Local government isn’t the most welcoming place for LGBT politicians, but it can be one of the most effective

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Over the past few years in LGBT politics, “expand the map” has almost exclusively meant one thing: increase the number of states with LGBT-friendly policies. That usually means marriage equality, but protecting people from workplace and housing discrimination have had their moments as well. On August 12, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund began a campaign to expand the map in a different way—specifically, increase the number of LGBT representatives in state legislatures.

Four states that currently lack LGBT representatives (Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, and Michigan) have had LGBT reps in the past. Although few in number, they were typically legislative movers-and-shakers while in office—or have been since leaving it. Among former representatives, Ernesto Scorsone was one of the founders of Kentucky educational nonprofit Just Fund KY; Kathy Webb is now executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance; Chris Kolb is president of the Michigan Environmental Council; and Nicole LeFavour has been leading the protest group Add the Words, Idaho. What’s clear is that LGBT representatives tend to get involved in community efforts in the private sector, usually around issues that got them elected in the first place. 

Local government has long been acknowledged as a hard place for LGBT people to access, let alone succeed in. The Williams Institute recently released a study suggesting that few LGBT employees in the public sector file reports about discrimination, and assistance from understaffed and underfunded agencies is difficult to secure.

Jovanka Beckles, a lesbian and a city councilwoman from Richmond, California, can attest to the unique difficulties that LGBT public servants face at the local level. When she ran for office in 2010, she was out but didn’t make sexuality a signature of her campaign. She says that “what I lead with was my platform for leading the city, improving the city, and moving it forward.”

At one point, however, an opponent’s mailer referenced Beckles’ partner (and now wife), which Beckles views as a way of “trying to test the waters” for deploying sexual orientation as a critique. Beckles responded obliquely but candidly to the charges at her 2011 inauguration, where she “very publicly” thanked her partner. 

Since then, she’s had to weather slurs and hate speech at public meetings. Despite that, she’s committed to remaining part of Richmond’s local government. “My voice is needed,” she explains, noting that previously there had “never been an out councilmember, and so there’s never been conversations” about how to support LGBT residents and “the importance of having a city that respects all of its residents”. Beckles says that she thinks changes are needed even in LGBT friendly areas like the Bay Area, but that along with others, “I feel that I’m in a position to help create that change.”

She describes her work as “really energizing,” but says that after some of the recent malicious statements made about her, “I seriously wasn’t sure whether or not I could continue to do it.” But that was “before I got the outpouring of support from people all over the state and all over the nation.” With that, she felt certain in her ability to continue to represent Richmond.

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