gays in office

Will The South Rise Up … As an Epicenter of LGBT Political Power?


Jared Polis: Colorado. Tammy Baldwin: Wisconsin. Barney Frank: Massachusetts. (*Cough* Barack Obama *Cough*: Illinois.) If America’s most well-known openly gay elected officials (and our “allies”) all hail from above the Mason-Dixon line, how is it that LGBT political power is raising so fast in the … South?

Houston’s election of Annise Parker as mayor is just the most recent example, according to an analysis by the Southern Political Report:

In 2001, Southern Political Report produced a report, “Diversity in Dixie,” which looked at the growing influence of minorities in Southern politics. At that time, there were 31 openly gay men and women holding elective office in five Southern states. Today, only eight years later, there are 79 — about two-and-a-half times as many. And they are present in 12 Southern states, everyone but — surprise! — Mississippi.

Openly gay politicians have won seats in the legislatures in Alabama (state Rep. Patricia Todd), Arkansas (state Rep. Kathy Webb), Georgia (state Rep. Karla Drenner), North Carolina (state Sen. Julia Boseman), Oklahoma (state Rep. Al McAffrey), and Virginia (state Rep. Adam Ebbin). Several prominent gay lawmakers have retired from Southern legislatures, including former state Rep. Glen Maxey in Texas, and former state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone in Kentucky. All are Democrats and represent urban areas, where gay voters often make up a significant portion of the electorate.

Gay political power has been especially evident in Southern city governments. While Parker’s election in Houston is certainly the most noteworthy example — nationally, not just in the South — gays have made their presence felt in other Southern urban centers as well. Last month, the Broward County Commission elected Ken Keechl as mayor. And in Atlanta, Cathy Woolard was elected president of the Atlanta City Council in 2002, making her at the time one of the highest ranking openly gay officeholders in the nation.

Not that the South is, yet, the most friendly environment to gay politicos:

Nationwide, some 700 gay men and women hold elective office; the South, with about 35 percent of the US population, accounts for only about 11 percent of them. Moreover, anti-gay laws — such as bans on same-sex adoptions and restrictions on what may be taught about homosexuality in schools — have often passed legislatures and city and county councils in the South. And some politicians still feel free to criticize the gay minority. Just last week, US Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), an increasingly influential Republican conservative, described gays as “socially destructive” in a television interview.

(Note: Yes, there’s some squabbling over whether the M-D ran through Illinois.)