2020 has been a historic year in politics — and not just because of the presidential election. Across the country, over 1,000 openly LGBTQ+ candidates ran for office this year, more than in any previous year. And while not all who ran won, those who did are breaking barriers in politics at the federal, state, and local levels.
Here’s a look at just a few of the candidates whose wins have increased the presence and visibility of LGBTQ+ in politics around the country. Although it’s too early to predict what impact they will have on legislation, most have campaigned on platforms which, if enacted, would bring progressive change.
Breaking the “Lavender Ceiling” in State Senates
Joe Biden isn’t the only Delaware politician in the spotlight this year. On Tuesday, Sarah McBride was elected State Senator for Delaware’s 1st district, becoming the state’s first openly LGBTQ+ person voted to the state legislature and the country’s first openly transgender person voted into any state senate. McBride, who ran on a platform of reforming health care, education, and criminal justice, defeated Republican candidate Steve Washington with over 70% of the vote. Her victory has also made her the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the country.
“For Sarah to shatter a lavender ceiling in such a polarizing year is a powerful reminder that voters are increasingly rejecting the politics of bigotry in favor of candidates who stand for fairness and equality,” said Annise Parker, President and CEO of the Victory Fund, in a statement released on Tuesday. “Her victory will inspire more trans people to follow in her footsteps and run for public office.”
Three other states have joined Delaware in electing their first openly LGBTQ+ senators. In Georgia, Kim Jackson won her bid in the 41st district with 79% of the vote, making her Georgia’s first openly LGBTQ+ state senator and one of only three Black LGBTQ+ women in state senates nationwide. She ran on a platform to expand Medicaid, reform education, protect voting rights, and advocate for an anti-discrimination bill that would offer protections for Georgians on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, sex, and ability.
In Florida, Shevrin Jones became the first openly LGBTQ+ senator elected to the state’s upper chamber. Jones will join Jabari Brisport — who won the state senate seat in New York’s 25th district — as the first two Black, openly LGBTQ+ men elected to any state senate.
Changing the Face of Law Enforcement
Charlene McGuffey and Kristin Graziano both made history on Tuesday by becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ persons elected to the office of sheriff in their respective counties.
The win is especially sweet for McGuffey, who will become the first woman to serve as sheriff of Ohio’s Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati. A 33-year veteran of the Department, McGuffey had been fired, she says, in 2017 because of her sexual orientation (her former boss, Jim Neil, said her ousting was because of a refusal of a demotion following an internal investigation). Rather than exit quietly, McGuffey ran against incumbent Neil in April’s Democratic primaries, defeating him soundly with 70% of the vote. She went on to defeat her Republican challenger on a platform of police accountability and justice reform.
Like McGuffey, Graziano also ran for sheriff of Charleston County in South Carolina on a platform of police reform, vowing in her first 100 days to restructure the department, create greater community outreach, and reform the juvenile justice system. She defeated longtime incumbent Al Cannon, who’d served in the position since 1988. Graziano will become both the first openly LGBTQ+ person and woman elected to the office.
“I think the people of Charleston are ready for a change,” she said in an appearance with the media on Wednesday. “When you look at the voting totals, we crossed party lines. This is not straight-ticket Democrat-Republican. This is what people wanted.”
Congressional Firsts From New York
With their election victories last week, Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones have become the first Black and openly LGBTQ+ persons elected to the House of Representatives. While each ran in divergently different Democratic districts — Torres in the Bronx and Jones in the affluent suburbs north of New York City — both men won decisively with over 80% of the vote.
Torres, who grew up in public housing, was elected to the New York City Council in 2013, making him the youngest elected official and the first LGBTQ+ person elected to represent the Bronx. While on the council, he was responsible for legislation that addressed affordable housing, mental health access for the LGBTQ+, police reform, and the opioid epidemic, which are also among the issues central to his campaign for Congress.
“The voters of the South Bronx are primarily concerned about bread-and-butter issues like health and housing, schools and jobs,” he said in an interview with ABC news.
The year Torres was elected to the City Council, Mondaire earned his Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. He went on to serve in the Justice Department under Barack Obama and, later, as an attorney. He ran on a progressive platform in support of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
“Growing up poor, Black, and gay, I never imagined someone like me could run for Congress, let alone win,” Jones said in a statement issued after his victory in June’s primaries. “Indeed, in the 244-year history of the United States, there has never been an openly gay, Black member of Congress. That changes this year.”
Progress in State Houses Across the Country — And Across Party Lines
Before last week, Tennessee was one of only five states that hadn’t sent an openly LGBTQ+ candidate to either chamber of its state legislatures. Now, it has two — one from each major political party.
Republican Eddie Mannis was elected to represent Knoxville in the state’s 18th district.
For Torrey Harris, the win was even more historic. Harris defeated John DeBerry, who’d represented House District 90 since 1994, making him, at 29, the youngest lawmaker in the state. Harris won his seat with 77% of the vote.
Another upset occurred in the Texas State House District 134, where Democrat Ann Johnson defeated Republican incumbent Sarah Davis by a margin of 5% at 52% to 47%. Despite Democratic efforts to regain control of the Texas State House, Johnson’s was the only seat gained by the party this election cycle, which comes at a critical time: right before a once-in-10-year redistricting.
According to a statement by the Victory Fund, “Ann will join a growing number of LGBTQ women in the State House and help them pass pro-equality legislation. Her victory is a positive sign that more LGBTQ voices are joining the Texas legislature.”
In another first in Florida, Michele Raynor-Goolsby has become the first Black openly LGBTQ+ woman elected to the State House, where she will represent District 70. She campaigned on a platform to ensure affordable housing and health care for Florida residents and to reform public education, including the promise to file legislation to increase the minimum salary of public school teachers to $50,000.
Transgender women also made gains in state houses — sometimes in surprising locations.
Stephanie Byers became the first openly transgender state legislator in Kansas when she won her bid for House District 86. As a member of the Indigenous Chickasaw Nation, she is also the first openly transgender person of color elected to the legislature. The retired public school teacher ran on a platform of expanding Medicaid, reforming education, and ending discrimination for LGBTQ+ persons.
In Vermont, Taylor Small — who performs Drag Queen Story Hours as Nikki Champagne in libraries across the state — was one of two candidates elected to represent the Chittenden 6-7 district.
“The impact of Taylor’s groundbreaking victory cannot be overstated. There are so few transgender people in elected office that nearly every win is a historic one,” says Annise Parker in a statement released on the Victory Fund’s website. “Even pro-equality states like Vermont need trans voices in government to ensure the priorities and concerns of the community are heard.”
Byers, Small, and McBride of Delaware will now join four other transgender lawmakers already elected into state legislatures. Three of these incumbents — Lisa Bunker and Geri Cannon of New Hampshire and Brianna Titone of Colorado — won their bids for re-election. Their collective victories mean that the number of transgender representatives in state legislatures has nearly doubled in one election cycle.
They also join the growing number of LGBTQ+ candidates who are making their presence in politics known not only through their activism, but through their ascendance into elected office — many in traditionally “red” states which aren’t traditionally viewed as LGBTQ+ friendly. The inroads these candidates have made showcase the growing diversity and complexity of our country and signal that, yes, our voices really do matter — no matter where we are from.