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For LGBTQ women, running for office ranges from 'difficult' to threatening

Campaign costs, bigotry and physical threats are among the barriers for lesbian, bi and trans women considering elected office, the LGBTQ Victory Institute found.
Image: Brianna Titone and Gina Ortiz Jones
Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone first ran for office in 2017, and former Air Force Capt. Gina Ortiz Jones of Texas ran for Congress in 2018 and 2020.NBC News / Getty Images

When Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone first ran for office in 2017, she struggled to be considered a serious candidate.

"My first race was very difficult," she said. "Neither the Democrats nor Republicans thought I had a chance to win."

Titone, a Democrat, said she had to do all her own fundraising while continuing to go to school and holding down a day job.

"I had to go way above and beyond what anyone else had to do," she said.

“By understanding the barriers better and working to reduce their impact, we can encourage more LGBTQ women to run and increase our numbers in elected office.”

Annise Parker, LGBTQ Victory Institute

Despite the obstacles, including transphobic attacks on the campaign trail, Titone has two election victories under her belt and the distinction of being the first transgender lawmaker in the state.

The roadblocks Titone met are shared by many lesbian, bisexual and transgender women who are running or considering running for elected office, according to a new report from the LGBTQ Victory Institute. The report surveyed nearly 300 former, current and prospective political candidates across the country and found that high campaign costs, physical threats, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, external perceptions of their qualifications and a lack of political mentors were among the most common obstacles cited.

"The barriers for LGBTQ women — and LGBTQ women of color and trans women in particular — are enormous, yet we know that when they run, they win," said former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. "By understanding the barriers better and working to reduce their impact, we can encourage more LGBTQ women to run and increase our numbers in elected office."

While women across the gender identity and sexuality spectrum lack proportionate political representation in the U.S., LGBTQ women are particularly underrepresented. While women hold about a fourth of the seats in the House and the Senate, according to RepresentWomen, there are just four out lesbian and bisexual women in Congress out of 535 members (there has never been an openly transgender member of Congress). And out of 7,383 seats in state legislatures across the country, just 98 lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are known to be serving, or 1.3 percent, according to LPAC, an organization that promotes the election of LGBTQ women.

Financial barriers

The money required to run a competitive campaign discouraged many of the survey's respondents, who said they worried about their ability to raise money and get access to donor networks.

Nearly half of former and current candidates and 60 percent of potential candidates said they hesitated to run because of fundraising concerns.

"With the evolution of campaigns, they are getting bigger, more expensive, more crowded — and a lot of LGBTQ women run in primaries," LPAC Executive Director Lisa Turner said.

"Men have an advantage over women when it comes to political dollars," she added, noting that even gay men are able to attract more campaign dollars (even though queer women have a higher rate of electoral success, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute).

Some respondents also expressed concern about needing to take time off work to campaign. About 40 percent of prospective and 16 percent of current and former candidates reported that it made them hesitate to run. Respondents of color were more likely to report those concerns.

"You learn very quickly that it can be difficult to run if you do not personally or professionally come from wealth," former Air Force Capt. Gina Ortiz Jones said. Jones, a lesbian, ran for Congress in Texas in 2018 and 2020 but lost to her Republican opponents.

Jones said that when she was first thinking about running, a member of the Democratic Party asked her whether she could raise $300,000 in 90 days.

"That's a deterrent," she said.

Threats of violence

Many LGBTQ women surveyed expressed concerns about facing violence and verbal attacks on the campaign trail.

The majority of potential candidates, 3 out of 5, reported being "somewhat" or "very" concerned about threats of violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Among current and former candidates, 45 percent reported such concerns.

Jenna Wadsworth, who lost her bid in November to become North Carolina's agriculture commissioner, became the target of online vitriol during the campaign when she posted a video on social media asking viewers whether Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis was their "favorite or most favorite October surprise."

While Wadsworth admitted her remark was in poor taste, the responses were downright frightening, and they made her fear for her safety. "I received gang rape threats after that video," Wadsworth said. "Until election night, I was not able to stay in my own home for three weeks."

Transgender women reported the greatest fear of violence: Nearly 4 out of 5 said they feared violence based on their gender identity.

Bigotry on the campaign trail

Along with fearing threats of violence, many of the respondents reported being worried about becoming the targets of homophobic, transphobic and racist attacks.

Over 50 percent of potential candidates said witnessing how LGBTQ and women candidates were targets of bigoted attacks gave them concerns about running for office. Over 60 percent of potential candidates of color said seeing others become the victims of racist attacks gave them concerns.

Jones was the target of attacks by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which was reported to have suggested that conservative advocacy organizations focus on her sexual orientation. Some ads also took aim at her support for transgender service members, claiming Jones would "radicalize" the country by diverting military spending to pay for "transgender reassignment surgeries." According to The Washington Post, Republican officials believed the ads helped to derail Jones' campaign and viewed them as part of a larger strategy to make transgender rights a political flashpoint.

"It was clear that this is a tactic they were going to be leaning into heavily," Jones said.

Jones said with little chance of attack ads' going away, particularly those focused on transgender issues, it was important for candidates like her to know how to counteract them in the media and with voters. "We know the attacks are going to come," Ortiz Jones said. "What is the best way to push back on them?"

In addition to bigoted attacks, respondents anticipated sexist media commentary and harsher public evaluations than male candidates. They reported worrying about how to manage facial expressions and tone of voice "to come across as warm but serious," according to the findings. They also expressed concern about how their appearance would be portrayed. Respondents worried about looking too masculine but also worried that attempts to look traditionally feminine would look inauthentic or less professional.

Those LGBTQ candidates and potential candidates also worried about coming across as "good moms" and feared that their political opponents would "weaponize their families" by emphasizing their "non-traditional" nature. On the other hand, respondents who did not have children or spouses worried that it would be used against them to portray them as "anti-family," according to the report.

Internal and external doubts

Many participants worried that the media would question or devalue their qualifications or hold them to different standards than men.

Titone said that during her first run for office, she struggled to get media coverage, with just a few articles written about her in local news outlets. She also worried about being pigeonholed.

"Most of the news was pretty fair," she said, "but at the same time, I was also telling a lot of reporters that I don't want to be just the trans person running for office."

Running for office also requires specialized knowledge — about how to file to run, how to build a campaign team and how party politics operate. The self-doubt that some LGBTQ women have about that political know-how stopped some of them from ever officially becoming candidates: Nearly 3 in 5 respondents delayed or hesitated to run because they were concerned about their lack of political knowledge.

Some respondents characterized politics as an exclusionary "good old boys" network and said party officials would not perceive them as viable candidates. Three out of 5 would-be candidates said a lack of familiarity with party politics discouraged them from running, and 2 of 5 candidates said the same.

Lack of role models

Many of the women surveyed said having mentors would help them feel more comfortable about running for office but reported that they did not have access to mentors.

Almost 40 percent of potential candidates expressed hesitation about running because of the lack of LGBTQ political role models, and nearly 30 percent of potential candidates said the same thing about politicians of color.

Jasmin Lewis, 33, an 11th grade English teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida, describes herself as a "proud Black bisexual woman" and "deeply passionate about education."

She contemplated running for the school board but hesitated to put herself forward because of anxiety around being the first openly bisexual Black woman on the board.

"I would be a trailblazer in a sense," she said. "It takes a lot of vulnerability."

In addition to common barriers, the women who participated in the survey cited some common motivators, as well: the need for diverse representation among elected officials, a desire to work on issues personal to them, external encouragement to run for office and frustration with current elected officials and their agendas.

Lewis still dreams of running for the school board one day to give voice to the concerns of LGBTQ students and students of color.

"I'm not going to shut up about it until our students feel safe, until they can show up and see themselves represented," Lewis said.

While the LGBTQ Victory Institute report notes that the structural obstacles for LGBTQ women candidates are "enormous," it made several suggestions to break down some of the barriers. They include creating a mentorship network for LGBTQ women considering running for office, developing a national network of donors with a passion for supporting LGBTQ women candidates and supporting media literacy among journalists and media outlets to ensure fair reporting on LGBTQ women candidates.

Jones has simple advice for any queer women thinking about elected office: "Run."

"Let the bigots take their best shot," she said, because running "is how this changes."

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