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Lesbians score big political gains in midterm elections' 'rainbow wave'

The string of wins includes the election of the country’s first lesbian governors in Massachusetts and Oregon.
Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey at the State Democratic Party convention in Worcester on June 4, 2022.
Maura Healey at the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention in Worcester in June.Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

The 2022 midterm elections ignited what LGBTQ advocates called yet another “rainbow wave,” with over 430 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer candidates emerging victorious. Lesbians scored some of the biggest wins, including two historic firsts in gubernatorial races. 

In Massachusetts, Democrat Maura Healey swept to victory on Election Day, becoming the first lesbian elected governor of a U.S. state and both the first woman and first gay person elected to lead Massachusetts. With 92% of expected votes in as of Monday afternoon, Healey had 63.6% of the vote, while her Republican challenger, Geoff Diehl, had 34.7%.

Across the country in Oregon, fellow Democrat and lesbian Tina Kotek was in a much tighter three-way gubernatorial contest. NBC News called the race in Kotek’s favor on Friday. With 93% of expected votes in as of Monday afternoon, Kotek had 47% of the vote, while Republican Christine Drazan had 43.6% and independent candidate Betsy Johnson had 8.7%.

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 22: Democratic gubernatorial Candidate Tina Kotek (Middle Left)) cheers on the crowd during a rally on October 22, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. Kotek was joined by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to energize potential voters in a hotly contested gubernatorial race where Republican Candidate Christine Drazan has drawn within striking distance of victory. Oregon has not elected a republican Governor since 1982. (Photo by Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek cheers on the crowd at a rally in Portland on Oct. 22.Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / Getty Images file

“I’m smiling right now, because I’m so happy,” Lisa Turner, executive director of LPAC, a political action committee dedicated to electing lesbians and other queer women to political office, said of the Healey and Kotek wins. “I just can’t tell you how exciting it is to see these women continue to be successful and just to be so excited for the future.”

Turner said these governors-elect will be “shining stars for not only the Democratic Party, but for their states and for the country.”

Healey and Kotek will follow two other LGBTQ Democrats who were elected to lead their states: Oregon’s Kate Brown and Colorado’s Jared Polis. Brown, who is bisexual, became the country’s first openly LGBTQ governor in 2015, and Polis became the first openly gay man elected governor in 2018. (Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, also a Democrat, was not out when he was elected to office in 2001; he came out as gay in his 2004 resignation speech.) Polis won re-election last week in a landslide, and Brown was unable to run again due to term limits.

Another notable midterm win came from Vermont, where lesbian Democrat Becca Balint won her state’s at-large congressional district race, becoming the first woman and first LGBTQ person ever elected to Congress from the state — and putting an end to Vermont’s distinction as the only state to have never sent a woman to Congress. With 97% of expected votes in as of Monday afternoon, Balint had 62.5% of the vote, while her Republican challenger, Liam Madden, had 27.8%.

Vermont state Sen. Becca Balint, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination to run for Vermont's vacant U.S. House seat, speaks to voters in Colchester on July 24, 2022.
Vermont state Sen. Becca Balint, who sought the Democratic nomination for Vermont's vacant U.S. House seat, spoke to voters in Colchester on July 24.Wilson Ring / AP file

Balint will join at least 10 other openly LGBTQ candidates in Congress in January, including four other lesbian and bisexual women: Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Reps. Angie Craig, D-Minn., and Sharice Davids, D-Kan. Craig and Davids won re-election last week, and Baldwin and Sinema aren’t up for re-election until 2024.

Baldwin, also a lesbian, is no stranger to making political history: In 1998, she became the first openly LGBTQ nonincumbent elected to Congress when she won her House race, and in 2012, she became the first LGBTQ person ever elected to the U.S. Senate. 

Sally Kohn, a political commentator and longtime LGBTQ advocate, said the success of queer women in statewide and congressional races this year is both “wonderfully momentous and at the same time kind of not a big deal.”

“I’m old enough to remember when having an openly gay politician was scandalous, and now it’s not, and that’s amazing,” she said. “What we are witnessing, in spite of some backlash and grumbling from some, is overwhelmingly the United States becoming the inclusive, multiracial, pluralistic democracy it always theoretically aspired to be.”

However, she added, when something becomes “more mainstream, it’s easy to forget how marginalized, invisibilized it once was.”

“It’s easy to forget how much progress we’ve made and not take a step back and celebrate the beautiful, better direction we continue to head in,” Kohn said. 

Lesbians and other queer women were successful in down-ballot races as well, according to advocacy groups and political action committees that have been tracking these races. 

LPAC supported 101 candidates — the lion’s share of them lesbian and bisexual women — who appeared on general election ballots last week, and so far 77 of them won their races, with a number of races still not called. 

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, a PAC that supports LGBTQ candidates across the gender and sexuality spectrum, found that queer women fared slightly better than the broader LGBTQ community: Of the races the fund tracked on Election Day, lesbian and bisexual women had a 69% success rate, while the community overall had a 61% success rate. 

Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund and former mayor of Houston — said last week’s historic wins in statewide and congressional races were a long time coming and a reflection of the years of work queer women have put into winning down-ballot elections.

She compared the careers of Healey, Balint and Kotek — all of whom served years in various state-level leadership roles — with former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg, who is now the nation’s transportation secretary, ran for president after serving as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

“These are people who have taken the normal political path and are ready for the big leap,” she said, referring to lesbian election winners. “Women think twice before they jump in, so when they finally do, they’re very prepared.”

While she acknowledged that this year’s election results are cause for lesbian and bisexual women to celebrate, Parker, herself a lesbian, said queer women “can’t take our eyes off the ball,” citing the reversal of abortion rights and the rise of election denialism.

“It is a huge milestone, but when you’re marking milestones, it means you haven’t reached the end of your journey,” she said. “Queer women, just like all other women, understand that we’re in a really fraught time here in America.”

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