In his most recent press conference -- and what may be the last press conference of his presidency -- Barack Obama reflected on the staggering losses his party suffered in November: “When your team loses, everybody gets deflated, and it’s hard and it’s challenging ... I think it’s a healthy thing for the Democratic Party to go through some reflection.”
LGBTQ lawmakers, most of whom are Democrats, are also taking this time to reflect. LGBTQ political candidates did not fare as well as many had hoped in November, leading LGBTQ representation at the federal level stalled at seven representatives, and LGBTQ representation at the state level to decline from 110 to 105 lawmakers. In addition, Republicans now control both chambers in 32 states legislatures.
What is in store for LGBTQ rights and LGBTQ lawmakers going forward? The answer could depend on what lessons the Democratic Party learned from their 2016 defeat.
LGBTQ Representation and Rights
Andrew Reynolds, Professor of Political Science at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is not surprised by the stagnation in the levels of LGBTQ political representation.
“LGBTQ candidates are not seeing the political arena as a significant place to further their activism,” he told NBC Out.
"The Democratic Party is not investing enough in prioritizing and pushing forward LGBTQ candidates. [The Democratic Party] is not finding safe seats or investing financially in those candidates to make them successful,” he added, citing the fact that “no trans person has ever been elected to any statewide position.” This, he said, has to do with not being “allowed to run as a candidate in a winnable seat."
“This ties very closely to the battle for the soul of the Democratic party, which has just begun. Do you believe in the jigsaw puzzle of identity politics or do you believe in Bernie’s working class vision? Every time Hillary Clinton was criticized for playing the identity-politics card, that was implicit criticism of LGBTQ politics," Reynolds said.
When it comes to defending LGBTQ rights in state legislatures, an important component is the presence of out representatives, according to Rep. Brian Sims, the first openly gay state representative elected to the Pennsylvania statehouse. Sims, a civil rights attorney, plans on reintroducing legislation to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ people.
"No state that has ever passed [pro-LGBTQ] legislation did it without first having an out legislator, a visible legislator. It’s the formula that gets legislation passed," Sims said.
Toward the top of Sims' future agenda is a plan to revisit legislation that would ban conversion therapy.
“I talk about bills having buoyancy—ability to float to the top, and I think the ban on conversion therapy is that kind of thing. We are talking about kids, we can all collectively agree that pray the gay away, psychoanalyze the gay away, is quack science and I think my Republican colleagues can agree with that.”
Cecil Brockman, a Democrat representing House District 60 in North Carolina, recently came out as bisexual."
“For me it had a lot to do with the fact that Rep. Chris Sgro was leaving the general assembly and there would be no LGBT voice in the general assembly, and I new that wasn’t the case, because I knew about myself," he told NBC Out.
After experiencing an instance of homophobic harassment with North Carolina lawmaker Chris Sgro and his husband, Brockman said he "could not sit back and allow this type of thinking" in the city in which he grew up.
"I was very fearful of coming out," he admitted, but "it became clearer to me that I needed to share with the world, my colleagues, this other part of who I was.”
More than any other state in recent history, North Carolina has become a battleground for LGBTQ rights. Brockman said repealing HB2—the bill that restricts bathroom access on the base of biological sex—is his number one priority. “We cannot move on in North Carolina unless we move past HB2.”
“I believe the loss of Gov. McCrory sent a lot of signals to the Republican Party ... They know more than ever that he lost because of HB2,” Brockman said. With McCrory gone, Brockman is hopeful that “we are going to be able to move in a different direction … to be more inclusive and to make sure that North Carolina can be a home for everybody.”
Carlos Guillermo Smith is a newly elected state representative to the Florida House. Smith said the shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse crystalized his priorities.
“As a gay Latino Floridian, as a civil rights leader and activist, I have a close connection [to the tragedy]. Ninety percent of the victims were Latinx, most were LGBTQ,” he said. Further, Smith is the first LGBTQ Latinx lawmaker in Florida’s history, “finally giving our community a seat at the table.”
For Smith, the tragedy at Pulse raised “so many policy issues—the issue of terrorism, gun safety, LGBT equality, uninsured Latinos, mental health care. A lot of these issues are Florida-specific, because in Florida a quarter of uninsured residents are Hispanic. Florida is one of the states that refused to expand Medicaid under Affordable Care Act, and because Latino community is disproportionately affected by lack of access to health care, the victims and survivors [of Pulse] are uninsured are underinsured. A lot of issues have a spot light on them now that have risen to the top of public consciousness.”
Gerrymandering and Accountability
All the state representatives that spoke with NBC Out discussed gerrymandering, and Professor Reynolds called it “one of the most pernicious, anti-democratic issues in U.S. politics.”
"[It leads to a] lack of competition, lack of accountability, voter alienation and a locked-up system where people don’t go into that sphere because they don’t see it as influential," he said. "Nowhere in the world outside of America allows politicians to draw the district lines. It doesn't just preclude minorities from voice, it destroys the inherent vibrancy of American democracy."
Reynolds said gerrymandering discourages potential LGBTQ candidates from running for office. "Even good candidates in much of the United States are put off," he said, adding they may think it's "meaningless" to run for office in a "Republican-controlled" statehouse.
According to Rep. Brockman, gerrymandering has reduced electoral accountability in North Carolina.
“Less gerrymandering in North Carolina will force GOP to be less conservative," he said. “When Donald Trump talked about a rigged system, he was right, because we have elected officials who run in gerrymandered districts, and an electoral college map that is the favor of the GOP right now. We can’t claim the U.S. to be an example of democracy for the world when the person who wins the most votes doesn’t win.”
The Future of the Democratic Party
Where does this leave the Democrats? In addition to addressing the Democratic deficits produced by gerrymandering, LGBTQ representatives hope the Party will stay true to its core values.
“I would just point to the scoreboard,” Rep. Brockman said, adding that "2.6 million more people voted for our candidate and our issues than Donald Trump .... Democrats need to run on what we believe in and know we really did not lose this election,” he added.
However, Brockman said he would like to see the party change direction moving forward. “We can’t be an older party anymore,” he said. “We have got to build our bench. We have got to engage the millennials more. We don’t do a good enough job encouraging them to run for office.”
Like Brockman, Rep. Smith emphasized the importance of re-energizing the Democratic base and message.
“It is my political goal to not only do right by my constituents, but to move the House and Senate caucus to the left," Smith said. "[We will get] new leaders in the state party by running progressives that have bold ideas that will energize the base so we can get the governor’s mansion, not by running dry candidates that are reading from a watered down script that does not excite anyone. We do need to change the Democratic Party if we are going to win more elections, if we are going to elect more statewide candidates.”
Smith also spoke about the growing importance of Latino voters and reaching them by discussing economic issues.
“We need to run candidates that are speaking specifically to Latino issues: obstacles to health care and immigration, the economic crisis back on the island in Puerto Rico, and we need to be bold with our vision. We need to talk about a $15 minimum wage, access to employment benefits and sick time, because that dramatically impacts minority workers … We need to be focusing on those issues -- pocketbook issues.”
“A lot of Democrats were shooting for enough, and it wasn’t enough," Rep. Sims said, echoing President Obama. "I sure hope there is a lot of hard revaluation happening. I hope it’s self-reflection followed by action.”
(Julie Moreau is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She tweets at @JEMoreau.)