The political map got a little more blue last night—but it also got a lot more rainbow.
The 2018 midterm elections didn’t deliver on every potential LGBT advancement, but they did result in several key victories for an embattled community: In Massachusetts, for the first time in history, a statewide vote upheld protections for transgender people in public accommodations—and by a large margin of 67 to 32 percent.
Colorado voters chose Jared Polis to be their governor, marking the first time in history that an openly gay man has been elected to that office nationwide. And as of early Wednesday morning, eight openly LGBT candidates had won federal elections.
Two high-profile LGBT politicians also kept their jobs: Oregon’s Kate Brown, who is the only openly bisexual person to be elected governor, and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who until Tuesday night was the only lesbian ever been elected to Congress.
At the same time, there were major—if not entirely unexpected—LGBT losses: openly transgender woman Christine Hallquist lost the Vermont gubernatorial election to Republican incumbent Phil Scott by a 15-point margin and out lesbian Lupe Valdez fell over a million votes short of Republican incumbent and former “bathroom bill” proponent Greg Abbott in the Texas gubernatorial election.
But the full scale of what LGBT advocates dubbed a “rainbow wave” may take days to come into focus: According to Victory Fund, a nonpartisan advocacy group that works to elect LGBT candidates, there were at least 391 out candidates on the ballot Tuesday night, with many of those races too close to call the morning after.
Caught in those tight contests were candidates like Krysten Sinema, an Arizona congresswoman and openly bisexual woman, who was running for the state’s open Senate seat and lesbian Iraq war veteran Gina Ortiz Jones, whose Texas congressional race had not yet been called by the Associated Press by early Wednesday morning, although some outlets projected a loss.
Already, though, it is clear that the “rainbow wave” encompassed wide swaths of the country, rather than being confined to states that have been historically conceived as LGBT-friendly.
The geographical breadth of precedents set was indeed impressive: Kansas elected out lesbian Sharice Davids, who will be not only the first openly LGBT congressperson from the state but the first Native American woman in Congress. Openly lesbian mom Angie Craig will now be the first LGBT member of Congress from Minnesota. Chris Pappas will be the first gay congressman from New Hampshire.
Indeed, according to Victory Fund, this was the first time that openly LGBT candidates were running for elected office in every state and the District of Columbia—although none made it to the ballot in Delaware, Mississippi, and New Mexico.
“This rainbow wave of candidates is certainly concentrated in blue states and districts, but LGBTQ leaders in conservative parts of the nation are standing up and determined to become public servants while remaining true to who they are,” Victory Fund president Annise Parker—herself once an openly lesbian mayor in the red state of Texas—said in a statement shortly before the election.
LGBT candidates won everywhere from Key West, Florida, where Teri Johnston will be an openly lesbian mayor all the way to Guam where Joshua Tenorio, who is gay, will be the new lieutenant governor.
One year after Danica Roem made history in Virginia by becoming the first openly transgender person elected and seated to a state legislature, transgender candidates saw some marginal gains: Gerri Cannon will become an openly transgender state legislator in New Hampshire, less than a year after the state added gender identity protections to state non-discrimination law.
Author and transgender woman Lisa Bunker also won her state legislative race in New Hampshire. Other transgender candidates for state office either lost their races, or votes were still being tallied as of early Wednesday morning.
But the big picture is this: After two years of enduring damaging anti-LGBT attacks from the Trump administration, LGBT advocates are hopeful that a Democratic majority in the House—combined with an increase in LGBT political representation nationwide—can help stop the bleeding.
“Tonight, millions of LGBTQ voters and allies across the nation rejected the politics of hate and fear—and put Donald Trump and Mike Pence on notice,” Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said in a statement. “The days of attacking LGBTQ people for political gain are over, and the American people will not stand for lawmakers who try to drum up votes by trafficking in hate.”
Democratic leaders, as The Daily Beast previously noted, have already promised to pass the Equality Act through the House for the first time. Although it’s doubtful a bill that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity would make it through the Senate, that would mark the first time the long-awaited bill has ever cleared a single body of Congress.
Although Massachusetts voters’ choice at the ballot box to uphold the transgender protections that Republican Governor Charlie Baker signed into law in 2016 might seem expected given how left-leaning the state tends to be, LGBT advocates say that this victory, especially, will send a much-needed national message.
Weeks before the midterm elections, a leaked memo from the Trump administration outlined an attempt to re-define “sex” based on original birth certificate—an action that, on top of moves like the transgender troop ban and the rollback of Obama-era restroom guidance, have left the transgender community feeling fearful and anxious.
Transgender advocates believe that a successful defense of restroom protections in Massachusetts—after years of “bathroom bills” cropping up in states like Texas and North Carolina—is a hopeful sign for the future.
“Tonight’s victory illuminates the path forward amidst a particularly dark time for transgender Americans across the nation,” Masen Davis, CEO of the LGBT advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, said in a statement on the Massachusetts win. “This victory is a reminder that broad majorities of Americans support treating transgender people with dignity and respect—and that attempts at the federal level to allow discrimination don’t reflect the values held by most Americans.”
But reminders and good omens will ultimately be no substitute for the comprehensive protections that LGBT Americans are still seeking.
Even though polling shows that most Americans support same-sex marriage and would support fully-inclusive non-discrimination laws, it will apparently take more than a handful of out legislators to stop LGBT people from becoming political targets.
Tuesday’s election offered limited but still tangible hope to the LGBT community. For more lasting change, though, the “rainbow wave” may have to become a tsunami.