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Muted response to first openly gay woman in state legislature shows social shift

Dawn Adams defeated a Republican incumbent in a red-leaning district.


The prospect of a lesbian unseating a Republican incumbent in a red-leaning Virginia district once seemed unfathomable. 

Now it seems unremarkable. 

In three weeks, nurse practitioner Dawn Adams will take her seat as the first openly gay woman to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. But she received little national attention after the Nov. 7 Democratic sweep that also saw the ascension of the first transgender, Latina and Asian-American women to the legislature. 

The relatively muted response to her win reflects how rapidly attitudes have changed in Virginia and how candidates who happen to be gay or lesbian are seen more as the norm instead of a liability, LGBTQ advocates say. 

"People have understood it's not an issue that's going to play well if you try to demonize people just because of who they love," said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia. 

Adams, whose victory over Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, Richmond, the Republican incumbent, was maintained after a state-funded recount Wednesday, will join a legislature with three openly gay men. She will also join several other lesbians making a mark in politics this year. 

Seattle elected its first lesbian mayor. State senators in California chose the first woman, who is also a lesbian, to lead their chamber. And a Democratic lesbian won a GOP-held legislative seat in a conservative part of Oklahoma. 

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian elected in 2009, marvels at how reactions to these milestones have quieted since news of her victory landed on the front page of an Indian newspaper. 

"It speaks to the quality of the candidates and the work that elected officials do all over the country that they are seen more and more as competent candidates who are also LGBTQ, and not LGBTQ candidates running for office," said Parker, who now leads the Victory Fund to elect such candidates. "We are working really hard to achieve a time when LGBTQ candidates are as mainstream as any other candidates might be." 

Adams, 53, declined an interview request and downplayed the historic nature of her candidacy in a statement. 

"It is encouraging to see candidates like myself being elected in the commonwealth of Virginia and beyond, not because of the color of their skin, their gender, their religion or their sexual orientation, but because of their substantive ideas for dealing with the issues," Adams said. 

But during her campaign, she talked about the importance of running as a lesbian. 

"After marriage equality became the law of the land, there was a visceral shift in our culture; and though many people still embrace hate, those on the fence seemed to fall off just enough to let love get the upper hand," she wrote in a questionnaire to Equality Virginia. "With that shift, it seemed safe to come 'out' and I have done that in the biggest way I can think of by running as an openly gay/lesbian candidate." 

Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, one of the three openly gay men in the Virginia legislature, faced a whisper campaign about his sexual orientation in his 2005 reelection bid and didn't publicly come out until a decade later. He says the environment has changed for gay politicians. 

"It is something that has become so routine in life now, and so many people are out to their family and friends and colleagues at work," Sickles said. "Virginia's changed, just like the country's changed." 

That hasn't stopped what critics call anti-gay bills from coming out of the state legislature. 

In Virginia, lawmakers rejected a gay judicial nominee (who was championed by Adams' opponent, Loupassi) five years ago after social conservatives objected. For the past two years, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, has vetoed bills protecting those who discriminate against same-sex couples from penalties. 

Advocates say openly LGBTQ people in public office can help stop these kind of bills. 

"The presence of these groups changes the way that others in the legislature respond," said Don Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who studied LGBTQ candidates. "And they serve as really strong models for other potential candidates who say: 'There's a person like me. I can do that too and run for office.' " 

He said growing ranks of gay and lesbian candidates since the 1990s paved the way for shifting public attitudes. The same can't be said for openly transgender candidates, who are newer to elected politics. 

In Virginia, Adams' candidacy was overshadowed by Danica Roem, a transgender woman who defeated a socially conservative incumbent who referred to her as "he" and called himself Virginia's "chief homophobe." 

Roem attracted more media attention and money from across the nation than Adams did, as well as more attacks from social conservatives. 

In contrast, Adams raised the fewest dollars of any Democrats who unseated Republicans and didn't become a lightning rod for the religious right. She was seen as an underdog against Loupassi, a moderate who criticized her fiscal policies instead of her identity and has supported gay rights. Their district is a Republican-leaning stretch of suburban Chesterfield and Richmond city that is seen as fairly tolerant. 

Adams' campaign website includes a photo of her with her partner of 15 years and touts endorsements from LGBTQ groups. On the trail, she tapped her health policy background to emphasize the importance of expanding Medicaid and integrating care. 

"Sexual orientation just wasn't an issue at all," said Bob Holsworth, a former political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University who lives in the district. He said the election results came down to Loupassi getting caught in an anti-Trump wave. 

"The thing that hurt him was the 'R' after his name," Holsworth said. "That was far more of a scarlet letter than someone's sexual orientation." 

While advocates celebrated the victory of Adams and other candidates, they say LGBTQ people are still underrepresented in government. 

The Victory Fund recently released a report tallying 448 LGBTQ elected officials in the United States - and argued that 21,000 more should be elected to better reflect the population. Thirteen state legislatures have no openly gay or transgender lawmakers. 

"The LGBT community has advanced a lot in the last 15 years, light-years and light-years. However that progress can be turned back just as quickly, if not quicker," said Sean Meloy, the fund's political director. Sexual orientation "doesn't have as much quote-unquote baggage, but at the same time, the United States is not universal in its acceptance and embrace of LGBT people."


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