A rainbow flag blows during a demonstration in Berlin. (Gregor Fischer/AFP via Getty Images)
When Oregon’s Kate Brown became the first openly LGBT American to be elected governor of a state Tuesday night, her victory was hailed as a mark of progress by advocates for gay and transgender rights.
But the LGBT community found little else to cheer. In addition to the concerns about President-elect Donald Trump’s victory, the number of openly gay legislators elected across the country declined for a second year.
Congress is the one place where LGBT legislators held their ground. In the House, the six “out” incumbents all were easily reelected. In the Senate, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who was elected in 2012, was not up for reelection this cycle. None of the 13 LGBT candidates attempting to defeat incumbent candidates or parties were successful, though.
Several of the races were blowouts, but LGBT candidates also lost tight contests. For instance, in Minnesota’s 2nd District, polls showed Democrat Angie Craig with a lead, but she ended up losing to Republican Jason Lewis by two points; an independent transgender candidate, Paula Overby, took 8 percent of the vote.
Two candidates seeking to become the first elected openly gay Republican in the House of Representatives (Paul Babeu in Arizona and Clay Cope in Connecticut) lost by wide margins.
The real story, though, was in state legislative elections, where the number of LGBT state legislators fell for the second straight year.
The graph below shows the trend over time. The number of LGBT state legislative members has slowly climbed, beginning with the election of Elaine Noble in Massachusetts (elected in 1974, seated in 1975) and Allan Spear in Minnesota (who had been elected in 1972, but did not come out until December 1974). It reached a peak of 119 in 2014, but over the past two years it has fallen.
Going into Tuesday, there were 110 state representatives and senators who were publicly “out” — about 1.5 percent of all of the country’s legislators. When the ballots were counted, the number of LGBT legislators stood at 105.
Most were incumbents who were reelected, while others were candidates winning legislative seats for the first time. (Details about all of the 2016 LGBT candidates are here, and the full list of newly elected congressional and state legislative elected officials can be found here.)
Four states lost their lone LGBT state legislator, adding Delaware, Hawaii, South Dakota and West Virginia to 10 other states without a single LGBT representative in the state assembly.
Not surprisingly, there was a significant partisan divide. Among the pool of LGBT state legislative candidates this year, there were just six Republicans, compared with 142 Democrats. Two Republicans won their races and one was not up for reelection.
The decline in LGBT legislators this year came from losses among whites. The number of African American legislators increased from nine to 11; the number of Hispanic representatives went from seven to 10. The number of Asian/Pacific Islander and Native Americans increased by one.
Transgender candidates and elected officials remain incredibly rare. Democrats Misty Snow and Misty Plowright lost their U.S. Senate and House races in Utah and Colorado by large margins. As noted above, Overby ran as an independent in Minnesota and took a single-digit share of the vote.
Rachael Booth had a small chance of becoming the first out trans person to take statehouse office in the Grafton 15th House District of New Hampshire. In 2014, a Republican won the seat by 500 votes and in 2016 there was no incumbent. Booth lost by 18 points, though, meaning that an out transgender person has still never taken statewide elected office in the United States. In fact, there are only three openly transgender Americans in elected office (a school board member in Massachusetts, a judge in California and a city council member in Wisconsin).
At this point, we can only speculate about the reasons for the decline in LGBT legislators. It may be that potential candidates and voters are seeing faster progress through the courts (e.g., on marriage equality), devoting money and attention to those efforts rather than winning elective office. It may also be that the major parties are doing little to recruit LBGT individuals to run, leaving the pool of potential candidates quite small.
Of course, the pattern could also be due to idiosyncratic factors — for instance, five LGBT legislators had to give up their seats this year because of term limits.
Whatever the reason, the decline in LGBT representation has consequences for the legal, political and social climate. The number of out elected officials affects the content and tone of debates about issues affecting the queer community. It is perhaps no coincidence that when the North Carolina state legislature last year passed its controversial “bathroom bill,” there were no LGBT legislators in the chamber.
Andrew Reynolds is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find him on Twitter @AndyReynoldsUNC.
Charles W. Gossett is a professor in the department of public policy and administration at California State University at Sacramento.