'My election represents a distinctive type of breakthrough': 4 LGBTQ+ leaders on identity and the power of diversity in politics

Rep. Ritchie Torres from New York's 15th Congressional District.
Photo courtesy of subject.

When former New York City Councilmember Ritchie Torres decided to run for New York's 15th Congressional District seat in the 2020 election, he knew he would be faced with uncertainty.

The then 32-year-old was running against longtime New York politician Ruben Diaz, Sr. in the Democratic primary.

"There was skepticism that a young gay man could win in the South Bronx," he tells CNBC Make It. "And there was skepticism that I, in particular, could defeat the leading candidate in the race, Ruben Diaz, Sr." Torres points out that in 2011, Diaz was the only Democrat to vote against marriage equality in the New York State Senate.

"Against all odds," Torres says, he won that race and also won the general election race and became the first openly gay Afro-Latino to be elected to Congress.

"Who would have thought that the first openly LGBTQ congressman from New York City would come not from Chelsea, or the Village, or Hell's Kitchen. But from the South Bronx, the place where you least might expect it," he says. "My election represents a distinctive kind of breakthrough in LGBTQ representation in politics."

Torres win in the 2020 election came at a time when more than 1,000 LGBTQ+ leaders ran for office, the most in U.S. history, reports the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Of those who ran, more than 220 won their race.

CNBC Make It spoke to Torres, along with three other LGBTQ+ politicians about their history-making win in the 2020 election, the power of representation in politics and the advice they have for other LGBTQ+ individuals who want to run for office.

Rep. Ritchie Torres, New York's 15th Congressional District

Made history as the first openly gay Afro-Latino elected to Congress.

In this, March 19, 2018, file photo, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres addresses a news conference in New York.
Richard Drew | AP

On what influenced him to get into politics

I had a sense that politics historically has been unrepresentative of me and people who grew up as I did. I know what it's like to experience housing insecurity and food insecurity. I know what it's like to experience racism, and colorism and homophobia. I know what it's like to have family entangled with the criminal justice system. And so I govern from a place of lived experience. I do not fit into the typical profile of a member of Congress. I do not have a net worth of a million dollars. I do not have fancy credentials.

I'm born and bred in the Bronx. I was raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on minimum wage, which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour. And I grew up in public housing in conditions of mold and mildew leaks without air conditioning in the summer, or consistent heat and hot water in the winter.

I got my start in politics as a housing organizer to advocate for poor people of color in public housing. I ran for the City Council in 2013 and won a race that very few people thought I could win. And then, I ran for Congress in 2020 and won a race that very few people thought I could win. So I'm an underdog who is often underestimated at every chapter of my political life.

Impact he hopes to have while in office

You know representation is both a burden and a blessing. In the history of the United States Congress, there have been approximately 130 Latino members. And none of them were openly LGBTQ until I was sworn in on January 3. In the history of the United States, there have been approximately 160 Black members of Congress and none of them were openly LGBTQ until Mondaire Jones and I were sworn in. And so every time I set foot on the House floor, I cannot help but feel the weight of history on my shoulders and it's an overwhelming experience. I hope to inspire others to imagine themselves in public office.

The highest priority for the LGBTQ community is the Equality Act. The Equality Act is the holy grail of LGBTQ equality. It is based on the founding proposition of America that we are all created equal and that no American should be fired, or evicted, or denied services or accommodations simply because of who you are, and whom you love. We are all entitled to equal protection under the law, regardless of sexual orientation and gender.

On a more granular level, I've been partnering with the LGBT Chamber of Commerce to promote access to credit for LGBTQ businesses. When I was in the city council, I partnered with the LGBT Chamber of Commerce to advocate for a LGBTQ business certification program in the country. And I'm continuing in Congress advocacy that I began in the New York City Council. So, so far as a congressman, the financial services committee passed legislation of mine that would promote greater access to credit for LGBTQ businesses. Credit is the beating heart of American capitalism, and we have to ensure that the LGBTQ business community has equitable access to credit. In the United States, according to the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 1.4 million [LGBTQ] businesses [and they] contribute more than $1.7 trillion in economic value to the economy. It is a priority for me to ensure that those 1.4 million LGBTQ businesses have access to credit.

State Rep. Stephanie Byers, Kansas' 86th District

Made history as the state's first transgender legislature member and the first Native American trans person to be elected to any state's legislature.

Stephanie Byers, Kansas State Representative for District 86.
Photo courtesy of subject.

What her historic win means

None of us knew how my district would respond to a transgender candidate. My win really showcased that Kansas can be more accepting than what one might generalize about it. That's not to say that there isn't prejudice and discrimination around because there most certainly is and we've seen it in the statehouse, but it's not nearly as rampant as people may think. 

I ran for office to have a voice in those things that were extremely important to me — using public dollars for public education, working to expand Medicaid [and] adding a transgender voice to those of the LGBT legislators currently serving Kansas. My win has changed Kansas politics, maybe only slightly, but maybe it's enough to serve as a catalyst for the future.

Impact she hopes to have in office

This session we've already witnessed the full funding of public education for the third year in a row.  We've introduced legislation to honor Native Americans through the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day. And though the bill didn't make it out of committee, it did get a committee hearing so perhaps next year we may see it come to the House floor and beyond. 

Many across the country are also wondering why Kansas was able to prevent the Anti-Trans Girls in Sports Bill from becoming law as it has in so many other states. I hope that my presence gave some pause when they saw a trans woman that they knew personally. Hopefully, when this type of legislation comes again next year (and we expect it to) more will consider how these decisions impact the rights of people they know. 

It's been said that it's easier to be it when you can see it, and I hope that my example of being elected to office will provide hope for others in the trans and LGBT community to also become elected [and] to add their voices to the growing chorus.

State Sen. Kim Jackson, Georgia's 41st District

Made history as Georgia's first openly LGBTQ+ state senator.

Kim Jackson, State Senator for Georgia's 41st district.
Photo courtesy of subject.

What her historic win means

I am grateful that the people of District 41 trusted me to represent them well. My election is an indicator that this isn't my grandmother's south [and that] LGBTQ folks can be elected in a [historically] deep red state. 

Advice to young LGBTQ+ leaders looking to enter politics

People who are interested in politics should just do it. It's especially important for queer folks to get trained in advance of running for office and garner support before running a campaign. It can be more difficult to run a campaign in some places as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and having a strong base of support from the beginning is important. 

Rep. Mondaire Jones, New York's 17th Congressional District

Made history as the first openly gay Black candidate elected to Congress.

Mondaire Jones, the Democratic candidate for New York's 17th Congressional District, poses outside his home in Nyack, New York, July 23, 2020. - Jones, 33, has won the Democratic primaries in his district. If he wins the November 3rd election as anticipated, he will become the first Black, openly gay representative in US Congress, together with Ritchie Torres from the Bronx.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY | AFP | Getty Images

What his historic win means

Representation matters. If I had seen an openly gay, Black person in the halls of Congress when I was growing up, it would have been living proof that things really do get better — that I didn't have to hide or cry so much. I'm always inspired and energized to hear from members of the LGBTQ+ community who are excited that I'm living and leading as my authentic self, and how that's giving them the confidence to do the same — to accept who they are and to live authentically. 

Impact he hopes to have in office

I feel incredibly lucky to be representing the community that raised me, and I hope to show kids growing up just like I did that they too can make it to the halls of Congress. But I want to be known for my work, not just being the first openly gay Black member of Congress. Being Black, being gay, being Black and gay — it's informed who I am and my worldview and I hope to not only inspire people through my representation, but even more so through the work I'm doing on behalf of the people of Westchester and Rockland Counties, and all working people. 

From student debt cancellation, to democracy reforms, to universal child care, I am fighting to better the lives of every person in this country, and that's the impact I hope to have. 

Advice to young LGBTQ+ leaders looking to enter politics

Follow the work. It can be easy to get distracted by titles or offices, but at the end of the day, this work really is about serving the public. So remain focused on the work and how you can serve others as effectively as possible. And to the LGBTQ+ people who are struggling with coming out: You belong. You are loved. We will be here to support you whenever you're ready.

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