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Amid a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hate across the US, California reached a milestone in this year’s midterm elections: at least 10% of its lawmakers identify publicly as LGBTQ+, a figure believed to be a first for any legislature in the country.
With 12 current or soon-to-be members of the legislature identifying as LGBTQ+, the statehouse has roughly reached parity in sexual orientation and gender identity – 9.1% of Californians are LGBT, according to the US census.
The legislators, all Democrats, say that despite the wins, much work remains in California and the US, including the fallout from measures such as Florida’s “don’t say gay” law and laws blocking gender-affirming medical care for youths and limiting transgender students’ participation in sports.
The news came as the US mourns a shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado that left five people dead. The suspect faces charges of murder and hate crimes. Democrats and advocates have pointed to rhetoric from Republicans that has demonized LGBTQ+ people, particularly drag queens, who have become a target for rightwing disinformation campaigns.
“When it comes to LGBTQ people, we’re on two tracks: one track is that societally we’re winning. People by and large are totally fine with LGBTQ people, they support us, they are accepting and willing to vote for LGBTQ candidates,” Scott Wiener, a California state senator and member of the LGBTQ caucus, said on Monday.
Yet, he said, “despite the fact that we are winning the battle in society at large, you have a very vocal, dangerous minority of extremists who are consistently attacking and demonizing our community”.
A record-setting year for LGBTQ+ victories
At least 519 out LGBTQ+ candidates won elected office in the US this year, in positions ranging from school board up to Congress and governor, said Albert Fujii, press secretary for the LGBTQ Victory Fund. In Colorado, Jared Polis, the first openly gay man elected as a state’s governor when he won in 2018, was re-elected.
That’s a record, well up from 2020, when 336 LGBTQ+ candidates won, according to the group, which along with Equality California calculated that California is the first state to pass the 10% threshold.
Of the 12 current or soon-to-be members of the California legislature, eight were already part of its LGBTQ caucus, including the leader of the senate and three other senators whose terms run until 2024. Four current assembly members won re-election, with two new assembly members and two new senators joining them, increasing the caucus’s ranks by 50%. The AP has not yet called one remaining race that could add an additional LGBTQ+ lawmaker.
New Hampshire and Vermont have each had more LGBTQ+ legislators, according to the institute, but have not reached the 10% threshold because their legislatures are bigger than California’s.
The 2022 midterms brought a number of firsts for LGBTQ+ people, including the election of Corey Jackson, the California legislature’s first gay Black man, who noted that African Americans, particularly Black trans people, are especially marginalized.
“I think this is an opportunity just to say that number one, we are here, we do have something to contribute and we can lead and represent with the best of them,” said Jackson, a school board member from Riverside county.
Meanwhile, in Alaska and South Dakota, residents elected their first out LGBTQ+ legislators, and Montana and Minnesota elected their first trans legislators, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In New Hampshire, the Democrat James Roesener, 26, became the first trans man elected to any US state legislature.
Roesener said he had opted to run in response to a state bill, which only narrowly failed, that would have required schools to notify parents of developments in their children’s gender identity and expression. Such requirements invade children’s privacy and can put them at risk of abuse at home, opponents say.
Leigh Finke, who was elected in Minnesota, also was driven by growing anti-transgender rhetoric. Finke hopes to ban so-called “conversion therapy” in Minnesota and, like California, make the state a sanctuary for children, and their parents, who can’t access gender-affirming healthcare elsewhere.
“I just thought, ‘This can’t stand.’ We have to have trans people in these rooms. If we are going to lose our rights, at least they have to look us in the eye when they do it,” she said.
Massachusetts and Oregon elected the nation’s first out lesbian governors.
The newly elected LGBTQ+ officials are overwhelmingly Democrats, but in New York, the Republican George Santos, a gay man and supporter of Donald Trump, won a US House seat, defeating the Democrat Robert Zimmerman, who is gay.
Breakthroughs amid hostile rhetoric
The increase in LGBTQ+ lawmakers comes as some Republican-led states attempt to limit the influence, visibility and rights of LGBTQ+ people.
The Human Rights Campaign tracked what it identified as anti-LGTBQ+ bills introduced in 23 states this year and said they had become law in 13: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Louisiana.
In Tennessee, a state with one LGTBQ+ lawmaker, leaders of the state’s Republican legislative supermajority said the first bill of the 2023 session would seek to ban gender-affirming care for minors. The state has already banned trans athletes from girls’ middle and high school sports and restricted which bathrooms trans students and employees can use.
By contrast, “as California’s Legislative LGBTQ Caucus has grown, the state has led the nation in passing groundbreaking legislation protecting LGBTQ+ civil rights”, said Samuel Garrett-Pate, an Equality California spokesperson.
Those include California’s sanctuary bill for transgender youths, which has been copied by Democratic lawmakers in other states, a 2019 expansion of access to HIV prevention medication, and laws granting foster children rights to gender-affirming care and allowing nonbinary gender markers on state identification.
Jackson said he found hope in the election returns not only in California, but also nationwide.
“We have US senators now, we have governors now, we actually have trans legislators now in this country,“ Jackson said. “So in the midst of stories of hatred and stories of demonization, you still see rainbows of hope throughout our nation.”
California legislature is 10% LGBTQ+ in record-setting year nationwide | US midterm elections 2022
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