What It’s Like to Be a Queer Woman Running for Office
Around the world, fewer than one-quarter of lawmakers are women — an imbalance in representation that affects how laws are crafted and passed and how equality is created in societies. Global Citizen’s series, “Who Run The Gov? Girls!” chronicles the massive uptick in women running for office, regardless of political party, in the US and around the world, highlighting the candidates and the groups helping them to run, the challenges they face, advice & tips for running, and the results.
Women who want to run for elected office face a plethora of challenges not faced by men — access to money, power, and voters who are used to seeing candidates like them in office are all harder to come by.
But for one subset of female candidates, those challenges are even harder.
Queer women make up just a tiny fraction of elected office holders across the country: one in Congress and one in the Senate, one governor, one state attorney general, and a handful of state and local legislators.
And just as a lack of parity between female and male legislators can lead to unequal protections under the law for women — or laws that specifically target women but are shaped without their input — a lack of LGBT representation in political discourse can have dramatic effects on how queer citizens are viewed under US law.
“Not only do we have not a lot of women in office — we’re still a minority on every level — but there’s also a lack of LBT female representation as well,” Eunic Ortiz, the co-chair of the LGBT political group Equality Now, told Global Citizen. “And what’s at stake is our livelihood and true equality for LGBT people in all 50 states.”
Groups like Equality Now, the Lesbian Political Action Committee, and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund are working to recruit, train, and fund queer female candidates to win electoral races and help shape the laws of the future. Global Citizen checked in with these groups to look at the challenges specifically facing these women in their quest for elected office.
Recruiting: Facing the Fears of Running While Gay
There has been a “huge uptick” in LGBT people interested in running for office since the election of President Donald Trump on Nov. 9, 2016, according to Sean Meloy, the political director of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. But converting a citizen who's curious about holding office into a candidate who's ready to run can be very difficult.
Recruiting candidates begins with community outreach, Ortiz said. Since LGBT candidates don’t regularly see representation in elected officials, they might not automatically think they are suited for it, so it can take some convincing.
“The two biggest concerns I’ve heard about people running is first and foremost putting yourself out there, into an open process, putting your heart out there and making decisions. For somebody who is not familiar with it, that is the first concern I hear,” Ortiz said. “And the second is money. You need money to run, and we as a community need to support a person who wants to run.”
Meloy pointed out that because so many elected officials are straight, white men, candidates who feel different from the norm might not necessarily think they’re qualified to run.
“Because people are underrepresented, it's always going to be a trailblazing effort to get into whatever they’re running for,” Meloy said.
Personal Attacks: Getting Past Homophobia from Opponents
When Danica Roem, a trans woman running for state legislature in Virginia, won her Democratic primary earlier this month, her straight, white, male Republican opponent referred to Roem as “he” in a statement the following day. It was a subtle but startling sign of disrespect for Roem’s gender identity, but one that didn’t surprise activists like Meloy, from the Victory Fund, which has endorsed Roem.
“There’s not a solid understanding of a lot of LGBT issues, so those folks are able to breed some fear. We see that when it comes to these bathroom bills,” Meloy said. “People don’t necessarily have the interaction or education when it comes to trans issues, and they frame it as, ‘there are predators,’ and that scares people.”
Still, attacks on the LGBT community will happen whether or not members are running for office, Meloy pointed out. So it’s better to have candidates running who can counter those attacks in real time.
“We’re going to be under attack whether or not people are running, but we will be under attack less if we are in the room, whether it’s a school board or city council or US congress trying to pass the Equality Act,” Meloy said. “Being at the table is key and the only way we’re going to have proper and full and proportional representation is if we run. They’re not going to stop coming for us if we don’t run.”
Beth Shipp, the executive director of the Lesbian Political Action Committee (LPAC), said that the candidates she interacts with today are often not afraid of stating exactly who they are, and showing that they have partners, wives, and families just like other political candidates, which can help dispel some homophobia.
“What I love about them is they’re just in your face,” she said. “I am like any other candidate running for office and I’m not going to play this game with you.”
Funding: Access to Money & Power as a Minority
One of the biggest barriers facing any female candidate is funding: women typically have less access to powerful networks of deep-pocket donors than men do. For LGBT candidates, that problem is compounded, according to advocates.
“It’s a smaller donor universe anyway and then it shrinks down even further,” Shipp said.
But Shipp believes there’s a good solution for the problem: more women donating smaller amounts of money in order to raise the same amount in the end.
“If the Women’s March is any indication and support for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU is any indication, women are able to give. I think you just have to find a way to tap donor networks that are lower dollar,” she said.
The Victory Fund, LPAC, and Equality Now help funnel some of the money raised to candidates around the country, but that’s not the only solution, according to Meloy.
“Obviously with any candidacy, resources is an issue,” Meloy said. “But Danica [Roem] was outspent in her race by a a couple of her opponents and won with over 40% of the vote in a four-person field because she worked hard and had a message that resonated.”
Campaigning: Reaching the Right Voters with the Right Message
All of the advocates working on LGBT political issues said voters today care more about the issues affecting them than about a candidate's’ personal life. While it can be a little harder running in a conservative district than a liberal bastion like New York or San Francisco, LGBT candidates across the country are running and connecting with voters.
“I think that lesbian and queer candidates, LGBT candidates writ large, are the same and are running similar campaigns to everyone else,” Shipp said, “and I don’t think most voters see that as something that is a mark against them.”
These days, the art of reaching voters and convincing them to support you can be more of a science. Shipp’s organization is exploring how to use data analytics and modeling to reach voters who may be interested specifically in supporting LGBT candidates, a system that doesn’t exist yet but could be key for winning swing districts, she said.
The Victory Fund has endorsed six candidates across the country for this year’s elections, including a black trans woman, Andrea Jenkins, running for city council in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Cathy Woolard, a lesbian running to be the first out lesbian mayor of Atlanta (and the Deep South), Roem, the trans woman running for Virginia state legislature, and Jenny Durkan, who is running to become the first lesbian mayor of Seattle and second-ever female mayor of Seattle.
“So many of these women are poised to be the first openly LGBT women where they’re running,” Meloy said. “We’re excited about all of their opportunities to win and make history.”