Why you should care
Because sometimes acceptance appears in unexpected places.
The political advertisement begins cornily with the usual montage of Americans from various walks of life while a soothing female narrator speaks, “They are sons and daughters. Neighbors and co-workers.” Then the incumbent appears in the background, and the ad takes an ominous turn. “But politicians like Martha McSally treat gay people as something less. McSally would legalize discrimination, voting to allow employers to fire somebody because they’re gay, scaring away businesses and creating second-class citizens.”
The twin kickers: The spot was paid for by a Democratic candidate who happens to be openly gay, Matt Heinz, and who’s running in the 2nd Congressional District of that reddest of states, Arizona.
Or is Arizona really that conservative? Most Americans don’t associate the Grand Canyon State with an inclusive, live-and-let-live attitude. The state Republican Party once voted to censure Sen. John McCain for being too liberal, and, in recent years, the Legislature has passed some of the country’s strictest laws on abortion and immigration, both of which were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Then there was the time the governor had to veto “birther” legislation that required presidential candidates to prove their citizenship in order to appear on state ballots. You know, in case they came from Kenya or someplace.
[T]he right LGBT candidates with the right message can run competitive campaigns and win anywhere.
Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, Victory Fund president and CEO
Yet it’s also the state that kept sending Republican representative Jim Kolbe to Washington, even after he came out as gay in 1996. Arizona has two kinds of cultures, says University of Arizona political science professor Thomas Volgy: one in southern Arizona, where issues about gay rights and the sexual orientation of candidates have not been an issue for a significant period of time, and one in “the rest of Arizona,” Volgy says, where “it has been more of an issue, but cultural changes have been dramatic in the past four or five years.” This election season, Arizona continues to show big-tent leadership by putting up three credible LGBT candidates for its nine congressional seats — two Democrats and one Republican. Two-term representative Kyrsten Sinema looks to be a shoo-in for the Dems, while Heinz and Republican Paul Babeau are both in competitive races. A victory for each would switch their district’s party alignment and swell membership in the openly LGBT congressional caucus. “While Arizona remains a low-equality state for LGBT people,” Victory Fund president and CEO Aisha C. Moodie-Mills tells OZY, “[Sinema’s and Heinz’s] races are proof that the right LGBT candidates with the right message can run competitive campaigns and win anywhere.”
In an election where race and gender are front and center, other parts of the country are also experiencing a big bump in the diversity of congressional candidates. Democrat Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, could become the second openly gay U.S. senator (Tammy Baldwin made history in 2012 as the first) if he upsets Sen. Rand Paul. Twelve LGBT Democrats are running for the House. These candidates reflect a growing trend in overall acceptance of LGBT people: In a recent Gallup poll, 68 percent of respondents said gay or lesbian relationships should be legal, up from 46 percent in 2004. “If you think your prospects of electoral success aren’t hindered by [your] status as [an] LGBT person, you might be likely to run,” says LGBT expert Anthony Kreis, an assistant professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
There are a few possible explanations for the surge in acceptance in Arizona. When overt anti-LGBT legislation is proposed, some of the backlash organizations that form subsequently turn into powerful political networks that create credible candidates. Plus, the state is home to the same percentage of LGBT residents — about 3.9 percent — as far bluer California, according to a 2012 survey. And Arizona might be benefiting from progress in protecting LGBT rights in other parts of the country. “While there are still important LGBT issues in New York, there are less of them than five to 10 years ago,” Kreis says. “You may see more resources from groups like the Victory Fund or the Human Rights Coalition going to Arizona.”
ACLU Arizona spokesman Steve Kilar cautions that there’s still a lot of work to do. There doesn’t seem to be the political will “to include the LGBTQ community in the law equally,” he says, pointing to the state’s gender-based bathroom bill and its recent legislation that allows businesses to deny service to gay clients on religious grounds.
But Arizona’s halting progress might inspire other Western states to follow suit — Utah could be one. In this conservative bastion, Misty Snow is running as the first transgender nominee for the U.S. Senate from a major party. Although GOP incumbent Mike Lee is up by more than 40 points, Snow has told reporters that when it comes to LGBT issues, she’s already won a huge victory.