State Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby is the only lesbian in the Florida legislature. Now she aims to be the first out official elected to represent her home state in Congress.
On Monday, Rayner-Goolsby launched her campaign for Congress, hoping to succeed Democrat Charlie Crist, who is running for Florida governor next year. She hopes to make history as the first openly LGBTQ+ official to win a congressional election in any Southern state. More than that, the 39-year-old intends to continue to devote her life to public service.
"I understand my first election was history-making," she said.
"Representation matters. I understand that when you show up as your full self in all the identities that you embody, you're able to legislate from a place that's more fully representative of all people. When we legislate for the least of these, or we legislate for those that are the most marginalized, we open doors for everybody."
At the same time, she said that's not the primary reason she pursued a career in public service. Whether as a public defender, a state lawmaker, or hopefully a U.S. representative, it's been a desire to help others that motivated her first.
"When I started my career as a public defender, it's a job I wanted. It's not a job that I had to settle for," she said. "I wanted to do the most good in my legal career." That continued as she became a civil rights attorney. And when a seat in the legislature representing minority-rich St. Petersburg opened up, she fought through a primary and won the election with the same mindset.
Whatever prejudices one might expect her to face have never seemed to slow her down. She has worked and developed friendships, even with Republicans, in the legislature, bringing her wife of three years, Bianca Goolsby, to official events in the Florida capital. She's also pushed to modernize LGBTQ+ rights in the state sometimes dragged by courts into modern times kicking and screaming,
She's served the last two years as a Democrat in a Republican-majority legislature, and at a time when conservative Gov. Ron DeSantis advanced an agenda criticized as anti-LGBTQ+. Rayner-Goolsby memorably broke down in tears on the House floor this year during a debate over a ban prohibiting transgender girls and women from playing in sports events consistent with their gender identity.
"Tallahassee is broken," Rayner-Goolsby said. "Especially this last session, we've been able to see how it's been broken, and we really need leaders in Washington to take the lead."
She hopes to be a part of that and to help Democrats put the Equality Act on President Joe Biden's desk. Notably, that could require Democrats not only holding both chambers of Congress but expanding majorities. Historical trends, however, often work against the party in control of the White House during midterms.
Rayner-Goolsby could play a role in reversing those trends. She's running in Florida's 13th Congressional District, rated by Cook Political Report as of the most evenly divided districts in the country between Democrats and Republicans. Without an incumbent in the race, Democrats will need to fight hard to keep the district blue, and that's before that GOP legislature leads redistricting efforts ahead of next year's midterms.
But she hopes her identity as a Black woman and a queer person of color will make her the perfect candidate to energize voters in her district.
"I show up as a Black queer Southern woman," she said. "I think that all of those identities that I embody need to be present because that's what America looks like. America is not a monolith."
There's reason to believe voters are ready to elect someone so boldly living as their true self in 2022. She looks to the White House and the ticket elected in 2020 for inspiration.
"One of the best examples of showing up authentically is Kamala Harris," Rayner-Goolsby said. "She is a Black woman. She is a South Asian woman. She is married to a Jewish man. She shows up authentically with all these things as who she is. We're seeing it on full display in the White House, and I think we need to see that also in Congress."