What the unremarkable ascent of the first openly gay woman to serve in Va. legislature says about us
A year of landmarks
The prospect of a lesbian unseating a Republican incumbent in a red-leaning Virginia district once seemed unfathomable.
But in three weeks, nurse practitioner Dawn Adams will take her seat as the first openly gay woman to serve in the Virginia General Assembly.
The Nov. 7 Democratic sweep also saw the ascension of the first transgender, Latina and Asian American women to the state’s legislature.
“People have understood it’s not an issue that’s going to play well if you try to demonize people just because of who they love,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia.
Adams will join a legislature with three openly gay men. She will also join several other lesbians making a mark in politics this year.
Other landmarks this year:
- Seattle elected its first lesbian mayor.
- State senators in California chose the first woman, who is also a lesbian, to lead their chamber.
- A Democratic lesbian won a GOP-held legislative seat in a conservative part of Oklahoma.
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian elected in 2009, marvels at how reactions to these milestones have quieted since news of her victory landed on the front page of an Indian newspaper.
“It speaks to the quality of the candidates and the work that elected officials do all over the country that they are seen more and more as competent candidates who are also LGBTQ, and not LGBTQ candidates running for office,” said Parker.
Adams, 53, declined an interview request and downplayed the historic nature of her candidacy in a statement.
“It is encouraging to see candidates like myself being elected in the commonwealth of Virginia and beyond, not because of the color of their skin, their gender, their religion or their sexual orientation, but because of their substantive ideas for dealing with the issues,” Adams said.
Del. Mark D. Sickles, one of the three openly gay men in the Virginia legislature, faced a whisper campaign about his sexual orientation in his 2005 reelection bid and didn’t publicly come outuntil a decade later. He says the environment has rapidly changed for gay politicians.
“It is something that has become so routine in life now, and so many people are out to their family and friends and colleagues at work,” Sickles said. “Virginia’s changed, just like the country’s changed.”
That hasn’t stopped what critics call anti-gay bills from coming out of the state legislature.
In Virginia, lawmakers rejected a gay judicial nominee (who was championed by Adams’ opponent, Loupassi) five years ago after social conservatives objected. For the past two years, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has vetoed bills protecting those who discriminate against same-sex couples from penalties.
Advocates say openly LGBTQ people in public office can help stop these kind of bills.
In Virginia, Adams’ candidacy was overshadowed by Danica Roem, a transgender woman who defeated a socially conservative incumbent who repeatedly referred to her as “he” and called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”
Roem attracted more media attention and money from across the nation than Adams did, as well as more attacks from social conservatives.
In contrast, Adams raised the fewest dollars of any Democrats who unseated Republicans and didn’t become a lightning rod for the religious right. She was seen as an underdog against Loupassi, a moderate who criticized her fiscal policies instead of her identity and has supported gay rights. Their district is a Republican-leaning stretch of suburban Chesterfield and Richmond city that is seen as fairly tolerant.
Adams’ campaign website includes a photo of her with her partner of 15 years and touts endorsements from LGBTQ groups. On the trail, she tapped her health policy background to emphasize the importance of expanding Medicaid and integrating care.
While advocates celebrated the victory of Adams and other candidates, they say LGBTQ people are still underrepresented in government.
The Victory Fund recently released a report tallying 448 LGBTQ elected officials in the United States — and argued that 21,000 more should be elected to better reflect the population as a whole. Thirteen state legislatures have no openly gay or transgender lawmakers.
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