These Openly LGBTQ Elected Officials Tell Their Coming-Out Stories
Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO, LGBTQ Victory Fund:
While 2020 politics dominates America's attention, 2019 is anything but an "off-election" year. More than 300 openly LGBTQ candidates ran or are running for office this cycle - an unprecedented number for an odd-numbered election year - and many can still win historic races come November. We've already made 2019 the Year of the Lesbian Mayor, electing out lesbian mayors in Chicago, Tampa, Fla., and Madison, Wis. The Nashville Metro Council just increased its out number of City Council members from two to five, just enough for them to form an LGBTQ caucus for the first time. And the big elections to come include five openly LGBTQ candidates in Virginia, including the reelection of Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, the first out trans person seated in a state legislature.
Our 2019 candidates remain the focus here at LGBTQ Victory Fund, but the opportunities in 2020 are incredible and we are already endorsing candidates. America will have more LGBTQ congressional candidates than ever before, more diverse LGBTQ state legislative candidates than ever before, and our first openly LGBTQ Democratic presidential candidate.
This National Coming Out Day, we celebrate candidates who are out and standing up for our community. Each of these candidates - whether running for their local school board or for the highest office in the land, whether they win or lose - transforms perceptions of our community and paves the way for more LGBTQ people to run and win. But first comes first: they need to be out. Below, you can read the coming-out stories and experiences of a handful of the 2019 and 2020 candidates who are running for office. They are a reminder of the struggles each of us once faced, and how it shaped our beliefs and priorities moving forward.
Alejandra St. Guillen
Alejandra St. Guillen, running for Boston City Council (at-large). She will be the first out female member of the LGBTQ community elected to the council if she wins.
The first person I came out to in my family was my younger sister, Imette. I knew that my family would be very receptive, but I was still very nervous. When I told my sister, she was not shocked at all. She was super excited and insisted we tell my mother right away.
I remember it was over the Thanksgiving break and my mom was decorating the living room with her Thanksgiving decor. When I told my mom that I had a girlfriend, she was not surprised either and was very cool about it. Growing up in the Mission Hill area of Boston, we had friends and neighbors of all races, religions, and sexual orientations, and my mother reminded me of that fact and said she would always love and support me no matter what.
I know that my "coming out" experience was so much easier than the experiences of my peers, some of whom were not immediately accepted by their families. That is why I am extremely passionate about issues impacting LGBTQ youth. This passion is driven by my deeply held belief that all people have the right and should have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Everyone deserves to live with dignity and respect and that is played out across various spectrums -- in our schools, in the community, in our local government. My varied life experiences mean I see the world through a lens of empathy and hope and a belief that we all have the ability to do more and give more every day.
Alison Brown, running for Indianapolis City-County Council (District 5). She is one of the few candidates endorsed by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and will be the first out female member of the LGBTQ community elected to the Indianapolis City-County Council.
My coming-out story wasn't super dramatic until it became super dramatic. My family has been supportive of me in just about every aspect of my life. I never really worried about coming out to them. I figured they all knew. No one batted an eye when I told them I'm attracted to people of all genders. I married a man, so to the world I appeared straight, but my husband, friends, and coworkers all knew I'm queer.
I never had a grand coming-out until I decided to run for office. It was a no-brainer for me to reach out to the Victory Fund right off the bat and secure their endorsement. And when I received the endorsement, I was over the moon. So I sent out an email about the having their support, explaining that I would be the first queer woman on the Indianapolis City-County Council and what this endorsement meant to me. That's when the phone calls started...
My husband received a call from a family member, who was crying on the phone, thinking this was a public announcement that I was leaving him. People I knew from the political space began calling and texting him, trying to understand what this meant for our marriage. I got strange emails from people I thought would be supportive that were very confused, asking who I was sleeping with. People asked if I had a girlfriend on the side.
I didn't realize, in sending that email to the couple thousand people on my list, that I had publicly come out to the entire world. I had always lived my truth, but because I am married to a man, I am straight-presenting, people were shocked. Some people from the LGBTQ+ community made me feel like I wasn't gay enough to claim to be queer. I was taken aback by the calls and emails.
I am firm in who I am. I feel in love with a man who I married and have a son with. I love his soul, not his gender. I could've just as easily fallen for a woman or someone who is nonbinary. I don't owe anyone an explanation. I know who I am. I am proud of who I am. To paraphrase my friend Pete Buttigieg, I am a tall, kind, queer mother and wife, who is dedicated to serving her community.
Montana state Sen. Bryce Bennett, running for Montana secretary of state. He will be the first out member of the LGBTQ community elected statewide in Montana if he wins.
"Tell us your name, where you're from, and your sexual orientation."
That was how a high school retreat started off. As a senior from a small Montana town, I had never said "those words" before.
As introductions got closer and closer, it was time to make a decision: Was this going to be the moment I'd spent years playing out in my head? Then it happened: "I'm Bryce Bennett..." and then with a bit of dread I added "and I'm gay."
It was the first time I had come out to anyone, let alone a room full of strangers. All of the brave LGBTQ+ high-schoolers boldly told the room who they were and it inspired me. It even gave me the strength to come out to my parents within minutes of walking in the door when I got home.
Years later I would have to come out again -- this time in front of cameras on the House floor.
In 2010, I was elected to the Montana House of Representative as the first openly gay man to ever serve in our legislature. During my second term, a bill came to repeal laws declaring LGBTQ+ Montanans felons. So, I stood up, gave my arguments, and added, "Now I'm going to talk about how this bill affects me." Coming out again was as frightening as it was back in high school, but I needed them to hear what it's like growing up in a state where you're a criminal because of who you love. We moved that bill forward with a single vote .
Those moments remind me why coming out matters so much. If I wasn't there, that story would have never been told. Without coming out to people in that chamber, I couldn't have shown legislators the real people that legislation would impact.
Coming out is an endless process. It is never easy, but it's always powerful. When people come out, progress happens. I'm proud to have made my little bit of progress here in Big Sky Country.
Donna Price, running for Albemarle County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. She will be the first out LGBTQ member of the board and one of just 20 out trans elected officials in the entire nation.
Even though I knew from the earliest age that I should have been a girl, in the 1950s there was just no information about this, and we all understood that some things were just not talked about.
After being commissioned as a judge advocate in the Navy I read the regulations, which stated that simply believing one was transgender was grounds for involuntary separation, with the basis being sexual perversion. Try looking for a job with that in your record! Having responsibilities for a family, I did my best to just bury the dysphoria, but as a friend once said, you fight it and fight it and fight it your whole life, and then it wins anyway because you cannot change who you are.
When the time came to come out, I knew that I would use what I call "the Billie Jean King Method" of dealing with what you know will be noteworthy. Within my career field I am very well known - and respected - so I planned a literal "disclosure tour," where I drove down the interstate stopping at government offices and law firms where I did business to personally advise a senior individual that I was transgender, would be transitioning, and only asked that my information not be publicly disclosed to others in that organization until a specified date so that I could have the opportunity to tell others before it became public knowledge.
Taking charge of my story was among the most empowering things that I have ever done. Telling people about who I really am took all the weight of the world of living as others desired me to live off of my shoulders. The relief of honest relationships, of being free to be me is indescribable.
I consider myself to be an Ambassador to Transunderstand.
Eliz Markowitz, running for Texas state House (District 28). Her 2019 special election race is crucial to Democrats' efforts to win a majority in the Texas House in 2020.
It's a tale of two reactions. I wish I were able to offer a different narrative, but the responses of my parents were vastly different and had a profound effect on our relationships.
I had an inkling that I was gay in middle school. While my friends obsessed about going to prom with the cutest boys in class, try as I might, I was unable to mirror those feelings towards the opposite gender. My first relationship with a woman began in high school, and it was one of shared looks during class, clandestine meetings after school, and intense young love.
After dinner one night, I asked my dad, who is my best friend and biggest supporter, if he would go for a walk with me. We walked, we talked about meaningless nonsense, and then I told him that I had something I needed to tell him. He was nervous; I could read the concern on his face. I mumbled that I thought I was gay and, true to form, he gave me a huge hug and told me that nothing would ever come between us. He followed up with "This is no big deal! I thought you were going to tell me you were pregnant!" The irony was not lost on us, and we laughed as we walked home.
My mother, however, was a different story. Due to the premature death of my sister and half a dozen miscarriages, my mother suffered from depression and struggled with severe alcoholism. To say that our relationship had always been rocky would be an understatement. I returned home from work one day, found my mom sitting at the kitchen table with an expression of disgust on her face, and was greeted with "So you're having an affair with a woman?" I was speechless. She berated me, told me that I was going through a phase, and preached about how society would not accept my sexuality. None of what she said was as devastating as the words with which she ended her tirade: "Love has limits. This is a limit."
I cannot tell you exactly what happened over the next few hours at my house, but I do know that my parents fought, I retreated to my bedroom, and I went through the stages of grief in an expedited manner. While my mother became more tolerant of the idea over time, and we mended parts of our relationship before she passed away, we never fully repaired our already fractured relationship and her words were forever imprinted in my mind.
Parents, love should not have limits. Love your children with your entire being and love them for they are are, not who you idealize them to be. Words carry weight, and your children will never forget those which are used to heal or harm.
Gina Ortiz Jones
Gina Ortiz Jones, running for U.S. House of Representatives from Texas's 23rd District. She will be the first openly LGBTQ person elected to Congress from Texas if she wins.
"Mom, I think I like girls."
My mother replied, not bothering to look up from the magazine she was reading, "I think you just like the clothes that they're wearing."
And that's how I came out to my mom at the age of 15. I knew she was just trying to protect me. I think it was difficult for her to accept what I was saying at the time, because she knew it would be harder for me.
And it was. It was hard to fully enjoy my time at Boston University, because the four-year Air Force ROTC Scholarship I earned required that I sign a piece of paper agreeing not to engage in homosexual behavior. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the policy, and my education depended on it. My education depended on me not being able to be me.
It didn't get any easier when I entered the military. I had the honor of working with some of the finest people I have ever met. However, I wish I knew them better, and I wish they knew me better.
The immeasurable cost of "don't ask, don't tell" for me was not being able to form the type of bonds that military members are known for forming with one another. Small talk about weekend plans or questions about my personal life were always exercises in deflection or outright lying. Ironically, the cost to be part of the team was not being part of the team.
At this point in my life, I understand "coming out" to be a defiant expression and understanding of one's worth and the necessity of their voice in our great American project. Coming out is courageous, and given what we're facing as a country and as a community, courage can be in no shortage.
Michigan state Rep. Jon Hoadley, running for U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan's Sixth District. He will be the first out member of the LGBTQ community elected to Congress from Michigan if he wins.
I was mowing the lawn on my dad's John Deere the first time I ever said the words "I'm gay."
The need to be true to ourselves was so powerful that I had to say the words out loud, even if just to myself on an empty lot drowned out by the noise of that lawn mower so no one else would hear me.
Coming out to others happened in stages. A crush on a guy from the tennis team turning into my first boyfriend. My first boyfriend turning into a question from my sister while she was brushing her teeth: "Are you dating a guy on the tennis team?" "Yes. Pass the toothpaste." A conversation with my mother at the start of my senior year of high school turning into a life with parents, siblings, a partner, and friends who love me. For me, it got better.
When advocating for full equality for LGBTQ people became my vocation, coming out was part of the package. Fighting for fully inclusive nondiscrimination laws, marriage equality, diverse LGBTQ representation, and for the freedom to live our lives authentically meant sharing who I am.
As one of three LGBTQ legislators in Michigan, the coming-out process never stops. While fighting for the priorities of my constituents -- a health care system that works, a good education for our students without crushing student debt, clean water, and addressing the climate crisis -- I find myself continuously coming out. Running for Congress and being the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress from Michigan, a whole new set of people are learning this about me too.
Coming out still matters. It matters for the types of laws we pass, our freedoms decided at the Supreme Court, and for the next kid figuring things out while mowing the grass.
I was 16 years old and a student at Lehman High School in the Bronx. I was active in the debate team and there was a rumor circulating that my coach was gay. I decided to look up his profile on MySpace, and I discovered that indeed he was gay because he identified as such on his profile. I was so excited and fascinated because I had no family, no friends, no neighbors who were openly LGBT.
I remember going to him after class and I spontaneously came out to him. He was shocked and speechless, and he gave me no immediate response. Then we had a longer conversation about it a few days later and he was supportive as I expected he would be. That was the very first moment in my life when I acknowledged my sexuality to someone else.
Then came the decision to run for public office in 2013. I was one of 9 candidates in a hotly contested race for the New York City Council. When you're a candidate, the biggest concern is that you're one controversy away from derailing your candidacy. I was anxious about doing anything that could derail my chances of winning because an openly LGBT candidate had never won public office in the Bronx before.
One day, I received a call from a reporter inquiring about my positions on LGBT issues, and he asked if I had LGBT people in my life who shaped my views on the community. I said, "Well, I'm a member of the LGBT community. I'm openly gay." And that was the moment when I decided I would run as an openly gay candidate. I was intent on winning and I did.
The most important difference I've made in my capacity as an elected official is to send a clear message that there's nothing wrong with being gay. You should feel no shame. I believe in the normalizing power of my own visibility, so that young people can grow up normally, without shame, and with pride.
New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, running for US House of Representatives from New York's Fifteenth District. If he wins, Torres will be the first openly LGBTQ Afro-Latinx elected to Congress.