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Number of LGBTQ elected officials in U.S. doubled since 2017

Those who identify as something other than cisgender — including trans and nonbinary — have seen their representation increase tenfold, the LGBTQ Victory Institute found.
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 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.Wilson Ring / AP file

The number of LGBTQ elected officials grew by nearly 6% last year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which trains and advocates for queer political candidates and officeholders. Since 2017, when the organization began releasing data, the number has nearly doubled, growing from 448 LGBTQ elected officials that year to 1,043 in 2022, the group’s annual Out in America report found.

Even with the dramatic increase in representation, LGBTQ elected officials make up just 0.2% of all elected officials in the U.S., according to the report, while lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people compose an estimated 7.1% of the U.S. population. To reach equitable representation, voters would need to elect 35,854 more LGBTQ people, including 27 to Congress, according to the Victory Institute. 

“Despite the fact the LGBTQ community has never had equitable representation in government — and we still have a long way to go — there are clear signs of progress,” Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute and the former mayor of Houston, said in a statement. “They represent the strength and diversity of not only who we are as a society now, but also the America we aspire to build for future generations.”

The upcoming election season could mean more historic firsts in Congress and statehouses, where anti-LGBTQ legislation has gained traction in many states, but uncertain prospects for the Democratic Party — to which most LGBTQ candidates belong — could also hurt their chances.

Big gains for people of color and trans community

A notable increase in representation, the report found, was among LGBTQ officials of color, whose numbers increased 12.3% from June 2021 to this June, compared to 1.3% for white elected officials. Since 2017, elected officials of color have increased by 238 percent yet still remain underrepresented compared to white officials, whose representation has increased by 102 percent over the same time period. 

Izzy Smith-Wade-El, the president of the Lancaster City Council, is running for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He said he hopes to bring the “voices of Black folks and queer folks to the Pennsylvania legislature.”

If elected in November, Smith-Wade-El would be Pennsylvania’s first nonbinary state legislator and the first Black person to represent Lancaster County in the state House.

Elected officials like Smith-Wade-El, who identify as something other than cisgender — including transgender, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming — have increased tenfold since 2017, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute.  

“The rigid categories that we have created around gender don’t work for me, and they don’t work for a lot of my constituents, however it is that they identify,” Smith-Wade-El said. “The enforcement of these rigid categories is part and parcel of what makes our society weaker, not stronger.”

Transgender elected officials have increased by nearly 10 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute report.

“Part of this has to do with the success of examples we have had in office,” Gabriele Magni, assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told NBC News. He cited the example of Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, who made history in 2018 by becoming the first out transgender person to be seated in a U.S. state legislature. In May, Roem announced her bid for Virginia state Senate. 

“These candidates are able to win,” Magni said. “This is a signal for voters.”

Leigh Finke, who is running for a seat in the Minnesota House, could follow in Roem’s footsteps this fall. If elected, Finke would be the first out trans person in the Minnesota Legislature.

Finke said she made the decision to run in part because of the lack of transgender representation in government and because of the “coordinated attack” against trans people in state legislatures.

State legislators have introduced more than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. Many of these bills specifically target transgender people, limiting trans people’s ability to play sports, use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity and receive gender-affirming health care.

“I know the way that queer people can be demonized,” she said. “It is absolutely necessary for somebody to be in the room.”

The presence of LGBTQ elected officials can reduce the likelihood that these bills are introduced and passed, according to Magni.

“LGBTQ candidates in office have a significant impact on LGBTQ-related laws and policies that are passed,” he said.

Image: Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin at a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 10, 2021.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin at a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 10, 2021.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

For example, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., one of two openly LGBTQ people in the Senate, reached out to Republicans to garner support for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would codify same-sex marriage rights. The bill passed in the House but has not yet received a vote in the Senate, where at least five Republicans appeared certain or open to bucking their party and voting for the measure.

Parker, of the Victory Institute, said that in the current political environment — citing anti-LGBTQ proposed legislation and school and library censorship efforts across the country — LGBTQ elected officials “are on the front lines of defending our rights and freedoms.”

Ongoing underrepresentation

Even with the big jumps in the number of LGBTQ elected officials, LGBTQ people remain underrepresented.

“We are very, very slowly catching up,” Magni said. “There are huge percentage increases, because the numbers we are starting from are so low.”

Currently, there are only nine LGBTQ members in the House and two in the Senate, all Democrats.  

“We are underrepresented,” Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach, California, said. “We have to elect folks from diverse communities. We have a richer conversation when we have different perspectives at the table.”

Image: Mayor Robert Garcia speaks during the ribbon cutting ceremony to open the new Long Beach Airport Ticketing Lobby was held in Long Beach on April 27, 2022.
Mayor Robert Garcia speaks during the ribbon cutting ceremony to open the new Long Beach Airport Ticketing Lobby was held in Long Beach on April 27, 2022.Brittany Murray / MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Garcia is making a bid to represent California’s 42nd District in Congress. If elected, he will be the first LGBTQ Latino elected to Congress from California and the first out LGBTQ immigrant elected to Congress.

“The point of being the first is to not be the last,” Garcia said. “Being a first is great, but what’s more important is delivering results to the community.”

The number of LGBTQ women elected to public office continues to increase, from 183 in 2017 to 419 in 2022, a gain of nearly 230%, according to LGBTQ Victory Institute. However, all women, regardless of LGBTQ status, remain underrepresented. This is especially true in Congress, where record increases in women’s representation in recent elections have only resulted in about one quarter of the seats being held by women

“Congress right now does not resemble or represent America as a whole, and that’s a real problem,” Vermont state Rep. Becca Balint, a Democrat, told NBC News. 

Balint, the first woman and first out gay person to serve as the Vermont Senate president pro tempore, is running for Congress, and if elected, she would be the first out LGBTQ person and first woman elected to Congress from Vermont.

While Balint is heavily favored to win in November, election forecasters are predicting a tough election season for Democrats overall, which could put the brakes on the upward trend of LGBTQ representation.

“More than 95% of LGBTQ candidates run as Democrats,” Magni said. “If voters are not supporting the party that these candidates are running for, they are definitely going to pay a price.”

At the same time, LGBTQ candidates may be able to weather the storm, Magni added.

“LGBTQ candidates tend to be extremely qualified,” he said, noting that queer candidates face additional barriers when choosing to run for office and are often deeply embedded in their communities. “There is a possibility that they can balance the negative electoral environment.” 

Finke, who easily won her Democratic primary race last week, said she is well qualified and well positioned to advocate for her constituents and the trans community once in office.

“Electing trans people is not going out of the way to do some gracious thing,” the Minnesotan said. “We are embedded in the world. We deserve an equal voice.”

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