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For LGBTQ women, running for office ranges from 'difficult' to threatening

Campaign costs, bigotry and physical threats are among the barriers for lesbian, bi and trans women considering elected office, the LGBTQ Victory Institute found.

April 15, 2021, 3:33 PM PDT

By Julie Moreau

When Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone first ran for office in 2017, she struggled to be considered a serious candidate.

"My first race was very difficult," she said. "Neither the Democrats nor Republicans thought I had a chance to win."

Titone, a Democrat, said she had to do all her own fundraising while continuing to go to school and holding down a day job.

"I had to go way above and beyond what anyone else had to do," she said.

Despite the obstacles, including transphobic attacks on the campaign trail, Titone has two election victories under her belt and the distinction of being the first transgender lawmaker in the state.

The roadblocks Titone met are shared by many lesbian, bisexual and transgender women who are running or considering running for elected office, according to a new report from the LGBTQ Victory Institute. The report surveyed nearly 300 former, current and prospective political candidates across the country and found that high campaign costs, physical threats, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, external perceptions of their qualifications and a lack of political mentors were among the most common obstacles cited.

"The barriers for LGBTQ women — and LGBTQ women of color and trans women in particular — are enormous, yet we know that when they run, they win," said former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. "By understanding the barriers better and working to reduce their impact, we can encourage more LGBTQ women to run and increase our numbers in elected office."

While women across the gender identity and sexuality spectrum lack proportionate political representation in the U.S., LGBTQ women are particularly underrepresented. While women hold about a fourth of the seats in the House and the Senate, according to RepresentWomen, there are just four out lesbian and bisexual women in Congress out of 535 members (there has never been an openly transgender member of Congress). And out of 7,383 seats in state legislatures across the country, just 98 lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are known to be serving, or 1.3 percent, according to LPAC, an organization that promotes the election of LGBTQ women.

Financial barriers

The money required to run a competitive campaign discouraged many of the survey's respondents, who said they worried about their ability to raise money and get access to donor networks.

Nearly half of former and current candidates and 60 percent of potential candidates said they hesitated to run because of fundraising concerns.

"With the evolution of campaigns, they are getting bigger, more expensive, more crowded — and a lot of LGBTQ women run in primaries," LPAC Executive Director Lisa Turner said.

"Men have an advantage over women when it comes to political dollars," she added, noting that even gay men are able to attract more campaign dollars (even though queer women have a higher rate of electoral success, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute).

Some respondents also expressed concern about needing to take time off work to campaign. About 40 percent of prospective and 16 percent of current and former candidates reported that it made them hesitate to run. Respondents of color were more likely to report those concerns.

"You learn very quickly that it can be difficult to run if you do not personally or professionally come from wealth," former Air Force Capt. Gina Ortiz Jones said. Jones, a lesbian, ran for Congress in Texas in 2018 and 2020 but lost to her Republican opponents.

Jones said that when she was first thinking about running, a member of the Democratic Party asked her whether she could raise $300,000 in 90 days.

"That's a deterrent," she said.

Threats of violence

Many LGBTQ women surveyed expressed concerns about facing violence and verbal attacks on the campaign trail.

The majority of potential candidates, 3 out of 5, reported being "somewhat" or "very" concerned about threats of violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Among current and former candidates, 45 percent reported such concerns.

Jenna Wadsworth, who lost her bid in November to become North Carolina's agriculture commissioner, became the target of online vitriol during the campaign when she posted a video on social media asking viewers whether Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis was their "favorite or most favorite October surprise."

While Wadsworth admitted her remark was in poor taste, the responses were downright frightening, and they made her fear for her safety. "I received gang rape threats after that video," Wadsworth said. "Until election night, I was not able to stay in my own home for three weeks."

Transgender women reported the greatest fear of violence: Nearly 4 out of 5 said they feared violence based on their gender identity.

Bigotry on the campaign trail

Along with fearing threats of violence, many of the respondents reported being worried about becoming the targets of homophobic, transphobic and racist attacks.

Over 50 percent of potential candidates said witnessing how LGBTQ and women candidates were targets of bigoted attacks gave them concerns about running for office. Over 60 percent of potential candidates of color said seeing others become the victims of racist attacks gave them concerns.

Jones was the target of attacks by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which was reported to have suggested that conservative advocacy organizations focus on her sexual orientation. Some ads also took aim at her support for transgender service members, claiming Jones would "radicalize" the country by diverting military spending to pay for "transgender reassignment surgeries." According to The Washington Post, Republican officials believed the ads helped to derail Jones' campaign and viewed them as part of a larger strategy to make transgender rights a political flashpoint.

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