For LGBTQ activists, the home stretch of the midterm election campaign is a good news, bad news phenomenon.
A record number of LGBTQ candidates are running for office, according to newly compiled data, and some breakthrough victories are likely. In Massachusetts, Democrat Maura Healey is favored to become the first openly gay candidate elected as the state's governor. Another lesbian — Democrat Becca Balint -- is favored to win Vermont's lone U.S. House seat, becoming the first woman and first openly gay person to represent the state in Congress.
Yet these potential milestones, and the large cohort of LGBTQ candidates, coincide with aggressive efforts by some Republican politicians to target LGBTQ people, especially transgender Americans, with a wave of hostile rhetoric and legislation.
Numerous GOP-led states have passed laws restricting trans students’ participation on school sports teams.Arkansas has outlawed gender-affirming medical treatments for trans youth. And Florida’s so-called “Don't Say Gay" law has prohibited discussion of various LGBTQ issues in many of the state’s classrooms.
“This November, we have an opportunity to elect more LGBTQ people to office than ever before,” said Annise Parker, president & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option when our rights are on the chopping block.”
The Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to electing LGBTQ leaders to public office, said in a report Wednesday that at least 1,065 LGBTQ people have run for elective offices this year, the most in history. It said 678 of these candidates won their primaries and will appear on the ballot in November, an 18% increase from 2020.
According to the fund, 2022 is the first year in which openly LGBTQ candidates ran in all 50 states, ranging from 178 in California to one in Mississippi. Of the candidates, 416 ran for state legislative seats, 119 for Congress, 335 for local positions and 41 for statewide offices.
Among the possible precedent-setters is Erick Russell, running for state treasurer in Connecticut. The fund said he would be the first Black LGBTQ person elected to a statewide office. In Oregon, Democrat Tina Kotek is in a high-profile gubernatorial race; both she and Healey offer the prospect that the U.S. would have an out lesbian as a governor for the first time.
Along with Vermont, voters in North Carolina, Oregon, Maryland and Illinois have the chance to elect the first openly LGBTQ candidate to represent their state in Congress, according to the Victory Fund.
People of color accounted for about 38% of the LGBTQ candidates, up from about 31% in 2022, according to the fund. It also reported an increase in the number of candidates who are transgender, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming — they accounted for 14% of all LGBTQ candidates, compared with about 8% in 2020.
Among the most striking statistics in the fund’s report is the partisan gap -- 89.3% of the LGBTQ candidates ran as Democrats and only 4.5% as Republicans.
That gap mirrors the partisan divide in Congress and in statehouses across the country, where Democrats generally have favored protecting and expanding LGBTQ rights, while many Republicans have sought to convey LGBTQ activism as a threat to children.
Last week, for example, Republicans in the U.S. House introduced a bill with similarities to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, seeking to bar any schools or other institutions that receive federal funds from offering “sexually oriented” programs to children under 10.
“The Democrat Party and their cultural allies are on a misguided crusade to immerse young children in sexual imagery and radical gender ideology,” said a statement from the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana.
In Michigan, where Republican Tudor Dixon is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Dixon made a similar attack during their recent debate.
Whitmer “would gladly put little boys in your daughter’s locker room,” Dixon said. “She hasn’t stood for parents who have said, ‘Why do we have adults whispering sex and gender into the ears of our little kids?’”
In Nashville, Tennessee, Republicans held a rally last week to call for strict anti-transgender policies. The GOP leaders in the state Senate and House said that the first bill introduced for the 2023 session would be a ban on gender-affirming care for minors.
Florida already has some rules of that nature, and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis defended them during a debate Monday night with his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist. At one point, DeSantis likened gender-affirming medical care ”to “chemically castrating young boys.”
Becca Balint, who has served four terms in the Vermont Senate, sees the wave of anti-LGBTQ laws as a response to widespread gains for LGBTQ rights and inclusion.
“There’s always a backlash,” she told The Associated Press. “That’s what we're seeing right now -- people stoking hatred and fear.”
Even as a political veteran, she finds it “an incredible honor” to be on the verge of history as an LGBTQ political trailblazer.
“I’m reminded of it every time parents bring their kids to meet me at events,” she said. “They hold me up as an example of how we’re able to send a woman and queer person to Congress who’s going to be able to represent all of Vermont.”
Healey, who has been serving as the nation’s first openly gay state attorney general, feels similar emotions.
“I see that as an important part of my role here — to help open doors for other LGBTQ+ folks,” she said via email. “I think about what my election as Governor might mean for young girls and young LGBTQ+ people across the country who are finally seeing themselves reflected in leadership.”
Crary is the AP's religion news director. Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.