Being a gay or lesbian state lawmaker is now so common it’s no longer an issue.
By Louis Jacobson
Public acceptance of gays and lesbians has increased so rapidly over the past few years that it’s sometimes easy to forget how controversial being a gay politician was just a few years ago.
But Tim W. Brown remembers. He’s currently a Republican representative in Ohio, but in 2007 Brown was a county commissioner who was considered a possible contender for an open seat in Congress—until an anonymous blogger accused him of being gay, that is.
“This is how I was born,” he said after the allegation began circulating. Then he quickly took his name out of consideration. A local newspaper editorialized, “While the allegation has at least temporarily put a cloud over Brown’s once bright political future, it also has allowed Brown to show voters what he’s made of—honesty with the public.”
Brown, however, was in it for the long haul—and public opinion eventually caught up. After his withdrawal from the congressional race, he ran successfully for reelection as a commissioner. Then, in 2012, Brown won a seat in the Ohio State House, making him one of the few openly gay Republican state lawmakers in the country.
“I was first elected to public office in 1997, and I would insist the difference between the climate then and now is like night and day,” Brown said in a recent interview. “As people have come to terms with the fact that they know and care about those who have a different sexual orientation than their own, it has helped move our society toward acceptance.”
A New Era
Though openly gay and lesbian legislators have served periodically since the 1970s, the roughly 20 gay and lesbian state legislators interviewed for this story say that legislatures have entered a new era in which acceptance is wider and deeper than ever before.
Former Senator Dale McCormick (D) was one of the pioneers. She was elected to the Maine Legislature in 1990—the only gay or lesbian legislator in Maine at the time. “I was weird to them—different, scary,” McCormick says. Today, by contrast, “constituents understand the issues more and prize their LGBT friends and colleagues.”
In fact, last year, when McCormick ran successfully for the city council of Augusta, Maine, her sexual orientation “didn’t even come up.”
In recent years, several gay and lesbian lawmakers have become House speakers, including Tina Kotek (D) in Oregon, John Perez (D) in California, Mark Ferrandino (D) in Colorado and Gordon Fox (D) in Rhode Island. Others have become Senate majority leaders, including Stan Rosenberg (D) in Massachusetts and Ed Murray (D) in Washington.
“It just keeps getting better” for gay and lesbian politicians, says Senator Pat Steadman, a Colorado Democrat. “Slow and steady progress. The longer I serve, the more people get to know me, the less it matters."
“It just keeps getting better.”
—Colorado Senator Pat Steadman (D)
In Unexpected Places
One of the most striking developments has been the geographical diversity. It’s not surprising that a Washington state politician like Laurie Jinkins (D) could be elected to the state House from a district that includes heavily Democratic sections of Tacoma. Even though a majority of gay and lesbian candidates are Democrats, increasingly they have been winning in unexpected states.
In Oklahoma, Senator Al McAffrey (D) won elections, first for the state House in 2006 and then for the state Senate in 2012. Asked whether he senses any antagonism among his colleagues for being gay, he says, “In the Oklahoma City metro area, there is no issue. My colleagues make it no issue.”
In Montana in 2004, when Representative Bryce Bennett (D) was just getting involved in politics, an anti-gay-marriage amendment was circulating. Back then, “supporting LGBT people was such a liability in Montana that candidates on both sides of the aisle clamored behind this bigoted referendum,” Bennett recalls.
By 2010, though, Bennett was able to win a seat in the state House. “Today, Montana Democrats are proud supporters of marriage equality,” he says, and “a few thoughtful Republicans have helped us make progress toward equal rights.”
In Wyoming, Cathy Connolly (D) was elected to the state House in 2008. “In general, my sexuality is simply part of who I am,” she says. “People in my community and the state know me in my roles as a legislator who stands up for what she believes, as a professor who has now taught over 2,000 students, as a mom who could bake cookies and cook spaghetti dinners with the best of them, and as a community member who has served on the boards of our anti-domestic violence program and our alternative high school.”
Open and Out
Most of these lawmakers were open about their sexual orientation—at least to a certain extent—before they ran for office. The best advice former Representative Jeanette Mott Oxford (D) received, she says, was that “it was best to run ‘out’,” to be open and honest about who she was. She says voters would think a politician had lied if they hear about a candidate’s sexual orientation from someone other than the candidate.
That advice worked for Oxford. She was elected to the Missouri House in 2004 and re-elected three times before term limits prevented her from running again in 2012.
Former Senator Jarrett Barrios (D) has been openly gay since high school and was the director of a gay and lesbian student group in college. He was first elected to the Massachusetts House in 1998 from a liberal district based in Cambridge. When Barrios ran for the state Senate in 2002 in a district with a more blue-collar constituency, he won by going door-to-door intensively, wooing voters who were more wary of supporting a gay candidate.
“My strategy was to embrace my person, believing people can detect inauthenticity at all levels of electoral politics,” he says. “I tried to inoculate myself against the inevitable attacks and slurs—and they did come.” He won easily and was re-elected twice.
In Vermont, Suzi Wizowaty (D) says being open about her sexual orientation from the start “most likely was a nonfactor” in her election to the House in 2008, but in a liberal state like Vermont, it may have even “played a small positive role.”
It’s all about accepting who you are and hiding nothing, says Nickie Antonio (D), who has run as openly gay since she first sought a city council seat in suburban Cleveland. In 2012, when she won a seat in the Ohio House for the first time, she became the first openly gay member.
“My partner and I have two children, and we have been open and set an example of authenticity to our children and community,” Antonio says. “There were no factors to hide. I am who I am.”
Sooner or later, most gay and lesbian legislators have faced the question of how much to focus on “gay” issues—marriage, adoption, nondiscrimination in employment—as opposed to other policy topics.
Gay marriage and civil unions have certainly drawn in gay and lesbian lawmakers. For former Hawaii Representative Blake Oshiro (D), the debate over a civil unions bill was what led him to make public his sexual orientation. He had served in the House for 10 years before he took a major role in backing his state’s civil union bill. Listening to the debate convinced him that “it was the right time to run as an openly gay candidate.”
“I decided that it was time to be proud of who and what I am.”
—Delaware Senator Karen Peterson (D)
Likewise, the debate over same-sex marriage in Delaware prompted Senator Karen Peterson (D) to be open about being a lesbian. Elected to the state Senate in 2002, Peterson was not initially public about her sexual orientation. “Although all of my colleagues and many of my constituents knew that I was gay, I did not decide to come out publicly until Delaware’s same-sex marriage law was debated on the floor of the Senate last year,” Peterson says. “I decided that it was time to be proud of who and what I am.”
That said, gay lawmakers have also staked out more expansive issue portfolios. Colorado Senate President Pro Tem Lucia Guzman (D), for example, says that even though she’s sponsored a civil unions bill as well as other measures of interest to the LGBT community, “business, agriculture, natural resources and energy, the judiciary, First Amendment rights, and human and civil rights are also all part of my agenda,” she says.
The Friend Factor
Acceptance of gays and lesbians is growing, most of these lawmakers believe, because so many people have forged positive, personal relationships with gay neighbors, constituents and family members.
“Knowing an LGBT person is what it takes to change hearts and minds on LGBT issues,” says Steven R. Thai, press secretary for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a campaign group. “No state legislature has ever passed marriage equality without an openly LGBT member of its body.”
For instance, New Hampshire Senator David Pierce (D), elected in 2012, says a Republican colleague told him that his mere presence in the Senate “helped make [being gay] less foreign and more acceptable.”
Personal connections were no problem for Kathy Webb (D) from Arkansas. Having grown up in her district, she was so well known that she faced little resistance from voters. Many in her district knew her personally through her involvement in community service projects, and even though “some thought that my sexual orientation would hamper my effectiveness, my record of service and business accomplishments negated that,” Webb says.
Once she became the first openly gay member of the Arkansas Legislature in 2006, Webb says she saw “a big change” in how people viewed her.
“Initially, I think many of my colleagues were a little skeptical about me,” she says. “I rolled up my sleeves and worked hard on many issues, just like they did. I think when they got to know me, and saw that I was far from a one-issue legislator, their perceptions began to change.”
Antonio, the Ohio lawmaker, recalls an “elevator conversation” she had in her first month in the legislature, when she was asked what the proper term was for her partner; they had been together for 18 years and had two children. “Later that day,” she says, “someone let me know that the other legislator was overheard saying to a colleague, ‘I talked with Nickie about her family, and she’s so normal!’”
Jinkins, the Washington representative, said she’s “not a drinker or a smoker. I lead one of the most boring lives. So what’s funny is that people think there’s nothing more ‘out there’ than a lesbian, and it’s quite shocking to them when I’m ‘regular.’”
Public opinion surveys confirm the changing American attitudes toward gays and lesbians. An ABC News/Washington Post poll at the end of May found 56 percent of Americans in support of allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, but that varied greatly by age. Although more than three-quarters of adults under age 30 supported same-sex marriages, only a third of seniors over age 65 did. Overall, 50 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, according to the poll. In 2003, only 32 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage, and only one state allowed it.
Another survey, conducted in February by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that 52 percent of Americans believe legalizing same-sex marriage should be left up to the states, not decided by the federal government.
It also discovered that 72 percent of Americans favor laws protecting gay and lesbian people from job discrimination. When it comes to parenting, 68 percent believe gay and lesbian couples can be just as good parents as heterosexual couples, and 58 percent favor allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children.
Favor Allowing Gay and Lesbian People to Adopt Children
Favor Laws Protecting Gays and Lesbians from Job Discrimination
Favor Requiring the Federal Government to Recognize Same-Sex Marriages in States Where it Is Legal
Source: Public Religion Research Institute, Feb. 2014.
Louis Jacobson is deputy editor of PolitiFact and a state politics columnist for Governing magazine.