Revolutionary. Trailblazing. Tenacity. Coalition. Change. Hopeful. These are some words that were given to me by queer folks when asked for one word they think grasps how these queer wins happened.
On Election Night, or might I say, Election Week, there were several out, queer people who were elected into office. Some of these were firsts, such as Mauree Turner, the first out, nonbinary state legislator in the country, and the first Muslim lawmaker in Oklahoma; Christy Holstege, the first out bisexual mayor in the U.S.; Sarah McBride, the first out trans person elected to state senate ever; Ritchie Torres, the first gay, Afro-Latinx member of Congress; the list of firsts could go on and on, not to mention the entirety of queer people who were elected that weren’t a “first” of anything. But what’s as equally important as being aware of the queer people who were elected this year, is how queer people view this in regards to what it means for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the country, and overall public regard for the queer community, and for queerness.
Emmet, a trans gay guy and activist, talked with me about how he felt about all these groundbreaking wins and firsts in terms of the queer community and the overall acceptance of it publicly. “I think that it means that, obviously, we’re getting more recognition throughout other areas of representation, whether that’s media, [or] whether that be politics.” He also remarks that “It’s really great to have people on such a governmental, representational level, helping, you know, ratify laws and make solid changes to the way that things are run in this country because we have a lot to do.”
He does comment, though, that, “Amazing as it is, it is a first step.” This is a sentiment that resonates within a lot of minority groups, as mentioned by Flavio, a bisexual man. Flavio says, too, that, despite the fact that “the [queer] community, as a whole, is starting to become more accepted by the wider American culture,” he says that “there’s a lot of advancement left.” He adds that “especially for a lot of minority queer people, they’re not represented very well in the larger government and culture.”
Thinking of the importance of having queer elected officials who also represent other minority groups is echoed by Dr. Morgan Woolsey, a professor from the Music Department and LGBTQ Studies Department at UCLA. A queer person herself. Woolsey states, “As we’re seeing right now, being LGBTQ+ doesn’t mean you’re going to fight for issues that affect other community members if those issues don’t affect you personally.”
Emmet adds to this same idea, saying that “Part of what it means to have widespread recognition and representation within politics is also holding people who are LGBT to the same standard as everybody else.” He goes on to identify what he thinks is important: “Making sure that they are enacting policies and backing policies that help various communities that are represented under the LGBTQ umbrella, people of color, indigienous people, Native Americans, all ethnicities, disabled people, and neurodivergent people, all of the people who are a part of the LGBTQ community but also have intersections of identity; it’s incredibly important that they still get the sort of representation that they need, and that things pass, and sort of made better for them, within the federal level.”
A Latino, cisgender gay man, who asked to remain anonymous, (interviewed before President-Elect Joe Biden was the projected winner of the election) says, “I think [the wins] generally shows a more accepting public for queer people, but, with how close this election is, and how support for Trump has somehow increased, even in several minority groups, makes me think otherwise.”
Woolsey also makes it a point to recognize that “support for Trump among white LGBTQ+ people doubled between 2016 and 2020.”
Woolsey also adds onto a similar sentiment, as Emmet mentioned previously, that it is vital for queer officials to be aware of and care about the politics regarding different minority groups inside and outside of the queer community. “When out (white) gay and lesbian politicians started to get elected in the ’70s, there was an understandable skepticism regarding how much meaningful change could be enacted by those individuals in the context of a racist, colonialist, sexist structure like the U.S. government.” She also adds, “That skepticism remains, and I think it’s healthy. A queer official won’t necessarily make the best decisions for LGBTQ+ people.”
Emmet, in a similar vein, comments that “as a trans person, it can be kinda difficult with other people, within the LGBT umbrella, sort of respecting trans people.” Within the queer community, there’s some erasure, lack of acceptance, and, as pointed out by Emmet, a lack of respect for certain parts of the queer community. Brought up by Emmet and Woolsey, there’s inherent intersectionality within the queer community. Queer elected officials need to help people of all identities, and if they don’t, it ought to be brought to attention.
Knowing these queer wins don’t necessarily represent the queer community in its entirety, Brooke, a cisgender lesbian woman, reflects on the election of queer people, “As long as you can be passing in gender expression or behavior, or quiet enough about your queer identity, the public will be relatively accepting. This has exceptions of course.”
This concept of queer people, and other minority groups, having to “look” and “act” the role in order to gain positions of power should be looked at and considered. Are these queer people being elected only because of their gender-conforming looks and their way of being? Brooke says, “not too loud, not too flamboyant, not too defiant,” in personality and attitude is accepted. Whether this is a contributing factor to these successes doesn’t discount this being a win for the queer community.
Hannah, a bisexual woman, remarks, “I’m very thankful there’s more representation in the U.S. of different types of people, of backgrounds, instead of just being like, limited to heterosexual people representing heterosexual people.” Nonetheless, she is cognizant that this is just a first step of many and not the end goal.
Thinking more about the public opinion of queer people, Brooke brings up another issue: “Addressing LGBTQ+ issues as a queer elected official may be difficult because people will call bias, or accuse them of diverting too much attention and tax money to supporting something they don’t agree with.”
Additionally, Flavio remarks this win shows that “People are getting more accustomed to the idea that there are, in fact, people that don’t adhere to the normal concept of sexuality as enforced by religious belief,” something that he sees as a big influence on the public’s opinion of queer people.
Considering this, it may explain why, as Hannah puts it, “It might seem as if [queer people are] more visible now, and they’re appearing from nowhere. That’s not true. LGBTQ people have been around forever.” This is an important point to bring up. Following Flavio’s idea, it may be due to people beginning to “dissociate religion as such a large facet for life, which has been a common feature throughout recent history,” therefore, being more comfortable with who they really are and doing so in a somewhat more accepting world.
As wonderful as it is to have queer people representing (non)queer individuals, possibly indicating that queerness is more accepted, Flavio says he doesn’t think that voters specifically chose to elect these officials due to their queerness. Rather, they “simply want their policies and ideals reflected in the government officials that they elect.” Reflecting on this, the previously mentioned anonymous cisgender Latino man comments that he “doesn’t think that many people would have voted for them because of their identity unless the voter themselves were a part of the community. [He’s] sure people voted against [queer candidates] because [of] it.”
The importance of having representation can go deeper than changes in public policy. Brooke comments that “It could really help young queer people. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone that wasn’t straight and cis. The only time I saw queer people was on TV, and it was typically negative and full of offensive stereotypes.”
She further goes on to bring up the importance of visibility. “I think the visibility that having queer elected officials brings is amazing. Young queer kids can find a queer person that is seemingly respected by society and successful just by looking up government officials.” “We’re not the other anymore,” Hannah says, “We’re being incorporated into the government.”
The number of queer officials elected in 2020 is significant, public policy aside. Young queer people genuinely contemplate ending their lives at three times the rate than heterosexual youth, and they’re about five times as likely to have attempted it than heterosexual youth. In having representation, this is a first step in allowing queer people to see a future where they can be successful.
As Brooke so nicely puts it, “Having a face and a name for a happy and successful queer person is wonderful and shows that queer life is not tragedy.”