Ballot box trail blazers

Even in superconservative states and the most hostile legislatures, out politicians are making a difference every day

BY Christopher Lisotta

June 05 2005 11:00 PM ET

One of only 13
Democrats in Idaho’s 70-seat legislature, Nicole
LeFavour is used to being the odd one out when it
comes to liberal politics. “I grew up in
Idaho,” she says. “Not great ground to be
pretty progressive-minded.”
But LeFavour, now 41, expressed her political
opinions early on, going so far as to make
anti–Ronald Reagan posters when he was a presidential candidate.
A writing teacher and former owner of a small
business, LeFavour has been an openly gay advocate for
equality for years, fighting antigay initiatives since
1994. Even as one of the newest members of the state
legislature (she was elected in 2004), she is credited by
many activists as the sole reason Idaho has not moved
forward with a constitutional amendment against
same-sex marriage.
“A lot of what I did was in my own
party,” she says. “They were very
fearful. The most important thing I could do was explain how
this could play out and how it could be bad for Democrats.”
LeFavour, who has been with her life partner for
five years, not only got six Democrats to vote against
putting the amendment in front of voters, she helped
convince eight Republicans to join them, getting two more
than the 12 votes needed to kill the motion.
She credits much of her success to building
relationships with her new colleagues and also to the
simple concept of visibility. “It makes so much
difference when the issues come up and I’m sitting in
the room,” she says. “That’s
pretty powerful.”
But LeFavour hopes her influence in helping gay,
lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Idaho residents
goes beyond blocking amendments. She says the ability
to deal with the complexities of the law, and making sure
include GLBT people are included in even the most
modest legislation, can have an impact.“Over
time,” LeFavour explained, “I will be able to
make a lot of small changes that will make differences.”
LeFavour isn’t the only out legislator
who has dealt with such an amendment. Georgia state
representative Karla Drenner faced the same issue last
year, becoming her state’s highest-profile amendment
opponent, ignoring advice from friends and colleagues
who urged her to keep quiet.
Drenner, who is separated from her partner, says
her two children inspired her to get involved in the
amendment fight. “I didn’t want my
kids’ lives to be impacted,” she says.
“Too many people walk around being afraid. And
I stood there very confidently in who I knew God made me to be.”
The amendment passed by an overwhelming margin,
but Drenner says the political cost was negligible. If
anything, the fight seems to have helped her.
A native of Charleston, W.Va., Drenner got an
early sense of politics from her mother, who held a
number of government jobs and ran an unsuccessful
campaign for state representative.
“I was involved in her campaign,”
says Drenner, currently the sole out state legislator
in Georgia. “There were always political types [of
people] and those kinds of conversations going on in my house.”
An environmental science professor, Drenner was
first elected in 2000, after beating in the primary a
four-term incumbent whose husband ran the Democratic
Party in DeKalb County. While campaigning in a predominantly
African-American district with 26 Baptist churches, Drenner
faced skeptics, including her mother.
“She didn’t think I could
win,” she says. “I hadn’t done my time,
in her mind: I wasn’t a native Georgian, and I
wasn’t a member of civic groups.”
Drenner is a leader in the legislature on issues
such as renewable energy, but she doesn’t shy
away from the role she played in the amendment fight,
and she doesn’t think it has hurt her standing with
her constituents. On the contrary, she notes, it has
been an asset.
“I never got a single piece of hate mail
or any derogatory phone calls from inside my
district,” Drenner explains. “I attribute that
to the fact that I never hid that I was gay, and I was
literally and figuratively out and about. What I heard
[from constituents] was ‘We expected you to do
that.’ And if I hadn’t done that, they would
have thought there was something wrong.”

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