- In the November general election, a number of LGBTQ candidates won races across the US in a phenomenon that's been dubbed the "rainbow wave."
- Several winners made history, including the first Black gay members of Congress, the first transgender state senator in Delaware, and the first nonbinary state legislator.
- Andrew Reynolds, a professor at Princeton University who studies LGBTQ+ people in politics, said the wins were more a "splash" than a "wave," noting that the gains coincided with existing trends.
- What's more notable, he said, was the diversity among the winners, including more wins for female, nonbinary, and nonwhite LGBTQ+ candidates.
- Anisse Parker, the president of the Victory Fund and former mayor of Houston, Texas, told Insider that in recent elections, LGBTQ+ candidates have been about 30% more diverse than the candidate pool at-large.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Stephanie Byers wasn't a career politician, but last month, the 57-year-old retired high school band and orchestra director from Wichita won a race to become the first openly trans legislator in the Kansas House of Representatives.
Byers, who taught for 32 years before she retired in 2019, is one of a growing number of LGBTQ individuals in the US who has successfully sought elected office.
One of the most notable wins this year came in Delaware, where 30-year-old activist Sarah McBride won her race, becoming the first out transgender state senator ever elected in the US. Her win came two years after that of Danica Roem, who in 2017 won her race in Virginia to become the first openly trans person ever elected to a state legislature. This year, Roem won reelection.
According to a report from NBC News, more than 220 LGBTQ candidates celebrated victory on Election Day this year, a phenomenon some have dubbed the "rainbow wave."
Two gains were made in Congress: Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, both Democrats from New York, who were elected to serve as the first openly gay Afro-Latino and Black men in Congress, respectively. The election of Torres and Jones brings the total of LGBTQ representation in the US House to nine, as NBC News reported.
There are two openly LGBTQ senators, Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, marking 11 members of Congress from the LGBTQ community.
And in California, Todd Gloria, the former San Diego city council member and member of the state assembly, was elected San Diego Mayor, joining Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot as the second currently serving out gay mayor of a major US city.
Most wins, like Byers' in Kansas, came at the state level, and others, at more local levels, like Charmaine McGuffey in Ohio and Kristin Graziano in South Carolina, who both identify as lesbians and were elected as county sheriffs. In Oklahoma, Democrat Rep. Mauree Turner became the first openly nonbinary person elected to a state legislature in the US.
While their identities in the queer community are pivotal to who they are, candidates said identity played a backseat to policy
"I can't hide my identity," Byers told Business Insider.
The 2018 recipient of GLSEN's Educator of the Year Award, said she and her campaign knew they had to be upfront with voters, many of whom already knew her as a longtime member of the community.
"Wichita is a conservative city but leans purple," Byers said. "It's also a place where I found acceptance when I transitioned to be my authentic self. I figured there'd be some sort of pushback because I had taught at one school since 1991."
But when she came out in 2014, the negative reaction she anticipated never materialized. She worried an angry parent might show up to a school board meeting to take issue with her transition, but no one did. Her run for office was largely similar, she said.
On Election Day, Byers said a journalist had approached an older man exiting his polling location, and the voter said he'd cast his ballot for Byers' opponent. However, he told the reporter it had nothing to do with her being transgender — he just wasn't a fan of her politics, she said.
Byers pushed for better funding for local public schools, Medicaid expansion, and a need to update the unemployment system in Kansas.
"Maybe here in Wichita we've pushed the door open a bit, so people realize that someone's status as a member of the LGBTQ community is just one part of who they are. It's not their whole identity," Byers said.
Nearly 600 miles southwest of Wichita, Rep.-elect Brittney Barreras in Albuquerque, New Mexico also spent election night celebrating a historic victory. Barreras was elected as the first openly lesbian member of the New Mexico House of Representatives.
Barreras said her identity as a gay woman hadn't played a major role in how she campaigned for the seat. Instead, she centered her campaign around the issues that mattered to voters in her district.
"Being that I'm gay, I knew that it was going to be hard," Barreras told Insider. "I don't look like other politicians. I don't sound like other politicians."
But Barreras, who ran as a declined-to-state candidate, said she didn't enter the race because she's a part of the LGBTQ community.
"At the end of this," she said, "I got involved because I'm part of District 12, and because I think I can represent all different families."
Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston, Texas, and current president of the Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to electing LGBTQ leaders, told Insider that despite clearly shifting attitudes, homophobia and transphobia aren't exactly relics of a bygone era.
Parker, who served as one of the first elected lesbian mayors in US history from 2010 until 2016, pointed toward the attacks faced by Colorado State Rep. Brianna Titone, who in 2019 became the first openly transgender state legislator in her state.
During her reelection campaign this year, Titone faced multiple instances of transphobia, including robocalls that claimed she intended to force a "radical sexual agenda on every Coloradan" and other smears that referenced her deadname, the name she used prior to her transition, as CPR News reported in October.
"It's a mixed bag," Parker said. "I will say that every year we see less and less of that. It used to be a dog whistle, where an opponent will say 'I don't think it should be an issue my opponent is gay' — making it an issue but not attacking overtly."
LGBTQ winners are now coming from more diverse backgrounds
Candidates from the LGBTQ community are often more diverse than candidates at large, Parker told Insider. Victory Fund data suggests that their candidates over the past several election cycles were approximately 30% more diverse than candidates at large, she said.
"Looking back over the last cycle, our candidates are significantly more diverse than the general candidate pool, which frankly tends to be white men," she said.
Andrew Reynolds, a research scholar and lecturer at Princeton University who studies LGBTQ politics, said overall, queer candidates and politicians are trending more diverse, which is more in line with the LGBTQ community as a whole.
"Almost uniformly the LGBTQ community has historically been represented by white gay men," Reynolds told Insider. "They've led the fundraising, the advocacy, they've held the political leadership with elected office."
"Now," he added, "we're seeing women and women of color, and increasingly trans and gender-nonconforming people being elected. If you believe that reflecting the community is a normative good, then this is what the new leadership is doing. Not completely, but overall, it's reflecting the community at large."
The Victory Fund, which supports candidates from all political parties, helped elect Eddie Mannis, a gay Republican in the Tennessee state legislature. Also in Tennesse, it helped elect Torrey Harris, a Democrat, who is Black and bisexual.
Barrera, who is Latinx, told Insider, "Growing up, I didn't have someone locally who I could look up to and say 'that person looks like me, and I can do that someday.' If I could be that person for somebody else — some person in my community — that's what this is all about."
She said the so-called "rainbow wave" is the latest indication that attitudes toward the queer community are shifting.
"It shows that the way our families look is changing, so the people representing our families are changing too," she added.
Reynolds told Insider data suggests that while attitudes toward LGBTQ candidates have shifted as a whole, how people perceive gay and trans candidates continues to depend on their political ideology.
For some progressive voters, he said, a candidate's gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender identity can be a positive, even providing candidates with a slight boost at the polls.
"Being LGBT actually says to voters that this candidate is more inclusive, empathetic, and more demonstrative of what we want America to look like," Reynolds said. "And so, you literally get a 1, 2, or 3 % bump for being queer in the right type of districts."
In other, more conservative districts, LGBTQ candidates can still face a penalty with voters because of their identities, but even that's becoming rarer, especially among gay and lesbian candidates, he added. Reynolds said LGBTQ candidates often face voters' perception of whether they're electable or not.
"Voters almost sense the field of candidates before they even start because they think 'who can win,' he told Insider. "The expectation about who can win isn't actually based in reality, but if enough people believe it, it's a self-reinforcing prophecy."
Despite the supposed "rainbow wave," 2020 wins weren't as groundbreaking as some had hoped
Reynolds said that gay and trans wins in 2020 weren't all that surprising, given that the results are part of a general trend toward "slow incremental gains" for queer representation in politics.
"This isn't a big Tsunami. It's not a big wave. I characterize it as a splash," he said. "I characterize the most exciting part of the election as the type of people from the community who are being elected. I don't think the numbers are earth-shattering."
Parker noted several disappointing losses for LGBTQ candidates, including at the highest office.
Despite narrowly winning the all-important Iowa caucus in February, Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, unsuccessfully ran in the crowded Democratic primary race for the presidential nomination.
"Pete was a game-changer," Parker said. "He completely transformed for most people what's possible in American politics."
"He reduced the hurdle for the next person," Parker added. "He demonstrated to moderates, independents, and even Republicans that the gay man doesn't have to frighten you."
Losses were also felt at the congressional level, where some candidates failed to win their contentious races. Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who is openly lesbian and a veteran of the US Air Force, failed to win her race to become the first LGBTQ elected to Congress from Texas. Democrat Jon Hoadley likewise lost his bid to become the first openly LGBTQ person elected to Congress from Michigan, as them reported.
"We didn't win in some places where we hoped to get congressional seats, but those seats are all about the federal level and presidential politics," Parker said.
Looking forward, Parker said the Victory Fund had its sights set on electing LGBTQ candidates in three statehouses that haven't yet elected an openly queer person: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alaska.
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