LGBTQ Women Balance Opportunity, Possible Extinction in Congress

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 21, 2017 · 9:41 AM EDT

It’s been almost 20 years since Tammy Baldwin’s historic election, yet just one woman has followed her through the LGBTQ glass ceiling. And if both women lose competitive races in 2018, the next Congress could be without any LGBTQ women.

While the lack of LGBTQ women in Congress is inextricably linked to the dearth of women on Capitol Hill, the story of lesbian candidates includes some close calls, quixotic races, and a movement still evolving to position more qualified LGBTQ women to run for higher office.

“We have to figure out the secret sauce of how Tammy did it,” said Aisha Moodie-Mills, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. In 1998, the Wisconsin Democrat became the first openly gay nonincumbent elected to Congress, with help from the Human Rights Campaign, the Victory Fund, and others.

But in the intervening two decades, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who identifies as bisexual, is the only other openly LGBTQ woman elected to Congress, meaning LGBTQ women currently make up less than half of one percent of the lawmakers in Congress — 1 out of 435 in the House and 1 out of 100 in the Senate. (In 2012, Baldwin became the first openly gay elected senator.)

If Sinema leaves her 9th District seat to run for the Senate, the 116th Congress could be without any LGBTQ women in the House. According to Gallup, 4 percent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (a majority of whom are women). But if Sinema runs for the Senate and loses and Baldwin loses a competitive re-election race, elected LGBTQ women on Capitol Hill could dip into obscurity. 

“It’s pathetic,” said LPAC Executive Director Beth Shipp. “It shows that there is more work to be done to have more equity and parity in Congress.”

Close calls
Baldwin came close to having company in Congress in the years before Sinema’s arrival in 2013.

In Baldwin’s victorious cycle, San Diego city Councilmember Christine Kehoe lost to GOP Rep. Brian P. Bilbray by just 2 points, 49 percent to 47 percent, in California’s 49th District. Two other LGBTQ women also ran that cycle, but lost by larger margins: Retired Army National Guard Col. Grethe Cammermeyer of Washington (who became an LGBTQ hero when she was discharged in 1992 after disclosing that she was gay, and was later played by Glenn Close in a TV movie) and state Rep. Susan Tracy of Massachusetts. 

Two years later, Democrat Gerrie Schipske lost a close race to GOP Rep. Steve Horn, 48.5 percent to 47.5 percent, in California’s 38th District.

In the 2002 cycle, two of the most established lesbian candidates to ever run for Congress fell short. State Sen. Cheryl Jacques finished second in the 2001 Democratic primary in the Massachusetts special election won by now-Rep. Stephen F. Lynch. State Sen. Susan Longley lost by 4 points (31-27 percent) to state Sen. Michael H. Michaud in the Democratic primary in Maine’s 2nd District. Michaud, who won the seat in the general election, publicly came out as gay before running for governor in 2014.

Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard lost a Democratic primary in Georgia’s 4th District in 2004 and businesswoman Linda Ketner lost a close race to GOP Rep. Henry E. Brown Jr. in South Carolina’s 1st District four years later.

From 2002 to 2016, 21 LGBTQ women ran for Congress compared to 110 gay men, according to unofficial numbers by a Democratic strategist who tracks LGBTQ candidates. That disparity could help explain why there are five openly gay men in Congress: Jared Polis of Colorado, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Mark Takano of California, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who won Baldwin’s 2nd District when she was elected to the Senate.

“Lesbians don’t seem to run for office,” said Schipske, who also lost a 2002 race to GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher but was subsequently elected to the Long Beach City Council. “[It’s] the same thing that stops all women: Politics is still seen as a male profession.”

“We have to mentor and encourage women to seek public office,” she added. But sometimes, even when LGBTQ women run and win a majority of the vote, it’s not enough.

Last cycle in Minnesota, two LGBTQ women split 53 percent of the vote in the 2nd District: former St. Jude Medical executive Angie Craig, who is gay, took 45 percent, while Independence Party nominee Paula Overby, a transgender woman, won 8 percent. Republican Jason Lewis won the open seat with a plurality, the remaining 47 percent of the vote. Craig, who would have been the first gay mother in Congress, is running again in 2018.

Beyond moral victories
One way to boost the number of lesbians in Congress is to identify candidates in more Democratic districts.

Baldwin and Sinema’s victories both aligned with Democratic presidential victories. Baldwin was initially elected in 1998 to a House seat that Bill Clinton carried by 22 points two years earlier. She was elected to the Senate in 2012 when Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 7 points. Sinema, similarly, was elected while Obama was carrying her district by 4 points. Polis, Takano, Cicilline, and Pocan were also elected from Democratic districts. Trump narrowly carried Maloney’s district in 2016, but Obama took it by 4 points the year the congressman was first elected. 

That’s a stark contrast to 2016, when Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau lost her House bid while Clinton lost the state by 20 points. Transgender women Misty Snow and Misty Plowright ran and lost to Republican Sen. Mike Lee in Utah and Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn in a Colorado Springs-area district, respectively, — two of the most conservative areas of the country — and Kristen Beck primaried House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and was crushed 76 percent to 12 percent.

Prior to 2016, other Democratic LGBTQ women have taken on Republicans in Idaho and Utah too. And Republican Karen Kerin, a transgender woman, took on then-Rep. Bernie Sanders in 2000 in Vermont and lost by 51 points.

Developing the pipeline
An important step in getting more lesbians (or any particular demographic) elected to Congress is to build a political bench.

“Tammy didn’t just come out of nowhere. She worked her way through the pipeline,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign.

Baldwin and Sinema both took fairly typical routes to higher office. Baldwin was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors in 1986, elected to the state Legislature six years later and elected to Congress in 1998. Sinema, who lost her first state House race in 2002, rose through the ranks of the Legislature after getting elected in 2004.

There are at least 450 LGBTQ elected officials at the state and local level, 40 percent of whom are women, according to data of known LGBTQ elected officials compiled by the Victory Fund. And of LGBTQ officials exclusively at the state level, women actually outnumber men (92-89).

LGBTQ women have made history outside of Washington. In 2016, Oregon Democrat Kate Brown, who is bisexual, became the first openly LGBTQ person elected governor. Three-term Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian, was the first and only LGBTQ person elected in one of the country’s ten most populous cities.

The number of LGBTQ female lawmakers in Congress could grow considering the dramatic uptick in women interested in running for office (15,000 this cycle compared to 920 in the 2016 cycle).

“When women run, they win, even if they have to take more bites out of the apple,” Moodie-Mills said. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni struck an optimistic tone for lesbians in a July column “Voters Love Lesbians,” pointing to the 70 percent success rate of LGBTQ women supported by the Victory Fund, compared to 61 percent of LGBTQ men, up and down the ballot.

The ask(s)
Getting lesbians to progress from interested in running to filing for candidacy might be the toughest task of all, and the lack of congressional representation has some activists asking privately, “Are we doing everything we should to foster women running for office?”

Baldwin didn’t need any convincing to run for county supervisor but didn’t see herself moving up the political ladder. Then her state representative, David Clarenbach, ran for Congress and privately told Baldwin he wanted her to run for his seat.

“Are you kidding me?” Baldwin recalled recently. “I was excited and a little intimidated by it.” 

Clarenbach, now openly gay, is the son of National Organization for Women co-founder Kay Clarenbach and was speaker pro tempore at the time. 

“That was the nudge I needed,” Baldwin said. 

But everyone’s threshold to run is different.

“If a typical heterosexual woman has to be asked seven times, I dare to say a lesbian or queer woman has to be asked more,” said Shipp, who believes LGBTQ women need specific plans and training to address unique fears and trepidation.

Women, LGBTQ people and people of color “don’t inherently assume we are the most qualified,” Moodie-Mills said.

“Women are aware of the bloodiness of running,” said Ketner, the 2008 House candidate from South Carolina. “Lesbians know it would be worse for them.”

“It’s a double-bind of being a woman and being queer,” Moodie-Mills added.

The social network
The lack of elected officials practically forces lesbian candidates into outsider status, but it also means they could struggle to match the financial and political resources of better-connected foes. “Being able to leverage a powerful network is the most daunting,” according to Moodie-Mills.

“At a time when politicians are held in low regard, sexual orientation and gender identity can be a huge asset,” Baldwin said. “Because anyone who remembers civil rights history doesn’t think it was easy.” But without a political network, candidates must rely on their own money or rely on outside groups for fundraising support.

“You have to look at the economic inequality issue between gay men versus lesbian and queer women,” Shipp said. “There’s a different mindset because they are economically disadvantaged.”

Gay men have a higher average income compared to lesbians ($56,936 vs. $45,606), according to a May 2016 survey by Prudential Financial, and the poverty rate for lesbian couples is 7.9 percent compared to 6.6 percent for different-sex couples, according to a 2015 University of Washington study.

Polis spent nearly $6 million of his own money (and raised another $1.2 million) in his initial race. Maloney raised $2.2 million with pre-established networks after working for President Bill Clinton and two governors.

Craig raised and spent nearly $4.8 million (including almost $1 million of her own money) in her Minnesota 2nd District race last cycle, placing her in the top-tier of Democratic candidates anywhere in the country. But her financial blueprint will be difficult for any candidate to replicate. In addition, some of Craig’s allies believe the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made a strategic error in nationalizing her race in a district Trump ended up carrying.

Ketner’s problem wasn’t the DCCC’s message, but getting the committee’s attention at all.

“First, they wrote off the South. Then I was a woman and a Democrat,” Ketner recalled recently. “And, oh my God, I’m an out lesbian.” She described DCCC strategists as unenthusiastic until the final couple of weeks when the polls tightened. Then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel sent her a cake and some last-minute money. Ketner lost 52 percent to 48 percent.

Crossing the finish line
Lesbian candidates have an opportunity to raise money from groups focused on boosting women or LGBTQ candidates, but there is certain tension between seeking diversity in Congress and and not emphasizing an issue on the campaign trail that isn’t a priority for voters.

“It always boils down to all politics is local, having a ground game and connecting with voters,” Moodie-Mills said.

“Always be able to answer ‘Why are you running?’ It has to come from fire in the belly,” Baldwin advised.

“We as a community need to stand up and be more supportive,” Shipp said.

But the burden is also on the some of the women protesting Trump in the streets to shift gears to a congressional run. For those thinking about a campaign of their own, Baldwin has more advice.

“Gain experience in prior work that demystifies the process,” said the Wisconsin senator, who interned and worked for a governor and volunteered for activist groups and local campaigns before becoming a candidate. “Take early time to get some extra training.”

And Baldwin said, “If at first you don’t succeed, run, run again.”