Respect Equality

In four states, LGBTQ+ representation is missing from the legislature. That could change come November.

“We're ready to just be open about who we are.”
Jennie Armstrong with her husband, Ben Kellie, and their children, Jack and Emerson. (Courtesy of Jennie for Alaska)

Story at a glance

  • Four states – Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Dakota – do not have an openly LGBTQ+ person serving in the state legislature.

  • Openly LGBTQ+ candidates in Alaska and South Dakota are determined to change that.

  • In each of those states, no less than three pieces of legislation have been introduced this year that would restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

Jennie Armstrong had spent the morning on Facebook. She combed through pages for new mothers in the West Anchorage area where she lives, where women by the dozen were desperately searching for baby formula to feed their hungry infants amid a nationwide shortage.

It was overcast that May 4 morning, and rain fell through much of the afternoon and evening. Two days prior, reporters at POLITICO had published a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion.

Armstrong, a 33-year-old small business owner and mother of two, struggled to wrap her head around the Court – and now, state lawmakers – dissolving abortion protections when accessing necessities like baby food and other childcare resources was already so difficult.

That afternoon, Armstrong made both a decision and a prediction: she was going to run for a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives – and she was going to win.

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Not only does Armstrong’s candidacy reflect an increase in political involvement among women in a post-Roe world, but it’s also representative of the skyrocketing number of openly LGBTQ+ people running for public office – more than 1,000 this year, by the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s count.

“The truism ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ rings very true for me,” Armstrong, who is pansexual, told Changing America in an interview. “Many state legislatures have looked homogenous for a long time, and I think it’s important that we have a multitude of lived experiences in the legislature to truly represent what the majority of lived experiences are.”

About 3.7 percent of Alaska’s adult population identifies as LGBTQ+, according to data from Gallup and the Williams Institute. And yet, should Armstrong win in November’s general election, she would be the first openly LGBTQ+ person ever elected to the state legislature.

In fact, Armstrong could be one of four openly LGBTQ+ people to serve in the Alaska House next session, indicative of a social and political shift in the state where the late Alaska Sen. Johnny Ellis (D) served in the legislature for nearly three decades before coming out as gay in 2016.

“It’s a really nice sort of statement of power that we’re ready to just be open about who we are,” Ashley Carrick, a bisexual woman running to represent Alaskans in House District 35, told Changing America.

“There are a lot more women, a lot more LGBT people and a lot more people who are from backgrounds that haven’t traditionally been represented in the Alaska legislature saying ‘enough is enough – Alaska is ready for us,’” she said. “I didn’t choose to run because I’m LGBT, but I am running and I am LGBT.”

Armstrong and Carrick are joined by Andrew Gray, an openly gay man and veteran of the Alaska National Guard running to represent House District 20, and Lyn Franks, an out lesbian woman running to represent Alaskans in House District 18. All four candidates are Democrats.

In three other states – Louisiana, Mississippi and South Dakota – LGBTQ+ representation is missing from the state legislature. This year alone, lawmakers in each of those states introduced no less than three bills that would restrict how LGBTQ+ people access health care, play sports or talk about their identity at school or the workplace, according to Freedom for All Americans, which tracks such legislation.

Some of those bills, including measures in Louisiana and South Dakota barring transgender women and girls from playing on female sports teams, have already become law.

“Unfortunately, that’s not going to change until we have representation,” Kameron Nelson, an openly gay man running for a seat in the South Dakota House, told Changing America.

Nelson, 32, a Democrat and South Dakota native, said conservative elected officials in the state have for years been embracing anti-LGBTQ+ policies as a way to ignite their base.

“When you just reduce people to a talking point, then you completely do a disservice to them as a human being,” he said. “These are real folks who are really hurting.”

South Dakota is one of eight states ranked by the Movement Advancement Project as having the fewest policies in place to protect LGBTQ+ people. Louisiana and Arkansas are also included on that list.

Nelson, who describes his hometown of Rapid City as a “crimson corner of a red state,” did not come out as gay until his early twenties. He hopes his candidacy – and he hopes, his win in November – will make it easier for South Dakota’s LGBTQ+ youth to feel empowered and comfortable in their own skin.

“If I can help clear a path for someone younger than me to not have to go through all of those trials and tribulations, then that’s exactly what I’ll do,” he said.

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