Colorado voters on Tuesday did something no other state has done: They elected an openly gay man as governor.
Jared Polis, the Democratic congressman from Boulder, handily beat Walker Stapleton, Colorado’s Republican treasurer, 52 percent to 45 percent, according to the unofficial count at 8 p.m. as ballots were still being counted.
“Colorado is a state that values diversity,” Polis said in an pre-Election Day interview. “We’re willing to elect people that are going to do a good job for our state regardless of their background. … I think it’s exciting to show how far the LGBT community has come that it doesn’t stand in the way of being elected to the highest office in the state.”
For the national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Polis’ win is a watershed moment decades in the making — amplified in part by the resistance movement of the Trump era. National leaders in the LGBT rights movement said Polis’ win would have profound effects for decades to come.
“With Jared Polis becoming the first out gay governor of a state, I have no doubt today, there are children and teenagers and young adults who are looking to him and saying, ‘I’m going to be my state’s governor one day,’” said Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, a nonpartisan political nonprofit. “His win inspires others.”
Polis’ race headlined a record number of LGBT candidacies across the nation. According to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political nonprofit that supports LGBT candidates, 147 147 LGBT people ran for state or federal office.
In Colorado, there are six LGBT candidates for the statehouse.
A Polis win could also be considered the final step in rewriting Colorado’s legacy as the “Hate State,” an epithet affixed after voters here in 1992 approved a constitutional amendment forbidding local governments from creating special protections for the LGBT community.
“It’s a historic win — not just for the LGBT community but for the state of Colorado,” said Mary Parker, president and CEO of the Victory Fund. “The fact that the state of Colorado, in 25 years, has gone from being dubbed the ‘Hate State’ to a place that can elect someone who is not just openly gay, but publicly gay, that’s historic.”
Polis’ sexual orientation wasn’t a drag
Polis’ victory was paved by years of activism to change the perception of gay people, Parker said.
“It’s the culmination of a lot of work of activists to win the hearts and minds of voters to make sure that when Jared entered the race, he wasn’t judged as a gay man, but as a public servant,” she said.
It wasn’t so long ago that a candidate or elected official coming out sent shock waves through the news media and the electorate, and could potentially ruin any shot of an electoral win, said Eric Marcus, an LGBT historian who produces the “Making Gay History” podcast. Former New Jersey Gov.Jim McGreevey, for example, resigned in 2004 after coming out amid a scandal.
“That this is such a nonstory makes it a big story,” Marcus said. “We’ve reached a point in our history that the fact there is a gay candidate running for governor is not the headline. For those of us who have been around for a while, it’s shocking. It’s nice.”
Polis, a Colorado native who spent his childhood in California with his self-proclaimed “hippie” parents, acknowledged he briefly wrestled with concerns over coming out as a public official.
“There was always some tension between wanting to go into public service,” Polis said.
But Polis’ sexual orientation has never been the sort of handicap one might expect. In 2007, when he first ran for Congress, it was rarely mentioned in the press, despite the fact his candidacy came just one year after Colorado approved a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Polis, who shares two children with his longtime partner Marlon Reis, said he hopes his win makes it even easier for LGBT candidates — in both parties — to run and win without worrying about persecution.
“I hope that both parties look more like America,” he said. “Which means people of different colors, people of different genders and people with different sexual orientations and gender identities.”
The Trump effect
Across the nation, candidates for state and federal office aren’t just more likely to be LGBT. They are more likely to be women and people of color, too. Trump’s election and his policies that followed — including a travel ban on Muslim majority countries and forbidding transgender individuals from serving in the military — have helped spur the new wave of candidates.
However, gay rights leaders stressed that Trump was just one factor.
“The last two years have given LGBTQ a lot to mobilize around,” Carey said. “While Trump may have motivated some people, it’s hard to wake up and just say you’re going to run for office.”
Rochelle Galindo embodies the 2018 wave. She is a Latina lesbian who is running to represent the city of Greeley in Colorado’s General Assembly.
Galindo said Trump is top of mind, but her passion for politics began in high school, long before he was in office. A former Greeley City Council member, Galindo representing her communities in policy debates was what drove her to run.
“What really excites people to be part of their democracy is seeing people who reflect who they are,” she said.
Still, Polis and other LGBT candidates will be expected to stand up for civil rights, said David Duffield, the Colorado GLBT Center’s history coordinator.
“It will be demanded of him to do things on gay rights,” Duffield said. “He’ll be a foil to a lot of the homophobia we’ve historically seen.”
While Colorado has some of the most progressive LGBT protections in the United States, there are ongoing debates Polis will be pressured to weigh in on, like the ongoing tension between religious freedom and civil liberties.
“What we’re looking for is how he’s going to govern in a way that recognizes the dignity of all people,” said Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute, a conservative think tank based at Colorado Christian University. “We want Governor Polis to succeed; we want him to succeed for all people; we want Colorado to succeed for all people.”
Healing, yet preparing for backlash
For many LGBT Coloradans and those across the nation who remember when Colorado passed Amendment 2, Polis’ win closes a dark chapter and provides hope.
Ray Rodriguez, a Colorado LGBT rights activist and Polis supporter, was 12 and struggling with his sexuality when voters approved the amendment. And before the U.S. Supreme Court could rule four years later that the amendment was unconstitutional, Rodriguez asked his doctor about conversion therapy — even castration — as remedies to his sexuality.
“I will always know how it feels to be ostracized as a child,” he said. But Polis’ election “will help. A big part of what everyone looks for is respect. To be dehumanized as a child and to be humanized as an adult is cathartic.”
While LGBT people here and across the nation are celebrating Polis’ historic win, leaders have a warning: Be prepared for pushback.
“You can’t stop fighting,” Marcus, the LGBT historian, said. “You can have a transformational moment and then you have a backlash.”
Mardi Moore, the executive director of Out Boulder, an LGBT resource center, said her team is bracing for an uptick in hate violence.
“We’re making sure the phones are on, the phones are staffed,” she said. “We’re checking emails, we just want to make sure we’re a resource.”
Still, Moore is optimistic Polis’ win will do more to propel the community forward.
“For some little kid in rural Las Animas, Colorado, who is gay and never come out,” she said, “this moment says it’s OK to be gay.”
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