In all of American history, only two major cities have ever had openly gay women serve as their mayors: Houston and Seattle.
That number is about to double, and may well triple.
Last week, Lori Lightfoot was elected as mayor of Chicago, the largest city to elect an openly LGBT mayor to date. On the same night, Satya Rhodes Conway unseated incumbent Paul Soglin to become the first openly gay mayor of Madison, Wis., while Kansas City, Mo., Councilwoman Jolie Justus finished first in that city’s initial round of mayoral voting. In Tampa, Fla., former police chief Jane Castor finished at the top of the list during that city’s first round of voting last month. She has also racked up most of the key endorsements ahead of the April 23 mayoral election.
Even if four openly gay women are elected mayor this year, their numbers would still not be at all representative of the percentage of the population as a whole that identifies as lesbian. Still, their collective success is a watershed moment.
“Sexual orientation is no longer a disqualifier for their success,” says Andrew Reynolds, a University of North Carolina political scientist who studies LGBT politics. “When marginalized communities break through, they usually do it individually, and then they reach the critical mass.”
When Neil Giuliano came out 23 years ago, he was serving as mayor of Tempe, Ariz., which at that point became the largest American city with an openly gay mayor. Back then, he recalls, polls showed that about 70 percent of Americans disapproved of gays in general, while only 30 percent approved.
Today, that ratio is reversed.
Giuliano believes that debates over national issues involving gay rights, including marriage and military service, have forged this new attitude.
“The very high-profile nature of these issues has raised everyone’s awareness,” he says. “The culture has clearly shifted in favor of LGBT rights and inclusion.”
The recent election of a small but historic number of lesbian mayors may be the result of the confluence of two trends.
One is the greater acceptance and success of LGBT candidates in politics generally. Right now, Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., is enjoying a moment of serious buzz as an out-of-nowhere Democratic presidential contender. Colorado Democrat Jared Polis took office this year as the nation’s first openly gay male governor. And last November saw a record number of LGBT candidates elected as state legislators.
“I’m thrilled to see the transformation,” says Giuliano, a former president of GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy organization, and now president of Greater Phoenix Leadership, a business group. “It’s still an issue, of course, but it’s becoming less and less of an issue.”
At the same time, record numbers of women are running for office at all political levels, from city council to the presidency. When the year began, no women were serving as mayor of any of the 10 largest cities. With the election of Lightfoot in Chicago and Kate Gallego in Phoenix last month, there will now be two in the top five cities.
“This is a change election,” says Annise Parker, president of Victory Fund, which works to elect openly LGBT candidates, referring to Lightfoot’s victory. “This is citizens wanting someone perceived as an outsider. Frankly, that’s often when women ascend.”
Parker served as mayor of Houston from 2010 to 2016, the largest city at that time to elect an openly gay mayor. The other openly gay woman of a major city is Jenny Durkan, who is the current mayor of Seattle.
When an openly gay individual becomes the first person to hold a particular office, they are bound to attract outsized media attention. They can serve as role models for young people wondering whether they’ll find acceptance, as well as other potential openly LGBT candidates who see that victory is possible.
“It really does matter when you see other women who are running,” says A’shanti Gholar, political director for Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women candidates. “It does inspire other LGBTQ women to get out there and do it.”
At the same time, openly gay candidates are aware that it’s part of the nature of belonging to a minority group that they must appeal to a broader constituency. Even if their identity is part of their message, they will spend more of their time talking about bread-and-butter issues, such as transportation and jobs. One’s sexual orientation has very little to do with how you’d approach the city budget, Giuliano says.
“This is true for any marginalized group that is breaking through in important ways — the historic nature is not lost on you,” says Joe Saunders, who in 2012 became the first openly gay person elected to the Florida Legislature. “At the same time, it’s important for you to make clear that you’re there to work for your constituents on issues everyone cares about.”
Saunders is now senior political director of Equality Florida, an LGBT rights group. He says there’s been a compounding effect in Florida, with openly gay mayors elected last year in Fort Lauderdale and Key West, as well as the election last November of Jennifer Webb as the first openly gay woman in the Florida Legislature.
He’s optimistic about Cantor’s chances. His group has helped organize LGBT volunteers to knock on doors and make calls for her campaign.
“In a city like Tampa, everybody cares about inclusion, that it’s a city where everyone is welcome,” Saunders says.
Saunders’ characterization of Tampa jibes with research conducted by Reynolds, the UNC professor. He conducted a large national survey last year that found voters remain less likely to support openly gay candidates than straight ones, with a higher penalty for gay men than for lesbians.
Nearly all of the penalty came from conservatives. Among progressives, Reynolds says, there was no penalty at all.
“If you’re a lesbian in a Democratic city, there’s no hindrance to your election,” he says. “If anything, there’s a slight benefit.”
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week found that 68 percent of Americans were either “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” about voting for a gay candidate for president. A dozen years ago, the survey found that more than half the country had “reservations” or would be “uncomfortable” with an openly gay candidate.
Only a handful of openly gay men have served as mayor of sizable cities — Sam Adams of Portland, Ore.; Ed Murray of Seattle; Jim Gray of Lexington, Ky., and Robert Garcia of Long Beach, Calif.
Adams, who faced allegations he’d had sex with a minor and was later accused of harassing a top aide, survived two recall attempts but did not seek reelection. Murray resigned toward the end of his term amid multiple allegations regarding sexual abuse of children. Adams and Murray both insisted on their innocence.
Last month, John Duran stepped down as mayor of West Hollywood, Calif., following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct related to his service as a member of the board of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. Duran retained his seat on the city council but relinquished the title of mayor, citing health reasons.
Reynolds cautions against making too much of that track record, at a time when dozens of straight politicians face charges of sexual harassment.
“It’s the product of a very small number of people,” he says. “The number of corrupt and harassing straight mayors is higher, but there’s a bigger pool of straight mayors out there.”
The true “normalization” of LGBT politicians, Reynolds says, will come when they are able to succeed everywhere, running for any office on any type of platform. In the United Kingdom, he notes, there are LGBT conservatives, while in the U.S., openly gay politicians are still more likely to find success running as progressives in progressive jurisdictions.
But that success — practically unimaginable a generation ago — is still emblematic of significant change.
“We are transformed as a society,” says Gholar. “The person who represents me doesn’t have to be like me or look like me.”