I’ll never forget sitting alone in my unfurnished one-room apartment in July 1984. Fresh out of college, my fear of four more years of a Reagan presidency was mollified by the inspiration I felt seeing Geraldine Ferraro accept the nomination for vice president at the Democratic convention.
“If she can do it, so can I,” I thought.
Ten years prior, I remember hearing of a woman named Kathy Kozachenko, who became the first openly L.G.B.T.Q. person to win political office in America.
“If she can do it, so can I,” I thought then, too.
Representation — whether in politics, media or teaching staff — is about both visibility and affirmation. For example, when kids wrestling with their identity see openly L.G.B.T.Q. people in high places, space is created for more self-esteem. At a time when L.G.B.T.Q. youth are several times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-L.G.B.T.Q. peers, this grounding experience has the potential to better form young lives.
Look to 9-year-old Zachary Ro, who asked Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor and recent candidate for president, from onstage, for help telling “the world I’m gay, too.” Buttigieg’s response — “You seem pretty strong to me” — was a powerful moment of political visibility and affirmation for a kid seeking “to be brave like you.”
That visibility and affirmation kick-starts a cycle in which people — including young people and those from historically marginalized communities — develop more trust in political institutions and their representatives. This leads to more political engagement, which ultimately turns into more people taking leadership into their own hands.
This upward cycle of representation and leadership builds the foundation of a political pipeline. When supplemented with sufficient financial resources, this pipeline, at its best, ensures that those often left outside of the decision-making room have a viable path in.
And right now, there is an urgent need for a strong, inclusive pipeline for L.G.B.T.Q. people.
Openly L.G.B.T.Q. people are heavily underrepresented in the political arena. A little more than one-tenth of one percent of all elected officials across America are openly L.G.B.T.Q., according to the L.G.B.T.Q. Victory Institute, despite more than 4.5 percent of the population identifying as L.G.B.T.Q. We’d need to elect tens of thousands more L.G.B.T.Q. people throughout the country to achieve baseline equitable representation at various levels.
This means that on most school boards, city councils, and state legislatures, L.G.B.T.Q. people are hard to find. Despite rising representation across all sectors of civil society, the community continues to battle to keep a slew of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. policies from advancing in state and local governments.
From bills seeking to criminalize gender-assignment surgery and treatment in South Dakota and Missouri to some that entrench discrimination in foster care and adoption in Tennessee, anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills are being proposed and advanced in rooms where no L.G.B.T.Q. community members are present to voice their opposition.
We also see that nearly every policy issue affects the L.G.B.T.Q. community in one way or another. Given that L.G.B.T.Q. people are disproportionately impacted by issues related to bullying and harassment, health care, criminal justice, homelessness and education, it is crucial that our voices be heard on all policy issues — not just L.G.B.T.Q.-specific ones.
Thankfully, we have more political tools now than ever before. Pioneers before us refused to back down. They laid the foundation for a political pipeline that gave me the space and courage to run and become a “first” of many kinds, including the first openly gay woman elected to Congress and to the Senate. And now, we see a new generation leading the way and showing young kids around the country that they, too, can run for office.
National figures like Mayor Buttigieg Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon are breaking barriers and furthering L.G.B.T.Q. advancement. Inspiring leaders like Delegate Danica Roem of Virginia and Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins of Minneapolis are taking advantage of this new political pipeline, which is more inclusive than any previous coalition.
This kind of representation was unthinkable in July 1984. That we’ve come so far since then is a testament to the importance of visibility when it comes to changing hearts, minds and policies. Visibility is central to enabling the public to see others for who they are. It’s about replacing myths with a slice of reality and changing social consciousness, so more people are given a chance to sit at the table.
Having a seat at the table when decisions are made is crucial to achieving full equality and liberation. Because “if you’re not at the table,” as the adage goes, “then you’re probably on the menu.”
Tammy Baldwin (@SenatorBaldwin) is a United States senator from Wisconsin.