Election 2024

LGBTQ+ women are often discouraged from running for office. They’re doing it anyway.

Washington State Senator Emily Randall (D)/Texas State Rep. Julie Johnson (D)
Washington State Senator Emily Randall (D)/Texas State Rep. Julie Johnson (D) - both currently running for Congress Photo: Campaign Photos

When queer Washington state Sen. Emily Randall (D) decided to run in the most competitive legislative district in her state, folks told her again and again that she was “too much.”

“I was born and raised in my district – but political consultants and insiders told me that because I am queer, because I am Latina, because I worked for reproductive freedom at Planned Parenthood – I couldn’t win a tough election in a swing district,” she told LGBTQ Nation.

But Randall was determined to prove the skeptics wrong – and she did.

“My neighbors have elected me twice now to represent them as deputy majority leader in the state Senate. Now I am running for Congress to solve the problems we continue to face every single day.”

Randall’s experience is not uncommon. An exclusive report from the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute – which works to uplift LGBTQ+ political leaders – found that 27.2% of LGBTQ+ women candidates were discouraged from running for office due to their gender, while only 7.1% of gay and bisexual men reported the same. The report also found that trans women are about 10% more likely than cisgender queer women to be discouraged from launching a campaign.

If elected, Randall will become the first out queer Latina to serve in Congress. But as shown by the data, her identity as a queer woman makes the fact that she’s even running a massive accomplishment.

What they fear

While all LGBTQ+ politicians face outsized barriers when running for office, the Victory Institute’s report shows it’s especially tough out there for LGBTQ+ women.

The survey was conducted by Victory Institute in partnership with Loyola Marymount University’s LGBTQ+ Politics Research Initiative. The data is part of the Institute’s larger When We Run report, which examines the experiences of the record-breaking 1,065 out LGBTQ+ people who ran for office in 2022. 470 people participated in the survey.

In addition to confronting doubters, LGBTQ+ women are often plagued with fear when weighing the possibility of launching a campaign. 83.7% reported fearing harassment and attacks should they take the plunge, compared to 77.4% of gay and bisexual men. The study’s authors deemed these hesitations “a potentially significant deterrent for running for office.”

These worries are not unfounded, either. The report found that on the campaign trail, 5.4% of LGBTQ+ women endured gender-based violence, compared to 1.9% of gay and bisexual men. The number is even worse for trans women. 7.1% said they faced gender-based violence while campaigning, compared to 5% of cisgender queer women.

Additionally, 15% of LGBTQ+ women endured prejudice due to their gender, compared to only 2.3% of gay and bisexual men. The number skyrockets for trans women, 32.1% of whom reported experiencing prejudice versus 10.9% of cisgender queer women.

LGBTQ+ women candidates also reported disproportionate challenges in being taken seriously and said the media was more likely to question their qualifications.

“During my latest race, an opponent who had never been elected told a debate audience that it would be wasteful to elect me and that I should stay in my state house seat,” Texas state Rep. and current congressional candidate Julie Johnson (D) told LGBTQ Nation. “Another opponent said religious groups would never vote for me because I am gay, even though I had been elected three times before by general election voters in a diverse district.”

Like Randall, however, Johnson said voters proved they were not okay with those comments.

“On the campaign trail, Democratic voters strongly reacted to what each opponent said – but not in the way each man had hoped. As a gay woman in Texas, we fear statements like that being on everyone’s mind. It’s easy to remember the nastiest comment threads and emails, but Democrats in Texas have largely welcomed me with open arms.”

Of course, not all LGBTQ+ women have the support Johnson and Randall found.

“People need to understand how sorely undersupported all women are when it comes to being developed or recruited for office,” she said. “Having the audacity to run as a gay woman from Texas in 2017 required lots of support upfront so I could enter a level playing field with a conservative, incumbent opponent. Shaping candidate recruitment around the real-life experience and obligations of women could yield many more qualified candidates for all levels of public office.”

“It’s on all of us to help level the playing field for LGBTQ+ women candidates,” added Victory Institute President & CEO Annise Parker, “by recruiting and supporting them, calling out media bias and holding bigots accountable.”

Why they run

The report focused on the many obstacles LGBTQ+ women candidates endure, but between the lines, there is hope.

Candidates and organizations alike are fighting every day for systemic change, and in the midst of these battles, LGBTQ+ women are running and winning.

“From the beginning of my 2018 campaign to my work in the legislature and my current congressional campaign, I have been focused on creating space for diverse team members,” Randall said, adding that as a first-generation college graduate and queer Latina elected official, this work is personal.

“My Chicano grandparents came to Kitsap County because they faced workplace and housing discrimination and were in search of a more welcoming community. My family’s journey – my journey – inspires me to do everything I can to make our community, our state, and our political system welcoming and truly representative.”

So what does it mean to “create space” for more diverse team members?

Randall explained, “Creating more opportunity for queer candidates and candidates of color looks like: those of us in power showing up as our true, authentic selves; recruiting and retaining diverse staff on our campaign teams and in our office staffs; creating workplace cultures that are respectful and inviting and that can serve as career launchpads for the next generation of leaders.”

Fighting for change also means simply acknowledging the challenges and running anyway.

“While the takeaways from this report are many,” the report’s authors wrote, “perhaps most salient is the selflessness of LGBTQ+ candidates who see public service as the means for America’s betterment. They run because they want to make positive change in their communities – and they do so understanding what it entails.”

“They fear anti-LGBTQ harassment, but they run. Some will go into personal debt, but they run. A large majority will face anti-LGBTQ attacks – homophobic and transphobic slurs, threats on social media and hateful email – but they run. And the mental health of more than half of LGBTQ+ candidates will suffer because of it.”

“But they run. And they win.”

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