Why lesbians are making gains in elective office

Like other minorities, LGBT people are seriously underrepresented in our country’s political offices.

But I’ve seen a few signs that one consonant in that cluster is especially well positioned to gain ground. Lesbians are on the march.

OK, that probably overstates things. Let’s say they’re on a brisk crawl. But consider: The Victory Fund, which supports LGBT candidates nationwide in races ranging from school board to governor, recently crunched the numbers on how its 1,162 beneficiaries over the last decade fared, and the results are particularly positive for women.

The results are encouraging overall – and they’re a subtle ray of light following a dark week in terms of the Trump administration’s actions. Despite past statements of affinity with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, President Donald Trump hastily announced a ban on transgender people in the military, and in court filings, his Justice Department went out of its way to enunciate the position that gay people are not protected by a federal civil rights law on employment discrimination.

These are steps backward. But voters seem to be moving forward: The overwhelming majority of the Victory Fund’s candidates are prevailing. Not at equal rates, though.

Women in the LGBT community won 70.3 percent of their races. Men won only 60.9 percent. And that’s unusual, because there’s almost no difference in success rates for female versus male candidates generally. (There are so many fewer women in office largely because so many fewer women run.)

Meanwhile, another set of data shows an increase in the number of openly lesbian lawmakers in state legislatures. There are 44 – still paltry, but an all-time high. The number of openly gay male lawmakers in state legislatures, 61, is significantly down from a peak of 72 in 2014, according to figures compiled by Charles Gossett, a professor at Sacramento State University, and the LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative at the University of North Carolina. The number of openly trans lawmakers in state legislatures hasn’t changed over the four decades that the initiative’s figures cover. It’s zero.

The figures show that 40 percent of all LGBT lawmakers at the state level are lesbian. In contrast, only 25 percent of allstate lawmakers, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are women. So there’s something much closer to female-to-male parity among the LGBT lawmakers.

The New York Times is the first publication to be provided with these selective snapshots, and they’re just that: snapshots. But they gibe with some politicians’ sense that voters may indeed be more receptive, or at least less resistant, to lesbians than to gay men.

“We’re less threatening, I think,” Annise Parker, mayor of Houston from 2010-2016, told me in a recent telephone interview. She said lesbians don’t deal with anything precisely like “the long-dispelled shibboleths about gay men being sexual predators.”

More gay men than gay women have been mayors – including, currently, the mayors of cities as disparate as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Lexington, Kentucky – just as more straight men than straight women have. But Parker remains the only openly LGBT person ever elected to lead one of the nation’s 10 most populous cities.

Similarly, the only openly LGBT person ever elected governor is also a woman, Kate Brown, who won in Oregon last year. She is married to a man but identifies as bisexual. (In 2004, Gov. James McGreevey of New Jersey came out as gay more than two years after his election, announcing his resignation simultaneously.)

And there is only one openly LGBT person ever elected to the U.S. Senate: Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian, who is in her first term.

In the House of Representatives, however, openly LGBT men have enjoyed the advantage. There are five in the House now while there’s just one openly LGBT woman, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who identifies as bisexual.

That makes for a current total of seven openly LGBT members of Congress, counting Baldwin, or 1.3 percent of the 535 lawmakers in all. According to Gallup, roughly 4 percent of Americans identify as LGBT.

Pat Spearman, a state senator in Nevada since 2013, is one of them.

“I’m African-American and a woman and a lesbian: I can’t catch a break,” she told me. “You know what I’m saying?” She laughed, then talked about the many decades when she kept her sexual orientation secret, partly because she was in the U.S. military and partly because she was an ordained Methodist minister. She’s 62 and came out just seven years ago.

I asked her if she’d talked about that journey during her campaign. Yes, she answered, and many voters, regardless of sexual orientation, seemed to hear echoes of their own struggles. “People could relate,” she said, adding that they respected “that I embraced all of these: African-American, woman, lesbian.”

Openly LGBT politicians sometimes get points from voters for candor and even character. “There’s a little bit of the dynamic that if you’re honest about that, you'll be honest about everything,” Parker said. “There’s a kind of halo effect.”

That accrues to gay women and men equally. But what may well distinguish lesbians and explain the success rates that the Victory Fund observed is how well prepared they are, political analysts told me. As women, they’re more hesitant than men to run, and that, coupled with being lesbian, may make them pause several extra beats to be absolutely sure that their experience and mettle can eclipse any bigotry they confront.

“It might be that lesbians who have made it over all the hurdles to the stage of candidacy are just damn impressive community leaders and thus better candidates,” said Andrew Reynolds, a professor of political science at UNC and the director of its research initiative. “It’s pretty rare to find a lesbian in elected office who is out of her depth.”

Parker noted that by the time of her election as the mayor of Houston, she’d worked for many years in the energy industry, a vital part of the city’s economy, and had been a well-known city councilwoman as well as the city controller.

When I asked her which sort of discrimination – sexism or homophobia – she’d encountered more often along the way, she answered instantly: sexism. “I think at the highest levels,” she said, “the woman thing kicks in and kicks us in the teeth.”

And the gay woman thing?

Maybe that toughens a candidate. Maybe that helps her bounce back from the kick.