How LGBTQ Politicians Are Winning Elections in Conservative Areas of America

"Our folks get elected because they represent their communities best.”

by Harron Walker
16 February 2017, 5:00am

Sam Park. Photo courtesy Georgia House of Representatives

Samuel Park faced a difficult proposition on Election Day last November. The Democratic nominee for the 101st District in Georgia's House of Representatives was up against Valerie Clark, a three-term Republican legislator hoping to lock down a fourth by night's end. Park might have knocked on more than 5,000 doors, but Clark had the incumbent advantage on her side. Nevertheless, the newcomer emerged victorious, unseating Clark with 52 percent of the vote. Georgia as a whole might have swung red for Donald Trump, but Gwinnett County went blue for the first time since Jimmy Carter—and the 101st followed suit.

Incumbent advantage and the greater county's GOP-voting precedent aside, there was another reason why one might not have expected to see Sam Park win. The 31-year-old attorney is openly gay, not to mention the son of Korean American immigrants, and campaigned in a state that nearly signed an anti-LGBTQ "religious freedom" bill into law only eight months before. Still, Park said that he wasn't surprised by the results.

"I [ran as] an American first. I [ran as] a Georgian first. I focused on the values that we shared, the issues that affected all of us in the district," said Park. "Georgia has one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation. That, coupled with what my family went through after my mother was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, compelled me to run. LGBTQ rights were a part of the issues that I ran on, but I couched them in broader terms since it's not just the LGBTQ community that faces discrimination and hostility in the state legislature."

Park's platform focused on commonalities, but it did so in order to speak to a broad coalition of groups—one that understood deportation as a matter of gay rights and trans people's access to public restrooms as a feminist issue. The fact that Park was able to successfully unseat a Republican incumbent on this somewhat intersectional platform makes his campaign all the more intriguing. It provides a model for how an LGBTQ person might seek public office at the state or local level in a conservative-leaning district—something that will only become more important as the federal government shifts further away from the queer and trans community's best interests. But what lessons can other LGBTQ candidates in traditionally red areas learn from Park's strategy?

"Every district is different. Every candidate is different," said Aisha Moodie-Mills, CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political-action committee that supports LGBTQ candidates. "All politics are local… Whether you're [running for office] in a more moderate or a more conservative district, at the end of the day, it's about connecting with your community. Our folks get elected because they represent their communities best."

One hundred and ninety-one openly LGBTQ candidates ran for office in 2016; the Victory Fund endorsed 135 of them, and 87 ultimately won their races. There are only two policy requirements for gaining the support of the Victory Fund—a candidate must be pro-choice, and they must support pro-LGBTQ legislation—both of which fall squarely into Democratic territory. As a result, most Victory Fund–backed candidates are Democrats (as are most openly LGBTQ candidates who seek office, period). But an LGBTQ candidate does not need to support historically liberal social views in order to get elected, at least not if they're running in a historically conservative area.

Take Jason Elliott, for example. Elliott represents South Carolina's 22nd District in the state's house of representatives. He is gay and a Republican, and his candidacy last year definitely toed the party line. During the campaign, Elliott advocated for relaxed gun control, a "life begins at conception" stance on abortion, and protections for religious freedom—protections that, in a number of states, have opened the door for de facto discrimination against queer and trans people. He told me that his sexual orientation was not an issue with his constituents. In fact, he said, the people who seemed most interested in bringing it up were journalists.

"I'm tired of hearing about it," said Elliott. "Infrastructure, jobs, the economy, and education. When constituents ask me about the issues, those are the issues they talk and care the most about."

Homophobia did present a minor obstacle for Daniel Hernandez Jr. of Arizona. The 26-year-old representative hails from the state's Second District, a region with strong, socially conservative influences by way of its Catholic communities, despite leaning Democrat on the whole. Hernandez said that he regularly received hateful messages in his campaign's email inbox last year, ranging from comments like "we don't need any of your kind" and "dirty faggot" to threats that "if you ever come to my door, I've got my 2nd Amendment right, and I know how to use it." But Hernandez, who began his career in public service at the age of 21, is no longer fazed by the threats and slurs.

"You have to have the hide of a rhinoceros to be in public service," Hernandez said, referencing Eleanor Roosevelt's famous piece of advice for women entering public life. "If you're always getting hate mail, you must be doing something right."

Kathy Kozanchenko got more than just hate mail when she ran for Ann Arbor City Council in the mid 1970s—her campaign office was shot up. But Kozanchenko persevered, and, in 1974, she became the first openly LGBTQ elected official in the United States, a legacy carried on by other trailblazers like Althea Garrison, Harvey Milk, Elaine Noble, Park Cannon, and Kate Brown. These days, there are around 500 or so openly LGBTQ politicians in office, according to Moodie-Mills, fighting for the needs of their communities—all of their communities—at every level of government. That number will need to increase, especially at the state and local level, if these lawmakers hope to adequately defend the constituents who elected them. And with any hope, those politicians can trickle up to more prominent positions, where they'll help add LGBTQ diversity to the federal Senate and House, where Tammy Baldwin remains the only gay senator and only six representatives are openly gay or lesbian.

And as LGBTQ Americans continue to be accepted within their communities, running as an LGBTQ candidate no longer means campaigning with the presupposition that voters will be unable to look past one's sexuality to see who they are as a citizen and community member. Non-normative sexuality and gender identity are still markers of difference within our society, but as the success of these and other LGBTQ civil servants shows, it's one that may be shrinking by the year. And for politics on the whole, that's a good thing.

"We need you in the building, fighting on these issues for your community," said Leslie Herod, who represents Colorado's Eighth District. "Run. We need your voice."

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