For the first time, in a very long time, we can talk about hope, and elections in the same sentence. On November 7, we elected a record number of public officials who were either LGBTQ or people of color. By no means was this a massive victory for progressives, but it was a promising start; a strong rebuke of conservative right principles and politicians.
There was an especially warm embrace of diversity. Virginia elected two Latina state representatives, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala. The state also elected Kathy Tran as the first Asian-American woman to work in the House of Delegates. Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first Sikh mayor, Ravinder Bhalla. Charlotte, North Carolina elected its first Black mayor, Vi Lyles, and St. Paul, Minnesota followed suit in electing Melvin Carter as its mayor.
But the big story was about us—the LGBTQ community. We wanted representation in this election and we got it. Perhaps the most high-profile winner was Danica Roem, who became the Virginia House of Delegates’ first openly transgender member. Andrea Jenkins became the first trans woman to serve on the Minneapolis City Council, and in doing so, became the first trans woman to work on a city council in a major U.S. city. Also in Minneapolis, Philippe Cunningham, became one of the first openly gay transgender men elected to City Council. Jenny Durkan was elected Seattle’s first openly gay female mayor, Zachary DeWolf became the first LGBTQ Seattle School Board member, Lisa Middelton became California’s first trans legislator as she joined the Palm Springs City Council, and Tyler Titus, who joined the Erie, Pennsylvania School Board, became the first trans person to win public office in the state’s history. Stephe Koontz, an openly transgender woman, was elected to City Council in Georgia, and Somersworth, NH elected openly transgender woman, Gerri Cannon, to the School Board.
These wins are important for two reasons. First, LGBTQ public officials offer us visibility. We can see people who look like us, and who identify with our struggle, accomplish things. Their wins represent acceptance, and that’s motivational to all of us who hope to make a difference, be it in politics or any other industry. But their visibility is also quite literal. We are underrepresented in politics to an alarming degree. As of last year, there were only approximately 100 LGBTQ legislators working in state houses, and that number had declined for two years straight.
Second, we can rest assured that someone is fighting for our rights. With queer people in the room, we won’t be forgotten. We need these officials involved in lawmaking conversations because we can’t land punches from the sidelines.
There’s no doubt—this is a feel-good moment, a celebratory one, if you will. But like all these moments, there’s plenty of work to be done beyond these wins. What now? What happens next?
Now, we must look at agendas. We must hold our candidates accountable just as we would anybody else. We expect them to deliver change, probably at a higher degree than other elected officials. We need them to push for our rights all while maintaining their view of the bigger picture.
Take Roem’s agenda for example. One of her biggest platform topics is equality. She championed the rights of LGBTQ people, women, people of color, and dreamers. She also championed raising minimum wage and creating accessible healthcare alternatives. But she knows that equality is just one piece of the puzzle. Traffic, jobs, and education all played significant roles in her campaign strategy. Though she’s a hyperlocal official, she still understands the big picture.
Though this moment feels good, it isn’t the time to breathe a sigh of relief. These candidates can lead change in their regions, but all of our victories were local. Yes, a lot can happen at the state level that has a potentially national impact, but federal law is still of utmost concern. Consider this year’s election a practice run for 2018. There are some big Congressional showdowns on the horizon in California, Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Democrats need some big national wins to take Congress back. A Washington Post-ABC poll suggests eligible voters favor Dems at a higher rate now than they have in the last decade. The odds seem to point to a possible win next fall, but we all know we can’t trust the polls.
We need voter turnout, and we need those voters to choose Dems down the ballot. What happened earlier this month was the spark to ignite the change. But we still have a lot of work to do, and that work doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of these newly elected officials. It rests on ours.