Allison Ikley-Freeman says that she “was not supposed to win.”
But the 26-year-old mental health counselor did win earlier this month—albeit by a razor thin margin—in a special election for the state senate seat in Oklahoma’s District 37. What made her win especially dramatic—and what shaped the headlines around her victory—was the fact that she was both a Democrat and an out, married lesbian mother of three running against a Republican for a seat in the GOP-controlled legislature of a red state.
“The reality is that I didn’t hide being gay but I did run just as being a regular Oklahoman,” Ikley-Freeman told The Daily Beast in an interview about her candidacy.
Ikley-Freeman’s campaign—as reflected by her website—focused primarily on housing, health care, and education. Talk with her longer than thirty seconds and she’ll start talking at length about the ongoing budget crisis in the Oklahoma state legislature, about dollar stores displacing grocery stores creating food deserts, and about how her previous experience of being homeless informs her approach to low-income voters.
But Ikley-Freeman doesn’t mind that the national media coverage of her narrow victory tends to highlight her sexual orientation.
“When I see headlines like that, I’m not disappointed because then I have people all across the nation being like, ‘What? There’s hope!’” she told The Daily Beast. “Headlines like that give people hope who feel disenfranchised.”
This month has been full of historic LGBT political headlines. On the night of November 7th, incoming Virginia delegate Danica Roem and at least six other transgender candidates for public office won their elections—an unprecedented result in a moment when transgender rights more broadly seem imperiled.
Roem’s victory, in particular, was electrifying because she is now set to become the first transgender candidate elected and seated to a state legislature, displacing the virulently anti-LGBT author of a bathroom bill.
But when it comes to the drastic underrepresentation of LGBT people in American politics, firsts are not all that matter: Ikley-Freeman, as the Washington Blade reported, will be the third openly gay person elected to the Oklahoma state legislature.
Ikley-Freeman believes she may have gotten lucky, telling The Daily Beast that “if [Oklahoma] weren’t in such a state of crisis, the fact that [she] was gay might have been a bigger issue,” but she is also keenly aware of how much societal change had to happen to make her candidacy viable.
“You know, ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible,” she said. “It wouldn’t have. They would have printed something in a major newspaper and there would have been a whole lot of outcry about it.”
Indeed, although being openly gay can still be a campaign liability, it’s possible that some of the coastal media surprise at Ikley-Freeman’s victory may be the result of giving more credit to anti-LGBT forces than they deserve.
“I think what really happens is people don’t realize how much louder that anti-LGBT voice is than the everyday person voice, typically,” she told The Daily Beast. “So it gets disproportionate attention and, therefore, when you’re removed from it, you disproportionately think that’s what the overall opinion is.”
Sixty-eight percent of Americans support transgender military service, and per data from the Public Religion Research Institute, over 70 percent of Americans support nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people—with a heartening 60 percent support in Oklahoma. It can be easy to forget that anti-LGBT voices, despite being loud, represent a small and ever shrinking fringe of voters—even in Trump’s America.
As Ikley-Freeman puts it, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” when it comes to press coverage.
Still, though, the anti-LGBT fringe is frightening and often influential enough to keep many LGBT people out of public office—and to dissuade others from even trying.
LGBT Americans, according to Gallup, constitute an estimated 4 percent of the population; representation in the United States Congress is currently at about one percent, with seven openly LGBT members out of over 500 total.
The Daily Beast asked Ikley-Freeman if she thinks her win in Oklahoma is proof that the country is finally crossing the bridge to a point where a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity no longer matters—to a point where she can just be a “Democrat” instead of a “lesbian Democrat.”
“I mean, yes, I think we’re crossing the bridge but I also think that it’s a really, really, really long bridge—and it’s going to take us a while to get to the point where it’s not a thing,” she said.
How long that will take remains unclear. But what Ikley-Freeman can say for certain is that, if she hadn’t taken the long shot that she did, victory would have been impossible rather than improbable.
After the Republican who previously held her seat—Dan Newberry—resigned from the state senate, Ikley-Freeman says she “realized that nobody that lived in the district who was a Democrat was willing to run for the seat.” If the first-time candidate didn’t decide to run, her Republican opponent would have likely nabbed an uncontested chair.
“We were really thinking about what we were looking for in a candidate, trying to call some people and convince them to run,” Ikley-Freeman remembers. “And I just had this moment where I was like, ‘I need to do this.’”
She did—and she won by a reported 31 votes. The anti-LGBT crowd may make a lot of noise. But it only takes 31 votes to send yet another LGBT politician into a conservative legislature in the era of Trump.