned to pass even more repressive legislation. 

Ironically, the success of opponents of equality may help drive this momentum.

“Hopefully, that inspires a lot more folks to run,” he says. “And not only to run but also to get out and vote.”

Sarah Prager is a Massachusetts-based writer whose writing has been published in the New York Times, National Geographic, NBC News, The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, HuffPost, The Advocate, and many other national outlets. She is the author of four books about LGBTQ+ history for youth: Queer, There, and Everywhere: 27 People Who Changed the WorldRainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made HistoryKind Like Marsha: Learning from LGBTQ+ Leaders, and A Child’s Introduction to Pride: The Inspirational History and Culture of the LGBTQIA+ Community. Find her at sarahprager.com and on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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