Fifteen openly LGBTQ+ Michiganders ran for elected office in 2021, according to Out on the Trail, a report compiled by the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Nine won their races.
Compare those results to 2019, the last off-year election, when an estimated eight openly LGBTQ+ candidates ran in Michigan and three prevailed. Sarah LeDonne, senior communications and marketing manager of the Victory Fund, who provided the numbers to Pride Source, said there may have been candidates the Fund wasn’t aware of.
The national numbers are impressive, too. At least 184 out of 430 openly LGBTQ+ people who ran for office in 2021 claimed victory, a record-breaking number of candidates and wins. As a result of the most recent election, approximately 1,038 LGBTQ+ elected officials will serve next year.
LeDonne confirmed that Michigan currently remains fifth in terms of states with the greatest number of LGBTQ+ elected officials, trailing California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Florida. However, that might change slightly because some of the 2021 election results are still pending.
But Roland Leggett and Amritha Venkataraman, who strategize with some of Michigan’s nearly 40 elected officials, don’t need hard data to be convinced that more and more LGBTQ+ people are becoming politically engaged. They see it in their everyday work.
Leggett, who chairs the LGBT & Allies Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, says he is “encouraged” by the number of people expressing an interest in entering politics, whether or not they launch a campaign.
“The fact that folks are thinking about the way in which they can interact with elected officials in government is great in terms of our community,” Leggett says. “And then the actual number of people that are running, I’m even more excited about that.”
As Michigan State Political Director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) since 2018, Venkataraman has noticed this, too. “I’ve seen so many folks come in [and] volunteer,” she says. “They care about the issues, and they want to do a little bit more than cast their ballot. So they’re volunteering and then they’re realizing, ‘These are systems that are accessible to me. I can run for office. I want to be part of my local elected officials, local community.’ And it really grows from there.”
It’s not just the higher profile statewide offices attracting LGBTQ+ candidates. Leggett said something that stands out to him is the number of out LGBTQ+ people expressing interest in down ballot races.
“Obviously, folks are very familiar with the governor’s races and the Senate races and Congressional races, but I’m seeing more and more folks from our community being interested in running for county commission or for school board. And those are such important roles,” Leggett says. The data already aligns with Leggett’s experience: Of the 38 LGBTQ+ elected officials in Michigan counted by the Victory Fund, 29 are local officials, excluding mayors, of which there were two. Three judges, three state legislators and one statewide elected official round out the total.
Elliot Imse, vice president of communications for the Victory Fund, calls the trend a “virtuous cycle.”
“Every time a [LGBTQ+] person wins a tough race in a city or state where there are few LGBTQ elected officials, it inspires more LGBTQ people to run,” Imse tells Pride Source. He gave as an example the nation’s first openly transgender statewide elected official, Danica Roem. Now, six years after her historic 2015 win, there are eight state legislators who identify as transgender. “All of them attribute Danica’s win to helping inspire them to run for office and making them feel like it is possible,” Imse says.
Michigan has experienced this phenomenon, too. Leggett says Attorney General Dana Nessel’s win shouldn’t be underestimated.
“We’ve been fortunate in Michigan to have a number of trailblazers that have shown really dynamic leadership in the role that they’ve had,” Leggett says. “Dana Nessel comes to mind. The fact that she was able to convincingly win that race and in my estimation is one of the best, if not the best, attorney generals we’ve had, really shows how much power our community has in our ability to hold statewide office.”
Venkataraman suggests another driving force. “I think that a lot of people were activated by the 2016 election because they understood that this was not representative of their values,” she says. She also sees that the more opportunities there are for LGBTQ+ people to become involved in politics in any number of ways, “It gets a little addicting. You want to continue to be part of the change,” she says.
The influence of Gen Z figures into the equation, too. Venkataraman points out that “one in six Gen Z-ers identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum…so we’re a very real part of the electorate, and I think that has a lot of power.”
While the Victory Fund is only beginning to collect age data, Imse suspects Gen Z is having an impact, too. With an increasing number of individuals identifying as LGBTQ+ from that age cohort, especially queer and nonbinary, more of them are running for office — and winning.
Greater participation of non-cisgender candidates is just part of this year’s “rainbow wave,” which GLAAD calls a symbol of the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in American culture. Findings from GLAAD’s 2021 Accelerating Acceptance report show that 81 percent of the general population expect that nonbinary and transgender people will become a more familiar part of life, just as gay and lesbian people have. And 43 percent believe there are more than two genders, up from 38 percent in 2020.
Yet Imse says the record-breaking numbers mask how far the LGBTQ+ community has to go to achieve equal representation in elected office. “Right now, [we] hold about point two percent of elected positions in the United States, despite us representing 5.6 percent of the U.S. population. So we need to elect 22,000 more LGBTQ people to public office to achieve equal representation.”
We can’t wait, Leggett says. As important as it is for more LGBTQ+ people to serve in elected positions, it’s also vital to support candidates who share the values of the community. “The LGBTQ+ community needs to be front and center of any candidate that our community supports,” he says.
However, Leggett emphasizes, “I believe that it’s important now more than ever for us to run for office ourselves. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for. And as caucus chair, and as the movement politics director at Michigan United, I’m here to give whatever resources or any help that I can to folks that are interested in doing that because it takes us to make the change.”