When Colorado State Representative Brianna Titone first showed up in 2017, she struggled to be considered a serious contender.
“My first race was very difficult,” she said. “Neither Democrats nor Republicans thought I had a chance of winning.”
Titone, a Democrat, said she had to do all of her own fundraising while continuing to go to school and have a day job.
“I had to go way beyond what anyone else had to do,” she said.
“By better understanding the barriers and working to reduce their impact, we can encourage more LGBTQ women to run for office and increase our numbers for elected positions.”
Annise Parker, LGBTQ Victory Institute
Despite obstacles, including transphobic attacks on the electoral trail, Titone has two electoral victories under his belt and the distinction of being the state’s first transgender lawmaker.
The obstacles Titone faces are shared by many lesbian, bisexual and transgender women who are running or considering running for office, according to a new report from the LGBTQ Victory Institute. The report interviewed nearly 300 former political candidates, current and potential across the country and found that high campaign costs, physical threats, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, external perceptions of their qualifications, and lack of political mentors were among the most frequently cited obstacles.
“The barriers for LGBTQ women – and LGBTQ women of color and trans women in particular – are huge, but we know when they show up they win,” said former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. “By better understanding the barriers and working to reduce their impact, we can encourage more LGBTQ women to run for office and increase our numbers for elected positions.”
While women across the spectrum of gender identity and sexuality lack proportionate political representation in the United States, LGBTQ women are particularly under-represented. While women occupy about a quarter of the seats in the House and Senate, according to RepresentWomen, there are only four lesbian and bisexual women in Congress out of 535 members (there has never been an openly transgender member in Congress. ). And out of 7,383 seats in state legislatures across the country, only 98 lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are known to serve, or 1.3 percent, according to LPAC, an organization that promotes the election of LGBTQ women.
The money needed to run a competitive campaign discouraged many survey respondents, who said they were concerned about their ability to raise funds and access donor networks.
Almost half of past and current applicants and 60% of potential applicants said they were reluctant to run due to fundraising issues.
“As campaigns evolve, they get bigger, more expensive, more crowded – and a lot of LGBTQ women show up for primaries,” said Lisa Turner, CEO of the LPAC.
“Men have an advantage over women when it comes to political money,” she added, noting that even gay men are able to attract more campaign dollars (although queer women have higher electoral success rate, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute).
Some respondents also expressed concern about the need to take time off work to campaign. About 40% of potential applicants and 16% of current and former applicants said it made them hesitate to run. Respondents of color were more likely to report these concerns.
“You learn very quickly that it can be difficult to run if you don’t come personally or professionally to wealth,” said former Air Force captain Gina Ortiz Jones. Jones, a lesbian, ran for Congress in Texas in 2018 and 2020, but lost to her Republican opponents.
Jones said that when she first thought about running, a Democratic Party member asked her if she could raise $ 300,000 in 90 days.
“It’s a deterrent,” she said.
Threats of violence
Many LGBTQ women interviewed expressed concerns about violence and verbal abuse during the campaign.
The majority of potential applicants, 3 in 5, said they were “somewhat” or “very” concerned about threats of violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of current and former applicants, 45% reported such concerns.
Jenna Wadsworth, who lost her candidacy in November for North Carolina’s commissioner of agriculture, became the target of online vitriol during the campaign when she posted a video on social media asking viewers if the diagnosis Donald Trump’s Covid-19 was their “favorite or most favorite October. Surprise.”
While Wadsworth admitted his remark was in bad taste, the responses were downright frightening and made him fear for his safety. “I received gang rape threats after this video,” Wadsworth said. “Until election night, I couldn’t stay at home for three weeks.”
Transgender women reported having the greatest fear of violence: almost 4 in 5 said they fear violence because of their gender identity.
Bigotry on the road to the countryside
In addition to fearing threats of violence, many respondents said they feared becoming the target of homophobic, transphobic and racist attacks.
More than 50% of potential candidates said seeing how LGBTQ and female candidates were the target of sectarian attacks gave them concerns about their candidacy. Over 60% of potential applicants of color said they were concerned about seeing other victims of racist attacks.
Jones has been the target of attacks by the Republican National Committee of Congress, which has reportedly suggested that conservative advocacy organizations focus on his sexual orientation. Some ads also targeted her support for members of transgender services, claiming Jones would “radicalize” the country by diverting military spending to pay for “transgender reassignment surgeries.” According to the Washington Post, Republican officials believed the ads helped derail Jones’ campaign and saw them as part of a larger strategy to make transgender rights a political flashpoint.
“It was clear that this is a tactic that they were going to lean heavily into,” Jones said.
Jones said that with attack ads that are unlikely to disappear, especially those focused on transgender issues, it was important for candidates like her to know how to counter them in the media and among voters. “We know the attacks are coming,” Ortiz Jones said. “What’s the best way to repel them?”
In addition to sectarian attacks, respondents expected sexist comments from the media and harsher public evaluations than male candidates. They said they were concerned about how to manage facial expressions and tone of voice “to appear warm but serious,” according to the results. They also expressed concern about how their appearance would be portrayed. Respondents worried about appearing too masculine, but also worried that attempts to appear traditionally feminine would appear inauthentic or less professional.
These LGBTQ and potential candidates also feared coming across as “good moms” and feared their political opponents “arming their families” by emphasizing their “non-traditional” nature. On the other hand, respondents who did not have children or a spouse feared it would be used against them to portray them as “anti-family,” according to the report.
Internal and external doubts
Many participants feared that the media would question or downgrade their qualifications or subject them to standards different from those of men.
Titone said that during her first candidacy she struggled to gain media coverage, with only a few articles written about her in local media. She was also worried about being classified.
“Most of the news was pretty honest,” she said, “but at the same time, I was also telling a lot of reporters that I didn’t want to be just the trans person running for office.”
Running for office also requires specialized knowledge – on how to run for office, how to build a campaign team and how to make party politics work. The doubt that some LGBTQ women have about this political know-how has prevented some of them from officially becoming candidates: nearly 3 in 5 respondents delayed or hesitated to run because they were concerned about their lack of political knowledge.
Some respondents called the network policy the exclusion of the “good old boys” and said party officials would not see them as viable candidates. Three in five potential candidates said a lack of familiarity with party politics discouraged them from running, and 2 in 5 candidates said the same.
Lack of role models
Many women interviewed said having mentors would help them feel more comfortable running for office, but said they did not have access to mentors.
Almost 40% of potential candidates expressed reluctance to run due to the lack of LGBTQ political role models, and nearly 30% of potential candidates said the same about politicians of color.
Jasmin Lewis, 33, a grade 11 English teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida, describes herself as a “proud black bisexual woman” and “deeply passionate about education.”
She considered running for the school board, but was reluctant to run due to anxiety about being the first openly bisexual black woman on the board.
“I would be a trailblazer in a way,” she said. “It takes a lot of vulnerability.”
In addition to common barriers, the women who participated in the survey also cited some common motivating factors: the need for diverse representation among elected officials, the desire to work on issues that are personal to them, encouragement external to running for office and frustration with elected officials and their agendas.
Lewis still dreams of one day showing up to the school board to voice the concerns of LGBTQ students and students of color.
“I’m not going to be quiet about this until our students feel safe, until they can show up and be represented,” Lewis said.
While the LGBTQ Victory Institute report notes that the structural barriers for LGBTQ female candidates are “enormous,” it made several suggestions for breaking down some of the barriers. They include creating a mentoring network for LGBTQ women considering running for office, developing a nationwide network of donors passionate about supporting LGBTQ female candidates, and supporting media literacy among journalists. and the media to ensure fair reporting on LGBTQ candidates.
Jones has a simple tip for all queer women considering elected office: “Run.”
“Let the fanatics do their best,” she said, because racing “that’s how it changes”.
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