Prizm News / November 7, 2017 / By Kayla Beard
Politicians no longer have to avoid discussion of their sexual orientation when seeking voters’ support.
By Kayla Beard
LGBTQ candidates on the ballot today in small towns and big cities across Ohio say they’ve encountered mostly accepting voters more concerned about their plans for public office than their sexual orientation.
While past candidates might have felt pressure to keep their identities hidden, most LGBT politicians these days are upfront about their identities. Many had been out long before running for office.
“I’ve always been just an openly gay, black male,” says Columbus City Council member Shannon Hardin, who’s running for re-election after three years in office. “I never want to be judged by those identifiers, but I also am identifiably those things.”
Hardin is one of at least 19 openly gay and lesbian candidates running for local office today in 10 Ohio communities. The polls are open from 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; voters will choose members of city councils and school boards, municipal court judges and, in some cities, mayors.
Hardin said his experience campaigning–first in 2015 to keep the seat to which he was appointed and again this year for a full, four-year term–has
been mostly positive.
“One of the things that I’ve been most proud about [Columbus] is that we live in a very diverse community,” he says. Although he hasn’t had to deal much with anti-gay voters, he says he once worried that his identity might become a “top priority” if he sought elected office.
“I was young, I was black, I was gay,” he says. Then-Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, a mentor and one-time boss for Hardin, offered him just the right encouragement.
“He stopped me and said, ‘Shannon, those things are only an issue if they’re an issue to you. And they’re not an issue to me. … I’ve always seen them as a strength.”
But Hardin wasn’t the only one who worried about putting himself before voters.
“Before I decided to run, being a gay candidate certainly made me pretty cautious, made me a little bit fearful…because I [didn’t] know what people’s reaction would be,” says Nick Komives, who is seeking a four-year term on the Toledo City Council.
Despite those fears, Komives says he has experienced no turbulence. He, too, says most people have been supportive, perhaps as a result of his openness. Komives is the executive director of Equality Toledo and is a go-to source for local media seeking comment on LGBTQ issues.
“Many people knew that I was gay before I ran,” Komives says. “It’s been more of a blessing than a curse than I thought it was going to be.”
Cincinnati City Council member Chris Seelbach, who is seeking his third and final term in today’s election, says he thinks today’s social and political climate makes it easier for LGBTQ candidates to be open than try to hide their identity.
“I honestly think that it would be harder, almost, to run hiding your LGBT status now then it would be to say ‘I’m gay. Let’s move on,’” he says.
Seelbach says he, too, has experienced a “vast majority” of positive interactions on the campaign. He says he has never worried about running for office as an openly gay man, but when he first ran for Cincinnati’s City Council in 2011, there were some who had doubts.
“None of the political insiders thought I had a chance because I was young and gay and not from here,” says Seelbach, who is originally from Louisville.
This year, the biggest criticism of Seelbach and other gay Democrats running for office in Cincinnati has come from another gay politician, Republican City Council candidate Seth Maney, who said in a Prizm story this month that sexual orientation has gone from a “disqualifier to the point where, ‘Oh, he’s gay. I’m going to vote for him.'”
Seelbach says he grew up with no LGBTQ role models, so he thinks it’s important that young people see people who don’t shy away from their sexual orientation or gender identity. He speaks often to high school students.
“It shows kids…who you love is not going to constrain what you’re going to be in life.”
Megan Kilgore, who is running to become Columbus’ city auditor, has had quite a few interactions with young people as well, teaching public finance courses to graduate students at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University.
As an out lesbian and political candidate, she says she understands her role in encouraging LGBTQ youth.
“I’ve been able to meet so many students who are so poised to be future leaders of the community,” she says. “It is our responsibility as leaders in the GLBT community and in progressive politics in general to open the doors to any young person.”
Kilgore says she never worried that her sexual orientation would come up during her campaign: “If I am able to use my influence to further remove barriers to others feeling comfortable coming out, sharing their orientation, further improving policies that protect the LGBT community, then that is an honor and a privilege and I take it very seriously.”
Although representation is important, at the same time candidates would rather be known for their contributions to their cities than their personal identities. As a woman running for office, Kilgore says, “I think we would be foolish to not recognize the lingering stereotypes as to people in high level financial positions.”
But, she adds, “I like to think my qualifications and experience outweigh (perceptions about) the outward gender.” So far, she says, voters have agreed: “Generally, the conversations that I have are first about qualifications, experience…then in a much lower checklist it’s about my personal [identity].”
“People, when I started, thought that I was going to talk about LGBT rights,” Komives says. He says his orientation is an important part of his perspective, but it doesn’t make him a representative of that perspective alone. “I made a point to showcase that every time rights are advanced for LGBT people, African-American people… [etc.], the better for us all.”
Hardin and Seelbach also cite good, fresh ideas as the cornerstone of each of their own campaigns: proposals for infrastructure, improved transportation and human rights advancements. Seelbach says it’s ideas like these that voters should be—and have—focused on. Still, Hardin says he knows his experience doesn’t represent every candidate’s.
“Sometimes we get comfortable when our identification becomes acceptable and we realize not everyone’s is,” Hardin says, adding that many, “specifically the black trans community,” are still fighting for acceptance. “We just can’t forget that everyone does not experience that [acceptance] all the time,” Hardin says.
Even amidst the “vast majority” of support and acceptance Seelbach speaks of, he did have one bad memory from his first election. “At a poll on Election Day, someone walking into a poll that my dad was working at said, ‘I’ll never vote for your fag of a son,’” he recalls. “That’s the only thing that’s happened that’s been obvious.”
Komives also mentions a single negative instance.
“When the media would announce me as a candidate,” he said, “they would always…be sure to list Equality Toledo,” in his description. He feels that media outlets would use detailed explanations of what the organization stands for as if to align him with the LGBTQ community without directly stating his orientation.
“But with other people, they didn’t put those lengthy descriptions of what [their] organization was,” Komives says. “I thought it was quite unfair.”
After voicing his concerns, Komives says, the lengthy descriptions stopped. Like Hardin, his orientation comes up “not very much” when talking to voters. Kilgore says she hasn’t met a single voter who’s “taken issue” with her orientation, and Seelbach says his orientation is “almost never” a concern.
Still, the candidates say identity is important. “I can’t walk into a room as anything but a white, gay man who’s educated and from a middle class family. I can’t leave that at the door,” Seelbach says. “Who we are as people is what we take with us everywhere we go.”
“Being black, gay and a younger elected official…I know that I’ve had shared experiences with people,” Hardin says. It’s those experiences that make it easier to connect with people from different backgrounds, Hardin says: “Whenever you come from marginalized communities, it helps you be more empathetic.”
Kayla Beard is a freelance writer.