‘Sea change’ as openly gay candidates make giant leaps in US politics

‘Sea change’ as openly gay candidates make giant leaps in US politics

A strong showing by a gay candidate in the early stages of the 2020 presidential race and the election of Chicago’s mayor-elect have been hailed as a “sea change” in US politics.

Lori Lightfoot has just won a landslide victory to become Chicago’s next mayor while Pete Buttigieg, widely known as Mayor Pete, is gaining traction and donations in the early stages of the race for the Democratic nomination for the White House.

Together, the ascendance of Ms Lightfoot and Mr Buttigieg, the two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana, highlights the remarkable progress made recently by gay and lesbian politicians, to the point where their sexual orientation is either an asset or a non-issue.

Both Ms Lightfoot and Mr Buttigieg have talked comfortably about LGBT issues and their own same-sex marriages.

“The real news is not that openly gay candidates are successful, but that being openly gay has become irrelevant,” said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay issues.

“Here are two people with fresh ideas and a new vision for the future,” Mr Socarides said.

“Voters don’t care about their sexual orientation. That’s a sea change.”

It was only in 1998 that Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay person to gain a seat in the House of Representatives.

Chicago mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot greets supporters (Victor Hilitski/AP)
Chicago mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot greets supporters (Victor Hilitski/AP)

There are now eight LGBT members of the House, and two in the Senate, Ms Baldwin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, whose bisexuality never became an issue in her closely contested election campaign last year.

Ms Lightfoot’s victory in the third-largest US city, along with lesbian Satya Rhodes-Conway’s victory in Madison, Wisconsin, brings the number of LGBT mayors to 37, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which recruits and supports LGBT candidates.

In Colorado, Jared Polis was inaugurated in January as the nation’s first openly gay governor.

Annise Parker, a lesbian who served three terms as mayor of Houston and is now chief executive of the Victory Fund, said LGBT candidates such as Mr Polis and Ms Lightfoot “are achieving positions that cause folks to sit up and take notice”.

“It’s not a fluke or an oddity,” she said.

“These are dedicated, hardworking public servants who bring a directness and integrity to their service … They’re being open about who they are.”

Mr Buttigieg, at 37, the youngest prominent contender in the Democratic presidential race, has received rave reviews for many of his public appearances and reported raising seven million US dollars in the first fundraising period of the campaign.

His husband, Chasten, has amassed 176,000 Twitter followers with cheerful and sometimes wry commentary about their relationship and their dogs, and has been invited to headline a gala being held Saturday in Houston by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT rights group.

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Centre for Lesbian Rights, said Ms Lightfoot’s and Mr Buttigieg’s appeal is based on “character, leadership and ideas”.

Yet Mr Minter also suggested that LGBT candidates may have certain distinctive strengths.

“They may be more likely to empathise with others who have experienced discrimination or obstacles,” he said.

“They may also be more likely to cherish the opportunity to run for office and serve, something other politicians may take for granted.”

One indicator of the shifts in LGBT politics is that Ms Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, and Mr Buttigieg, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan war veteran, have not been immune to criticism from some activists.

“For many members of the LGBTQ community, a candidate’s mere identity as gay or lesbian is not enough,” said professor Katherine Franke, who teaches gender and sexuality studies at Columbia University.

“Neither Lightfoot nor Buttigieg are particularly progressive in their policy positions on a number of issues,” Ms Franke said.

“Lightfoot has been criticised for being too pro-prosecution and pro-police in a city that has suffered significant police violence, and Buttigieg has been critiqued for his identification with elites.”

Thus far, the advancement of LGBT politicians has not been a bipartisan phenomenon.

Very few of the nation’s top-tier LGBT elected officials have been Republicans, and only a handful of Republicans in Congress have signalled support for the Equality Act, a sweeping LGBT-nondiscrimination measure that has near-unanimous Democratic support.

“It’s exceedingly frustrating,” Ms Parker said.

“We’d love to support more candidates in the GOP (Republican Party), but the party of Donald Trump has no place for them.

“It has chosen to attack the rights and livelihoods of LGBT people to solidify political power.”

Tyler Deaton of the American Unity Fund, which seeks to boost support for LGBT rights among Republicans, acknowledged in an email that LGBT Democrats “are having an amazing year”.

“It’s a lesson to my fellow Republicans about the electability of LGBTQ candidates,” he wrote.

“The party needs to look more like the voters, which includes recruiting and elevating more candidates who are women, people of colour, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.”

- Press Association

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