Taking a Seat at the Table
A record number of LGBTQ candidates throw their hat in the political ring
By Carol Latter
Contemplating career choices before heading off to college, the idea of getting involved in politics in any capacity never crossed Raghib Allie-Brennan’s mind – let alone running for public office.
“I wanted to go into medicine when I was leaving high school,” he recalls, but while he was good at reading and writing, “I wasn’t very good in math. I knew I would have to struggle” to become a doctor.
Today, Allie-Brennan, 27, is the youngest member of Connecticut’s House of Representatives, serving the 2nd District – Bethel, Redding, Newtown, and part of the City of Danbury. He is also one of just two LGBTQ members of the House, and one of four LGBTQ politicians serving at the state level.
A Democrat, he was elected last November, after an unsuccessful run two years earlier. On the surface, he says, the odds might have seemed stacked against him. “I have a different name – my dad named me after a football player but people might assume I was Middle Eastern. I’m of color, I’m gay, I’m young. The only thing I’m not is a woman,” he jokes. “There were a lot of things against me, but I got there. I’d like to be a role model, to let young people know that as long as you put in the work, you can achieve your goals.”
And put in the work he did, knocking on more than 9,000 doors from early last spring to November. “I was obviously running as a gay man. It was hard at times,” he admits. “Some people like to use that [sexual identity] to suggest that’s all you care about, but it’s not. I’m more than just a gay man. I’m very invested in energy and environmental issues, animal welfare, paid family medical leave, helping Connecticut’s young people, and so much more.”
A couple of things contributed to his success, he believes. “I focused on the human side. I spoke to the opponent’s record and explained how he was out of touch. It took time and perseverance, but we were successful.” Now, he’s working to make a tangible difference in the Nutmeg state.
Among other things, Rep. Allie-Brennan wants to help build an LGBTQ network across Connecticut to “fill the service gaps that some of the organizations are not getting to” – particularly in more remote areas like the northwest and northeast portions of the state. In those areas, many LGBTQ people, and especially young people, feel isolated and unsupported. Many lack a place where they can spend time with people who relate to them. Some are homeless. Some commit suicide.
“We want to pass legislation that will positively affect the LGBTQ community in this state. We want them to know that we’re here, we’re listening to them, and we’ve got their backs. We want them to know that they have a voice in the State House. Hopefully we can ease the problems they face.”
A Rainbow Wave
Allie-Brennan is part of a record number of “out” LGBTQ political candidates who ran for public office across the U.S., at all levels, and are currently serving their country, states, cities or towns. Among that contingent are 10 members of Congress, the governors of Oregon and Colorado, seven statewide officials (including Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo), and 148 state legislators. The tally also includes 38 mayors, 348 local officials serving on municipal councils or school boards, and 106 serving in a judicial capacity.
Of approximately 750 who ran in 2018, more than 650 were elected. Of that number, three are trans men and 10 are trans women. One identifies as intersex, and two each identify as gender non-conforming, genderqueer/non-binary, and Two Spirit (Native American/Alaska Native).
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Victory organization – a bipartisan nonprofit that provides funding, training and support to LGBTQ political candidates – just a handful of states do not have any elected LGBTQ officials.
In Connecticut, a significant number of LGBTQ hopefuls ran this past November, including six Republican candidates for seats in the state’s General Assembly. Connecticut’s two openly gay lawmakers, Sen. Beth Bye of West Hartford and Rep. Jeff Currey of East Hartford, both Democrats, were successfully re-elected. (After four terms as state senator and two terms as state representative, Bye resigned in January to lead the state Office of Early Childhood.)
Allie-Brennan was the only first-term state representative to win office in November.
While no GOP candidates were successful in that race, at least one has seen a change in the political climate from years gone by. Republican John Scott of Mystic, who served one term in the Connecticut General Assembly from January 2015 to January 2017, representing Groton and Ledyard, says being part of the LGBTQ community wasn’t a barrier for him to running for, or holding, public office.
What he’s found “amazing and beautiful” is that Connecticut’s Republican party “couldn’t care less about people being gay. They don’t want anything to do with making any [anti-LGBTQ] changes. They are very warm and welcoming. I think it’s a great thing.”
He’ll never forget the day when, soon after he got married on December 25, 2015, Themis Klarides, Republican Minority Leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives, announced his marriage on the House floor and led a standing ovation to congratulate him. “I didn’t expect that. It was very cool,” he says. “Being gay, as the world is changing, is so normal now that I don’t think many people care anymore.” Instead, the state’s party members and Connecticut voters want “a good member of the community who can help make things better.”
Scott, 49, has been involved in politics at the local level for the better part of 20 years, including time as a member of the Groton Town Council and Representative Town Meeting. He ran for state office in 2014, unseating Edward Moukawsher, who had held the District 40 seat for 12 years.
Scott, with a history as a small business owner, worked hard to improve the state’s economy and business climate, he says, but last fall, “this region went solidly against Trump. We have a military base in my district and a very transient population. Sailors and their spouses bring their parents to live with them, and Navy support families didn’t know me from the dog catcher.” Democrat Christine Conley, running on a platform of securing state funding for Electric Boat, safeguarding healthcare benefits, and providing tax relief to senior citizens, narrowly won the seat in 2016 and again in 2018.
Scott doesn’t rule out running again in the future, saying it’s important for LGBTQ candidates to be involved in politics to ensure that recent legislative gains – including the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2008 – “don’t get taken away from us.”
A Helping Hand
Annise Parker, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Victory Fund and Victory Institute, couldn’t agree more. Parker – who previously served for six years as a Houston city council member, six years as controller, and six years as mayor – was the first openly LGBTQ mayor of a major American city.
“We can be represented really well by our allies,” she says. “They care about the issues, and that’s great, but no one can really speak to the truth of the daily [LGBTQ] experience like those who have lived it. LGBTQ politicians can serve as role models and mentors, and have the opportunity to change how the broader LGBTQ community is perceived across America.” Victory is the only national organization that works solely with LGBTQ candidates, from town contenders to gubernatorial candidates.
Parker says while great strides have been made in garnering equal rights with respect to gay marriage and other issues at the state level, there is still much more progress to be made, and the danger of backsliding is ever-present. “In half of states, you can still discriminate against LGBTQ people without repercussions,” she says.
Trans issues are another hot spot in today’s social and political climate.
“America is a lot further along on gay and lesbian issues than on trans issues,” Parker says. “Most Americans now have worked with someone who is gay or lesbian, but not too many can say they know someone who is trans. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to have trans candidates and politicians. It will humanize and normalize that human experience for everyone.”
Anti-trans bills, she says, continue to be “a plague across the country. For many legislatures, the most insidious legislation relates to conversion therapy.” Meanwhile, on the national scene, the legal fight over whether trans people can openly serve in the military continues to be waged.
Parker, who has been an activist since the 1970s, says her organization conducts an extensive vetting process of LGBTQ candidates before deciding whether to endorse them. The Victory Fund (which offers funding to the candidates it endorses) and the Victory Institute (which provides training) have helped many gay and lesbian candidates run successful campaigns for public office.
“That will happen for the trans community as well. We now have four trans state representatives, and council members in several cities,” she says.
While Victory has just 20 employees, “last year, we climbed a mountain with the number of candidates we screened, endorsed and tracked. The number of organizations supporting women, candidates of color and immigrants surged in 2018. I believe the same conditions will still be there in 2020.”
Yet she admits there is a long road ahead. “It’s great that there are more than 750 ‘out’ candidates who ran at all levels in 2018,” Parker says. “But LGBTQ represents 4 percent of the population of America, so we would need 23,000 more people to be truly representative. It shows you how far we still have to go.”
Focusing on the Issues
Caitlin Clarkson Pereira of Fairfield is one of several Connecticut candidates endorsed and trained by Victory. While she didn’t win the seat she fought for in the House of Representatives, she found it “humbling and empowering to be a candidate, particularly in this political climate. There is a responsibility that comes with that, and I am 100 percent committed to seeing that responsibility through, in whatever form that takes, in the future.”
Pereira, 33, is the mother of a 4-year-old-daughter, and a longtime LGBT advocate. In college, she did her grad research on gay and bisexual students. She later became a college counselor, helping students pick majors and choose careers.
“Because I had been in hetero relationships, I had people tell me – and I sort of convinced myself – that how I identified didn’t matter.” But after finishing grad school and launching her career, “it was weighing on me to pretend to be an ally, while it was really so much more than that. I identified initially as bisexual but that only means two genders. And so I just had to own it. I had to own it.”
Now, she identifies personally as pansexual, and politically as bisexual. For many people, she says, “You don’t just come out once. It’s a process your entire life. So at least for now, and with running for office, I’m identifying using the term bisexual because it’s the most familiar for people.”
She says she “could write a book about the various obstacles” she encountered on the campaign trail. Most related to being a female candidate and the mother of a toddler. “People were asking me really personal questions: ‘Do you want to have more children? Who will look after your daughter? What if you get pregnant?’ There was also the issue of identifying with the LGBTQ community but being in a heterosexual relationship. People would tell me, ‘You’re married. You have a daughter. Your family looks great on Christmas cards, so let that be your story.’”
Pereira didn’t buy into any of that. “I promised myself from the moment I ran that I didn’t want to be identified just as the mom, the wife, or the heterosexual woman from Fairfield. I wanted people to care about what I was advocating for. I wasn’t going to hide [my sexual identity] or remove it from Facebook posts. I was going to be me, and not only for my own wellbeing, but because the number of LGBTQ candidates who are out and run for office is still minute.”
She says anti-LBGTQ rhetoric still rears its ugly head in Connecticut, pointing to Andrew McDonald, an associate justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court who was nominated last spring by then-Gov. Dannel Malloy to be the state’s next chief justice. A social media outcry ensued, and the nomination was rejected by the Senate in a 19-16 vote. If he had been confirmed, McDonald would have been the first openly gay person in the U.S. to serve as chief justice of a state supreme court.
The whole situation incensed Pereira.
“He [McDonald] has been out for a long time. He has a husband, and he’s extremely accomplished as a politician and as a judge, but there were a lot of horrendous things being said about him by people tied to hate groups,” recalls Pereira. “There were a lot of people [politicians] I spoke to who just shrugged their shoulders. When a hate group has something treacherous to say online about a well-established justice and it’s shared, and no one who has the platform to respond is responding to it, that is absolutely personal.”
She has a message for non-LGBTQ politicians. “If you’re going to come to a rally or have a pride flag in your office, and there is something that’s causing distress, what are you going to do about it? Are you really an ally, or just when it’s convenient?”
She says having more LGBTQ candidates run for office can help to improve or even prevent situations like this. “If each of us is able to encourage one or two other people to run, it becomes a chain reaction.”
Gannon Long – a 36-year-old Hartford native and community organizer who spent time living in Chicago, Washington and Boston – also placed issues first when she campaigned to become the state representative for Hartford’s Behind the Rocks, Frog Hollow and Parkville neighborhoods last year. “I’m a lesbian millennial and that’s my identity. I don’t hide from it but it’s also not at the forefront of most people’s minds. Over 40 percent of people [in my neighborhood] don’t own cars, and only about 25 percent of city residents own homes. The fact that I have a girlfriend is not that important to people dealing with poverty and their own real-life issues.”
While she was campaigning door to door, people told her about their heating issues, having vermin in their homes, and the waste piling up on their curbs. They also expressed their frustration with the public education system, and their inability to change it.
“Even in our local neighborhoods, on City Council, people lack basic representation. How do we support people who are marginalized and left out? Unfortunately, politicians are not making it a space where those voices are heard.”
Long, a Democrat, ran as a petitioning candidate against a member of her own party: state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, a social conservative who had served 11 terms in the legislature. Gonzalez, 68, who has held the 3rd District seat since 1996, is known as an opponent of gay marriage and was one of five Democrats to oppose Malloy’s choice of McDonald as chief justice.
While Long didn’t win the seat, she says her LGBTQ status was not a negative factor. “I had a lot of conversations with older people who said they were really excited to see a young person come in and try to shake things up. I think more things are possible because former generations lifted barriers.”
She, like her fellow candidates, believes that diversity in political representation is critical. “I can’t believe how acceptable a lack of diversity is to a lot of people. And as they say, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ LGBTQ is very important but we also need a lot more diversity types. As a white, queer person, I have a lot of privileges, and I have to use that to advocate for other people. We can’t just keep advocating for the same types of issues in Connecticut – we have to broaden it.”