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Elected Officials  
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In any representative democracy a vital issue is how officials are elected and who is chosen to hold office and represent citizens. One way we can evaluate the glbtq political movement is by its ability to achieve representation through the election of government officials who belong to or identify with the movement.

The glbtq rights movement has clearly recognized the importance of descriptive representation. Since the 1960s it has increasingly focused on the election of openly glbtq officials. However, gay men and lesbians seeking public office are often hesitant to be open about their sexual orientation.

Sponsor Message.

Openness, or being "out," often means revealing for the first time one's sexual orientation to family, friends, and co-workers. For candidates and public officials, being out means publicly stating or acknowledging one's sexual orientation or gender variance. Doing so may lead to discrimination, lack of support, and even the threat of physical violence.

Despite these very real fears that have to be faced by any potential candidate who is openly glbtq, the public is increasingly receptive to openly glbtq people holding public office. As more public officials come out in office and are elected after coming out, opposition appears to be decreasing. Nevertheless, religious conservatives in many parts of the country continue to use anti-gay rhetoric and warn of a "gay takeover" in government in local, state, and national elections where glbtq candidates run.

Why glbtq Officials?

From dogcatcher to President, there are over 511,000 elective offices in the United States. Few glbtq persons hold these positions, but their number has significantly increased since the 1970s.

The first openly gay person to run for public office was José Sarria, who ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. Sarria lost his race, but he helped to encourage gay men and lesbians to become involved in politics and to run for public office.

The first openly gay member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors was Harvey Milk, who was elected in 1977. The election made him one of the most visible activists in the country. Before his tragic assassination in 1978, by which he became one of the American gay and lesbian movement's first martyrs, he goaded the city into adopting a policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Research shows that the presence of openly glbtq officials in local government increases the likelihood that localities will adopt policies favoring glbtq people, including benefits for domestic partners. Thus, the election of openly gay and lesbian officials not only offers symbolic recognition of the acceptability of homosexuality in American life, but it also concretely furthers policy goals of the glbtq community and political movement.

In addition, breaking barriers tends to open doors for others. For example, since Milk's assassination, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has never been without at least one gay or lesbian member.

Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund (GLVF), a glbtq Political Action Committee that supports only openly glbtq candidates, had 40 candidates request funds during the 1991-1992 election cycle. During the 1995-1996 election cycle, however, 277 candidates sought assistance.

GLVF does not fund all candidates who request assistance, and in 1996 they endorsed only 72 openly glbtq candidates. That number dropped to 63 for the 1998 midterm elections, but in 2000 it increased to 114. In 2003 the Fund endorsed 37 candidates, a record for an off-year election.

The GLVF remains an important source of funding for glbtq candidates at all levels.

Local Officials

At the local level glbtq persons have most often served on city and county councils and legislatures, but have also held a variety of executive positions, including mayor and sheriff. Susan Leal, who was elected as San Francisco City Treasurer in 1997, used that position as a springboard to run (unsuccessfully) for mayor in 2003. Since 1983, at least 21 glbtq individuals have served at least one term as mayor of American cities. In 2003, Ron Oden became the first openly gay African American to be elected mayor of an American city when he was elected mayor of Palm Springs, California.

At least 130 openly glbtq persons have occupied seats on local councils and legislatures. Representation has increased over time, especially during the 1990s.

The first openly gay elected official for any local office was Kathy Kozachenko, who was elected to the Ann Arbor, Michigan City Council in April 1974. Most of the largest American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, have at least one glbtq individual on their councils. Some cities have even had glbtq majorities on their councils. When Ron Oden was elected Mayor, Palm Springs achieved a glbtq majority on its city council for the first time.

Other positions held by open glbtq persons at the local level include seats on special commissions, neighborhood committees, planning boards, local party organizations, school boards, community college districts, and courts.

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zoom in
Three pioneering members of the U. S. House of Representatives:
Top: Tammy Baldwin.
Center: Barney Frank.
Above: Jim Kolbe (left) with President George Bush in Tucson, Arizona.

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