Kyrsten Sinema, a seven-year veteran of the Arizona legislature, is running to become the first openly bisexual member of Congress. She’s part of a bumper crop of LGBT candidates nationwide, including four in Arizona, a state lately infamous for right-wing legislation on abortion and immigration but built on libertarian ideals—and where four out candidates are currently running for office.
“In some places it matters more than in other places,” Sinema told the Daily Beast. “In the four elections I’ve won, it never mattered.”
Observers of Sinema and her election say this is because she has long been a part of Arizona’s political establishment, and because Arizonans typically mind their own business. Like many LGBT candidates, she’s quick to label her sexual orientation an attribute rather than a platform, and makes light of her political coming out. A Republican colleague had insulted gays and lesbians in a contentious floor speech in 2005, says Sinema, and she then gave an impassioned rebuttal. “We're simply people like everyone else who want and deserve respect," she said on the floor, and reporters bombarded her afterward, intrigued by her fervor.
“Duh, I’m bisexual,” Sinema says she told them. “They were, like, whoa.”
This year, more out candidates like Sinema may be running for office than ever before. The main organization for recruiting, training and funding these candidates, the nonpartisan Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, has already backed more than 100 national, state and local LGBT candidates, and expects that number to double before November.
Modeled after EMILY’s List, candidates backed by the fund won 107 of 164 races in 2010. Candidates apply for the fund’s backing, and then go through a series of interviews with its board and are vetted in part to see if they have a record in office or in their lives of supporting equality issues. The board evaluates their races to determine if they have a “clear path to victory,” as well as to see how they line up with the group’s goal of getting LGBT members elected to every state legislature. With a $6 million operational budget for this year, the fund expects to break its 2010 record number of candidates, and wins.
LGBT candidates are grabbing seats in red states, and in the country’s center. “The most remarkable thing to me is that you see gay candidates where you haven’t before,” said Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole Schwartz. “They’re not just relegated to the coasts or progressive jurisdictions.” Gay candidates are running for legislatures in Florida, Delaware, and Texas, where there are currently no gay lawmakers.
Despite this expansion, gay candidates have remained solidly Democratic. All 90 of the openly gay state legislators currently serving are Democrats, according to the fund’s Denis Dison, and there are no openly gay Republicans in either house of Congress. Republicans’ staunch opposition to the bill repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”—just 13 Republicans supported it—and to gay marriage have alienated members of the LGBT community from the party.
Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who was closeted for his first seven years in the House, and will celebrate 25 years out in May, said it would behoove Republicans “to not be so bigoted.” He referenced Republican comments on the House floor citing concerns about gay military members showering together as a reason to maintain DADT.
“I’ve had members of the House showering with me for 25 years,” Frank said, echoing a point he made during the debate. “It helps to spell out the prejudice. Legislating is personal business.”
Frank said GOP lawmakers are far more homophobic than the electorate, but sees an opportunity for the party to start repairing its image on gay issues by electing Richard Tisei, who would be the first out Republican congressman, in Massachusetts’s Sixth District. A longtime presence in state politics, Tisei helped defuse efforts to overturn marriage equality there, and now is outraising his opponent, the Democratic incumbent. Tisei told the Daily Beast that his orientation was no secret, and that he and his partner had “entertained his political colleagues for years.”
“Within the Republican caucus, just being there will make a big difference,” Tisei said. “We’ll never have true equality in the country regarding these issues if we don’t have advocates on both sides of the aisle.” The fund has endorsed Tisei, along with two Republicans running in local races, and expects to endorse more Republicans as the year continues.
In a statement sent to the Beast after this article was posted, Frank stressed that “the Republican Party has become increasingly hostile to openly gay candidates,” but “has also long treated Massachusetts as an exception… in the interest of maintaining control of the Congress.” Tisei’s candidacy, said Frank, is “of limited relevance to the LGBT effort to win equality.” He added that were the Republican to win, “it would be a setback for LGBT issues,” since “the effect would be to help perpetuate a rigid and militant anti-LGBT majority in the House.”
Another gay Republican running for Congress is Paul Babeu in Arizona, an Iraq War veteran and the National Sheriff’s Association’s 2011 “Sheriff of the Year,” whom the fund has not endorsed. Babeu hasn’t historically lobbied for equality issues, and was recently outed by a disgruntled ex. Mitt Romney’s hiring openly gay foreign-policy spokesman Richard Grenell this week was a historic move, but his campaign downplayed the development.
Currently, four openly gay House members serve, Democrats Tammy Baldwin, David Ciciline, Barney Frank, and Jared Polis, and they also are the four chairs of the LGBT Equality Caucus. Frank is retiring, Baldwin is running for the Senate, and Polis and Ciciline are up for reelection. The fund is backing four other LGBT candidates running for congressional seats.
If Baldwin wins the open Senate seat in Wisconsin, she would become the first openly gay senator. She was the first gay member elected to the state assembly, and there and in Congress she said she has witnessed how powerful a tool being an LGBT legislator can be during controversial votes that touch on gay issues, like the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, or the repeal of DADT.
“The conversations you have when you’re counting votes and persuading and sitting with somebody on the floor of the house, it’s different when that conversation is with an openly gay person. People ask questions. It’s very persuasive,” she said.
“No state has enacted partnership rights for same-sex couples without first electing openly gay legislators,” said Dison. Only 17 states lack openly LGBT legislators, none of them have legalized gay marriage, and only one of them (Delaware) recognizes civil unions.
As more LGBT politicians serve and acceptance spreads, it’s become harder for opponents to openly attack an opponent’s sexual orientation, a tactic used in past races. In any event, Frank said he’s skeptical that such strikes cost gay candidates votes; he recalled opposition attacks on himself and his partner, Jim, who he will marry soon, and says they made little difference in his race.
Voters and fellow legislators who were once suspicious that LGBT candidates were only out to work on gay rights, said Frank, who added that he and Baldwin have proved otherwise, and paved the way for the next generation of gay leaders.
“Before, you got people to know who you were [and] then you came out,” Frank said, referring to his own path, coming out to House speaker and mentor Tip O'Neill in 1986. “Now you don’t have to do that.”
Baldwin agrees, and admits she thinks about how historic her Senate win would be. “If you’re not in a room, the conversation is about you. If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you,” she said.