Society is changing swiftly throughout the United States. Those changes include once unimaginable considerations for drug laws, LGBTQ rights, and a renewed focus on ending the decades-old HIV epidemic. That’s why Greg Millett, M.P.H., the vice president and director of public policy at amfAR, says it is important for people within the LGBTQ community to run for elected office.
According to Millett, “With the political process, no office or issue is too small for us to deal with—whether that means running for school council or Congress,” because the LGBTQ commmunity is best equipped to make “sure that our issues and our influence is made clear.”
Elliot Imse, vice president of communications for LGBTQ Victory Institute, agrees. The Victory Institute is a national queer advocacy organization that helps to train, develop, and support openly LGBTQ people who aspire to run for elected and appointed office at all levels of government. There are currently 979 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the United States. The Victory Institute has had a hand in supporting all of them.
Much like Millett, Imse believes that one of the best ways to advance LGBTQ rights is by having people from the community in the halls of power. He says that when LGBTQ people serve in elected offices, “It changes the debate as well as hearts and minds and leads to more inclusive policies and legislation.”
A caveat to that statement is that many people from the LGBTQ community who are best equipped to serve in office, including activists and community organizers, are distrustful of the government. Imse says this is understandable because politicians have traditionally looked nothing like the communities they are supposed to serve, but “If we don’t have LGBTQ people, people living with HIV, or people of color standing up to run for office, then we’ll continue to have the same straight, white, cisgender men.”
Looking at the national electoral landscape, he says that over the past five years, there have been victories for LBGTQ candidates even in conservative communities where you wouldn’t necessarily expect an LGBTQ person to achieve victory. For Imse, “That’s why we need more LGBTQ people to step up so that we can get behind and vote for them,” especially when they have had careers in activism or nonprofits.
He notes that many people from these backgrounds believe that they lack the qualifications for public office, but cautions, “Almost every career provides some sort of level of expertise and qualifications to be an elected official.” Indeed, lack of civic experience or competency has never stopped business people from running for elected office. With an eye on imposter syndrome, also known as the false belief that one isn’t worthy of an opportunity, which afflicts many people from marginalized communities, Imse says that if one does not feel comfortable running for office, “We need you to ask your friends to run, because a lot of people don’t think about it until they are asked to consider it; that’s how we really increase representation.”
It’s an essential point that Georgia-based HIV and voting rights activist Nina Martinez has made about repealing the state’s draconian HIV disclosure laws, which can send people who have been accused of not revealing their HIV status to sexual partners to prison. These laws are terrible because they were not designed to benefit the people who they affect the most.
For Imse, Martinez’s perspective encapsulates the fact that there are myriad issues facing the LGBTQ community that go beyond marriage equality or the Equality Act; a bill that, if passed, will ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But, he says, “Unless they’re making the headlines, it is very hard to get our allies to pay close attention; not because they don’t care about them, but because they’re confronted with so many other issues every day.”
He says that the Victory Institute’s stance is, “If there are LGBTQ people with diverse experiences and backgrounds in these elected offices, our issues will never be forgotten.” This includes issues that don’t seem directly related to equality.
For example, take a look at HIV treatment in New York City. After Demetre Daskalakis, M.D., M.P.H., a sex-positive gay man who was also an HIV doctor, was put in charge of the city’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, patients went from waiting upwards to six months before beginning lifesaving treatment to receiving medication on the same day that they were diagnosed.
But even as this fact is widely understood, Imse says that many LGBTQ people avoid public office because it seems too daunting. To anyone in doubt of their worth, he says, “Few LGBTQ people in public office started out with a Rolodex of wealthy donors or a good understanding of how politics works.” That’s why he says that political aspirants should ask themselves, “Why would you make a good elected official? And would you be able to represent your constituents?” After answering those questions affirmatively, he advises people to get involved in someone else’s political campaign.
“We know that people that have volunteered in political campaigns feel more qualified to run for office,” Imse says, because they learn the ropes. Rather than running for U.S. Congress or Senate right away, he advises people to look at local offices because they may face little competition.
“You can make an impact in that position, learn how to run for office effectively, and give yourself a stepping stone to move up to higher positions,” he says.
He pointed to lesbian U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s political rise as an example. “She began on the Dane County Board of Supervisors in Madison, Wisconsin, a super hyper local office,” and climbed her way up to the state assembly, the U.S. Congress, and then the U.S. Senate, where she became the first out LGBTQ senator ever.
With these positions comes great visibility, which helps to dismantle homophobia and stigma against LGBTQ communities. While acknowledging that “it shouldn’t be anyone’s job to teach people that we’re all deserving of love and equality,” Imse accepts that it is our current reality. “When elected LBGTQ officials are there, their mere presence can help change perceptions. And yes, there’s a lot of emotional work that goes into listening to people’s potentially bigoted views and trying to change their minds, but giving up on the evolution of people is something we can’t do.” He stresses that transformation is the only way to manifest queer liberation and equality.
When asked to speak about the biggest issues that he sees on the horizon for the LGBTQ community, Imse automatically names banning conversion therapy, ending the gay blood-donor ban, and addressing health disparities for LGBTQ people and people living with HIV.
Though these are tall orders, he is excited by the Biden administration’s commitment to actual change as well as the Victory Institute’s presidential appointments initiative, which he says “is working to make sure that the Biden administration is not only the most LGBTQ inclusive in history, but also the most diverse group of LGBTQ employees in history.”
With Pete Buttigieg’s confirmation as secretary of transportation and Rachel Levine, M.D.’s subsequent confirmation as the assistant secretary of health, these goals are on their way to being met. Buttigieg is the first Senate-confirmed LGBTQ presidential appointee to lead a department, while Levine is the first Senate-confirmed transgender federal appointee. In another win for the organization, last month, one of their alumni, Reggie Greer, a Black gay man with a disability who served as the LGBTQ vote director for President Biden’s presidential campaign, was named the president’s senior adviser on LGBTQ issues at the White House and director of priority placement in the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office.
But Imse says they are also pushing to see the first LGBTQ person of color, LGBTQ woman, and transgender person appointed as ambassadors, as well as the first LGBTQ Supreme Court nominee.
It’s a huge undertaking, but the Victory Institute is playing the long game. Unlike most presidential programs, theirs lasts throughout an entire administration. Hopefully, when the day comes that Vice President Harris is running for presidential office, the political landscape will look a lot more gay and free; across every bay and from sea to shining sea.
If you’d like to support the Victory Institute’s programs, learn more about current LGBTQ elected officials, or participate in running for elected office yourself, visit https://victoryinstitute.org/.