How LGBTQ Voters and Candidates Could Change America's Landscape

by Kelsy Chauvin

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 26, 2020

How LGBTQ Voters and Candidates Could Change America's Landscape
  (Source:LGBTQ Victory Fund)

Last year, Wisconsin State Assembly candidate Jessica Katzenmeyer awoke from a three-day coma caused by a sudden, severe respiratory infection. She recovered and was released from the hospital a few days later, only to be slapped with an $80,000 medical bill.

"Eighty thousand dollars to save my life," she says.

During her recovery, Katzenmeyer found herself wanting to heal more than herself — and kept returning to the idea of running for office. She'd spent years building on her political science and communications education through campaign volunteering and candidate support and was a longtime believer that affordable healthcare was among so many core American issues in desperate need of improvement.

In many ways, Katzenmeyer's story is a hopeful snapshot of the 2020 election year. She saw shortcomings in her local government and used it as fuel to act. She's brushed off skeptics to instead devote time listening to her constituents. And she's shared her personal experiences to find common ground in her community, and believes it will inspire voters to tick her name on the ballot come November.

There was another important chapter to Katzenmeyer's story, as she kept replaying the words of Wisconsin State Assembly Member JoCasta Zamarripa, an openly bisexual Latina woman who was elected in 2016: "It would be wonderful to see a transgender woman elected to this office."

If Katzenmeyer wins the battleground district in November, she will be the state assembly's first out trans member within a major swing state. She has worked tirelessly to close the gap with her conservative incumbent opponent Joe Sanfelippo and is optimistic about her chances.

"We're feeling like it's a 50-50 race," she says. "Because times are changing, especially with a lot of anti-Trump sentiment going on, and I think we have that working in our favor. (U.S. Senator) Tammy Baldwin won our district two years ago, 51 to 49, so it's considered a battleground district that's very much in play this year."

NOVEMBER 3, LIKE NEVER BEFORE

NOVEMBER 3, LIKE NEVER BEFORE
(Source: Getty Images)

So much about the 2020 election feels like no era ever before. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is a huge factor, in terms of both health and economics. Devastating natural disasters like the multi-state West Coast wildfires and repeated Atlantic hurricanes stress our continuing struggle with climate change.

And as of September 18th, there's a new clash over a Supreme Court seat, due to the tragic loss of equal-rights advocate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), have backtracked on their 2016 pledge not to appoint a new Supreme Court justice during a presidential election year, and seem determined to confirm a justice even though 2020 ballots already are rolling in.

At the center of 2020's momentous issues is the presidential election. The battle between Democrats and Republicans remains as exhausting as ever, particularly now with COVID-19 infections ravaging the Oval Office. With days and hours ticking down, November 3 feels like D-Day, when all hope is either won or lost. There is no gray area.

"The gravity is always great when it comes to presidential elections," says Sean Meloy, senior political director at The LGBTQ Victory Fund. "We're in a very polarized society, and I do think the lines have been drawn."

Many Americans believe deeply in the vision presented by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to help unify this country. "Biden's ticket offers a way for us to actually look at our problems, acknowledge them, and try to find solutions," says Meloy.

On the other hand, others believe that ejecting Donald Trump and his Republican enablers are reason enough to vote. In one timely example of the logic to vote against Trump, rather than for Biden, Meloy underscores the recent revelation about the president's negligent pandemic response.

"It was confirmed that the president purposely misled the country about the coronavirus, which has already killed more than 210,000 Americans and affected millions of families," says Meloy. "So this election is especially vital when it comes to removing the president who has actively hurt the populace."

In the big picture, Meloy says, "I think this is a matter of just basic decency. [The president is] supposed to look after the American people, not work against them, and certainly not abandon them."


The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which operates as political action committee (PAC), helps elect qualified, vetted and openly LGBTQ people to office all around the country, at all levels. Its robust, interactive endorsement roster runs down candidates from city councils and school boards, to state judges, to U.S. representatives — and it's a go-to resource to find LGBTQ candidates in races across the country.

The Victory Fund also partners with the 501(c)3 nonprofit Victory Institute, which trains LGBTQ people to run for office, and supports elected and appointed officials.

"A lot of LGBTQ people have been paying attention because they've been affected by the negative actions of the Trump-Pence administration... coupled with the authoritarian and hyper-conservative policies that have been implemented," says Meloy. "Now that it's October, people are even more attentive, and LGBTQ voters, in particular, should find motivation to vote in their own best interests."

Meloy is quick to remind Americans to register to vote as soon as possible and submit their mail-in or absentee ballots without delay. "We don't want to have to think about if he wins the electoral college, because he hardly did last time. It was just 40,000 votes between three states that made Donald Trump president," says Meloy. "So, to say that one vote isn't going to matter is laughable. And we can stop it from happening again."

AMERICA'S PROGRESSIVE ENGINE: LGBTQ WOMEN

AMERICA'S PROGRESSIVE ENGINE: LGBTQ WOMEN
LPAC Sharice Davids fundraising and awareness event. (pre-coronavirus)  (Source: LPAC)

Lisa Turner believes that "voter turnout will be epic."

As Senior Director of Research and Political Engagement of LPAC (formerly known as the Lesbian Political Action Committee), Turner's forecast is founded in facts, trends, research, and expertise on voter behaviors, specifically that of LGBTQ women.

She knows that 207.1 million Americans are registered to vote, and that all can vote by mail this year. As of late September, roughly 80 million mail-in ballots are estimated to roll in, and the tally's expected to shatter existing records.

They'll total drastically more than the 46 million that were cast outside of the traditional polling place in 2016. By October 2, four million early, absentee, and mail-in ballots were already cast.

Digging deeper, UCLA's Williams Institute reports that out of America's 11.3 million LGBTQ residents, nearly nine million are registered to vote in the 2020 general election.

At LPAC, Turner and team focus on women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning. The PAC surveyed 800 LGBTQ women in June 2020, collecting invaluable data on a specific demographic that many statisticians find elusive.

The survey was conducted at a critical moment: three months into the COVID-19 crisis; and just two weeks after George Floyd's death, and the nationwide civil unrest and Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

LPAC survey's unique timing revealed vital information about LGBTQ women voters, 81 percent of whom are registered to vote. Already in June, eight in 10 LGBTQ women were motivated to vote in 2020, with 75 percent either decided or leaning towards Biden (compared with 14 percent for Trump and 10 percent undecided or planning to vote on another candidate).

"The good news is that we have a community whose members are making a voting plan, despite the challenges of COVID or other barriers like long lines," says Turner. "LGBTQ and trans women are more likely to vote by mail than straight women, and more LGBTQ women plan to vote overall."

If you wonder how important LGBTQ women are to the presidential outcome, Turner explains, "LGBTQ women play a critical role in our democracy. They are the progressive engine in this electorate. They are activists, advocates, donors, and voters at a very high level for progressive issues and causes."

But do LGBTQ women have the numbers to swing the election?

"If you think about 2016, 23 percent of LGBTQ women who we surveyed did not even vote," says Turner. "We estimate that there are five to six million eligible LGBTQ women voters out there — that's a lot. And when you think about the margins in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Minnesota, that's a big deal."

LPAC's endorsement roster is a unique assemblage of LGBTQ women running for office, something Turner calls "building the bench" for the future. Their endorsements grew from 10 candidates in 2012 (the year LPAC was founded), to 79 this year, 11 of whom are trans women.


"Since Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, there has been a surge of women running for office," says Turner. "But what isn't talked about is that there's also a surge of LGBTQ women. Most of them are not recruited by any national partner or anything like that. They're just stepping up to go ahead and run for that seat because they're qualified. That is a renewed sense of enthusiasm that we just have not seen at this level."

Among LPAC's endorsed candidates is Kimberly Walker, a first-time candidate for U.S. Congress from Florida's 12th district, north of Tampa.

A veteran of the U.S. Air Force and Florida Air National Guard, Walker took it upon herself to run for office to help fight for affordable healthcare, lower the cost of prescription drugs, and address income inequality. Her election has been an uphill battle against longtime Republican incumbent Gus Bilirakis, but a win would make Walker the first black LGBTQ woman elected to Congress in U.S. history.

"I'm a member of the LGBTQ community, so I definitely understand our struggles, and I know how it is to be discriminated against," says Walker. "Before I got married, I took it upon myself to ask every vendor if they'd have an issue servicing a lesbian wedding. And in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, 'Why do I have to ask this question? I'm an American, I'm a veteran, and I still feel like I'm a second-class citizen.' So I've definitely been there, I understand. My goal is to make sure that we are all treated equally."

Along with fundraising, online events, and other support, LPAC collaborates with key partners to amplify candidates' voices.

In September, the committee even held an exclusive, high-profile conversation between Mary L. Trump, the president's niece, and LPAC Board member Hilary Rosen.

Trump says, "In the run-up to the most important election of our lives, I'm proud to be supporting LPAC because it's doing the vital work of uplifting fellow LGBTQ women as both candidates and voters."

Other nonprofits, such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), help ensure that candidates and voters are protected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, or party affiliation. They also legally advocate for LGBTQ issues and individuals, this year working to ensure that all Americans can vote safely and freely.


"Continuing to fight voter suppression tactics that greatly affect people of color and transgender individuals based on oppressive voter I.D. laws is also significantly important," says NCLR Communications Director Christopher Vasquez. "We need to ensure that every American who is legally able to is afforded the same right to safely vote as every other citizen."

Such voter-rights protections extend to LGBTQ candidates, many of whom campaign on the diversity that queer leadership can bring to the table.

For Kansas House of Representatives candidate Stephanie Byers, running openly is an asset. Byers says that her House District 86 in Wichita has voted strongly Democratic for more 20 years, with her predecessor (Democrat Jim Ward) typically winning by 60 to 70 percent in the general election.

"This campaign is about more than just my being a trans woman, but the fact that I am trans won't be covered or hidden," says Byers. "My election may be the point where we finally break through the 'lavender ceiling,' and show that our identities as members of the LGBTQ+ community is just one factor that makes us who we are, and simply adds to the richness of factors that make us fully human."

MOBILIZING THE DIGITAL GENERATION

MOBILIZING THE DIGITAL GENERATION
(Source: Drag Out the Vote)

New voters are imperative this year. If younger Americans transform their passions for issues like climate change, gun control, and racial and gender equality from social media likes into actual votes, voter-turnout records could be smashed in November.

A 2020 Tufts University CIRCLE study showed that in 20 states, youth voter (ages 18-24) registration is already higher than in November 2016. Hope is compounded by the highest young-voter turnout ever in the 2018 midterm elections, which swept Democratic champions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (MI), Omar Ilhan (M.N.), and others into Congress.

Younger candidates also may be part of what inspires younger voters to cast ballots, which bodes well for 40-and-under contenders such as Mondaire Jones (N.Y.) and Ritchie Torres (N.Y.), two LGBTQ men of color running for Congress; as well as other LGBTQ candidates including Gina Ortiz Jones (TX), Sharice Davids (K.S.) and Chris Pappas (N.H.).

Initiatives like TikTok's Tok the Vote suggest that tens of millions of younger voters can find inspiration through apps and other online platforms. The campaign aims to help "get Gen-Z registered to vote" and to mobilize "the digital generation to initiate the next wave of change."

Meanwhile, Voto Latino is a grassroots organization devoted to educating and empowering a new generation of Latinx voters. Established in 2004, the group has amplified candidates' voices and registered 250,000 U.S. voters in 2020 alone. The organization reports that there are 32 million Latinx voters eligible to vote in 2020, 60 percent of whom are 34 or younger, and 12 million of whom voted in the 2018 election.

Diversity and inclusion are driving forces behind other dynamic organizations like the National LGBTQ Task Force, and Drag Out the Vote.

The Task Force's Queer the Vote initiative is working to stop voter suppression, end partisan gerrymandering and restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated Americans.

Drag Out the Vote, while striking a fun and sparkly tone, is serious about its mission of educating, registering, and engaging "voters of all struts of life to sashay their way to the polls."

Author and activist Jackie Hula was inspired to launch the initiative after witnessing Phi Phi O'Hara's 2017 hurricane-relief benefit in Puerto Rico, and is harnessing "the power of drag to motivate voters."


For Dylan Austin, branding and communications strategist for Drag Out the Vote, 2020's foremost issues are interwoven within the queer community.

"The number one thing that should be on everyone's minds is how we face the opportunities of intersectionality in the LGBTQIA+ community," says Austin. "When we vote, we're voting for the rights of our trans brothers and sisters, for our BIPOC queer families who live as what you may call 'double minorities' in this country, for queer workplace protections, and access to gender-affirming healthcare.

"When we're voting, it's easy to think it's just for a candidate or party we align with, but it's so much more than that," he says. "Every vote from your city council to the president affects those things. Everything is interconnected."

EVEN THE SMALLEST RACES ARE HUGE

EVEN THE SMALLEST RACES ARE HUGE
Georgette Gomez (right)  (Source: Georgette Gomez campaign)

Politics begin at the local level, where community organizers and volunteers are part of the foundation from which future state and national candidates sprout. From neighborhood and municipal roots grow seasoned senior leaders who carry with them their constituents' concerns.

Take San Diego, for example. It's America's eighth-largest city, home to a growing, diverse population and a strong economy. The city has seen formidable LGBTQ politicians emerge year after year since its first openly gay candidate took the City Council District 3 seat in 1993.
An LGBTQ official has occupied the seat since that time, demonstrating how qualified local-community leaders continue to fill the progressive pipeline for future state and national campaigns.

San Diego saw former council member and out lesbian Toni Atkins graduate to State Assembly in 2010, on her way to her current role as President of the California Senate since 2018. Former council member, current State Assemblymember and out gay man Todd Gloria is poised to become San Diego's next Mayor. Openly gay man Chris Ward is likely to progress from the District 3 seat to the State Assembly this year, in a runoff with queer candidate Sarah Davis. Two out LGBTQ candidates, Stephen Whitburn and Toni Duran, will face off for that District 3 vacancy in November.

Meanwhile, San Diego District 9 City Councilmember Georgette Gomez is campaigning to beat Democrat Sara Jacobs in a November runoff election for the U.S. House of Representatives. If she wins, Gomez will make history as the first queer Latina in Congress.

"And I will carry the community with me," says Gomez. "I'm inspired by the number of diverse, progressive candidates like myself who are running all across the country. It sends a powerful message, and it reflects the fact that the American people are looking for bold, progressive change."

Gomez served on the San Diego City Council since 2016, and was unanimously appointed Council President in 2018. She's keenly aware of LGBTQ issues, stating, "As a queer Latina, I understand how a wide range of issues disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ people. Getting the (federal) Equality Act across the finish line is very important, but we also need to go beyond that."

Gomez cites income inequality, affordable housing, discrimination in healthcare, and worker protections as some of the most pressing issues she'll fight for, along with helping working families survive the coronavirus pandemic. But she's also proud to serve as a bold advocate for the queer community.

"I'm one of a number of LGBTQ+ people running for Congress and other elected offices," says Gomez. "I'm happy that we are running to increase representation at every level. Representation matters, because if you are not in the room where decisions are being made, then your community's needs are not being advocated for."

San Diego is just one example of how a legacy of local LGBTQ leaders can feed the national pipeline with experienced elected officials.

POWER IN NUMBERS, NO MATTER THE OUTCOME

POWER IN NUMBERS, NO MATTER THE OUTCOME
North Carolina State House candidate Vernetta Alston  (Source: vernettaalston.com)

The presidency is on the line, and with it, much of the federal judiciary. But flipping lopsided partisan chambers on state and national levels is key to a future that balances our government and fairly represents the complete American populace.

With a bumper crop of progressive and LGBTQ candidates running in 2020, November's legislative opportunities are astonishing — as long as citizens vote.

That's part of why The Victory Fund website is such a valuable resource, with hundreds of endorsed candidates searchable by region, office level, gender, race, and other categories.

"We also have our 'Spotlight' candidates, who are the candidates that we really encourage LGBTQ donors and allies to contribute to and to volunteer for the most," says Meloy. "Because they're going to be those key wins that help flip a chamber, have a specific impact in what we call a 'low equality' state, and bring new voices to chambers that have never had them before, places like Indiana, Tennessee, Alaska, South Dakota. And states where our candidates are poised to be the seat that helps flip the chamber, like Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina — a lot of the states that are also key for Joe Biden to win the presidency," he says.

In the swing state of North Carolina, State House candidate and out LGBTQ woman of color Vernetta Alston believes that Democratic victories will grant the nation "the chance to save our democracy and pursue LGBTQ equality and inclusion here and across the country."

On the other hand, Alston says, "If the election results are discouraging, we have to remember that, while this moment in our history is unique in so many ways, this is not the first time that our institutions have been in crisis. There have been committed folks who felt discouraged by politics but reached farther than they thought they could to make change. It is our obligation to do the same."

Ever the optimist, Turner predicts turnout like we've never seen, due to a combination of personal motivation and voter access thanks to exponentially increased ballot mail-in options.

"There are going to be shenanigans on Election Day," says Turner. "There are going to be things that go wrong with some registrars who are not going to be able to handle the ballots. I do think we're going to have some intimidation going on — we're going to see cop cars at high-Democratic performance precincts, in areas that are predominately people of color. It's going to happen."

"But people are going to be voting in droves prior to and on November 3, and they're going to be glad they did," Turner says, with an added forecast. "And in those states that haven't had the full opportunity to vote [until 2020's mail-in expansions], those citizens are going to demand the same access to the ballot box for future elections. Then they're going to wonder why their state legislatures have been standing in the way all these years."

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, feature journalism, art, theater, architecture, construction and LGBTQ interests. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kelsycc.

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