Politics

‘Still largely underrepresented’: LGBTQ+ candidates seeking statewide office celebrate milestones, but see work ahead

Isaac Evans-Frantz, left, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, marches in the Essex Memorial Day parade in Essex Junction on Saturday, May 28, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Isaac Evans-Frantz was 18 years old, he traveled to Burlington to attend a prom for LGBTQ+ youth organized by Outright Vermont. In his hometown of Brattleboro, he didn’t feel comfortable holding hands with his boyfriend at the time in public. 

“I felt like Burlington was a big city,” Evans-Frantz recalled. “I was so excited to go there.”

The excitement didn’t last long. The couple was walking down a Burlington street when someone drove by and yelled homophobic slurs at them, he said. But while that kind of harassment is no longer a daily concern for Evans-Frantz, LGBTQ+ Vermonters still face discrimination — and worse. 

“I don’t worry about that right now. But also, I know that trans people are getting murdered in this state,” Evans-Frantz said, referring to the fatal stabbing of Fern Feather, a transgender woman, in April. “Fern's death is a reminder that where we are culturally and where the laws are are two different things, and they both can support each other.”

In the spring of 2000, when Evans-Frantz was an adolescent, Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions, at the time the strongest form of legal representation for same-sex relationships. 

The move sparked the “Take Back Vermont” movement, a backlash that contributed to the electoral defeat that fall of 16 incumbent lawmakers who had voted in support of civil unions. 

Just over two decades later, at least five openly LGBTQ+ candidates are running in statewide elections — for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor and state treasurer — and speaking about their identity on the campaign trail. Any of them would make history as the first openly LGBTQ+ Vermonter to serve in their respective office. 

Two of them, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel and Democratic state treasurer candidate Mike Pieciak, are unopposed in the primary election and will almost certainly appear on the general election ballot. U.S. Senate candidate Christina Nolan, a former U.S. attorney for Vermont, is the only openly LGBTQ+ Republican running for statewide office.  

In interviews, many of these candidates said they’ve witnessed positive changes in attitudes toward the Vermont LGBTQ+ community over time, but there is still work to be done to achieve equal representation and fight anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination throughout the state.

Shifting attitudes

Multiple candidates credited the few openly LGBTQ+ Vermont politicians of the late 1990s and early 2000s for their work in advocating for pro-LGBTQ+ rights legislation and normalizing being out in Vermont politics. 

Ed Flanagan, who served as state auditor from 1993 to 2001 and later as a state senator, was the first openly gay statewide elected official in the country when he came out in 1995. Ron Squires, Vermont’s first openly gay legislator, took office in the Vermont House in 1991. Squires served until his death in 1993 from viral meningitis, which he developed from AIDS. 

Becca Balint, president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, announces her candidacy for the state's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives at a press conference in Montpelier on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

During the late 1990s, “I honestly couldn't have imagined being where I am right now as the leader of the Senate, now running for Congress,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, who is running for Vermont’s sole U.S. House seat. 

“Having lived through that time in Vermont, and seeing how many legislators lost their seats supporting civil unions and same-sex marriage, and to be able to reflect on that — I have so much love and courage and gratitude for all those people who took those hard votes,” she said.

Pieciak, who has worked in state government since 2014, said he’s hardly experienced homophobia in his personal or professional life in Vermont. “I’ve always thought Vermont, largely because of the work of the previous generation of activists, has become a free, open and welcoming community.”

Shortly after moving to Vermont in the late 1990s, Balint recalled, someone scratched a homophobic slur into the side of her car. 

“I had to have my car repainted because I was so mortified,” she said. “I was teaching at that time and didn’t want to drive to school and have that.” 

It wasn’t Balint’s only disturbing encounter. The candidate has frequently discussed moving to Brattleboro to find that her next-door neighbor displayed a “Take Back Vermont” sign. Ultimately, she has said, they became friendly, and the neighbor took the sign down.

Brenda Siegel announces her candidacy for governor at a press conference in Montpelier on Monday, May 2, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“There could have been so many times when I could have decided to leave the state because I didn’t feel welcome, but there was enough love and community support,” Balint said.

Siegel, who has been in the public eye since she ran for governor in 2018, came out to the public as bisexual just two years ago, at age 43. She said she got the courage to do so after her son came out to her. 

“My son is much more comfortable coming out as bi at 17,” Siegel said. “At that age, that would have been very, very challenging for me, and I think that that's a sign of how much has changed.”

Challenges on the trail

The state’s last two election cycles have also marked milestones for LGBTQ+ candidates. In 2018, Democrat Christine Hallquist became the first openly transgender major party nominee for governor in the country. And in 2020, Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, was elected Vermont’s first openly transgender legislator, and only the fifth openly transgender legislator in the nation.

Yet neither candidate was shielded from transphobic rhetoric. In Hallquist’s case, a series of offensive social media posts from perennial Republican candidate H. Brooke Paige drew criticism after her run. (Paige this year is the sole Republican primary candidate for four statewide offices.) 

More recently, Small was the target of a campaign by Burlington GOP chair Christopher-Aaron Felker, who drew backlash for a series of social media posts describing Small and other co-sponsors of a bill that would remove parental consent for some gender-affirming medical care as “groomers.” 

Siegel said attacks like these, combined with skepticism from the public when she first came out, were “unexpected” difficulties of being an LGBTQ+ candidate. 

“If I’m at risk when I talk about how important it is for people to be able to come out, then imagine what somebody who doesn’t have everybody watching, what kind of risk they might be at when they do come out,” Siegel said. 

While the bill that sparked Felker’s posts stalled early this legislative session, candidates have hailed other recent legislative efforts to advance LGBTQ+ rights. Last year, Small led a push to ban the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense in Vermont, and this year she succeeded in passing legislation to make it easier for Vermonters to amend the gender identity on their birth certificates. 

Also this year, the Legislature passed a joint resolution, J.R.S.53, in support of trans-affirming medical care

Evans-Frantz said these legislative efforts are meaningful, especially to those who may not conform to gender norms.

“I had a worse time with bullying before I came out than after. And a lot of the bullying was actually around gender expression,” Evans-Frantz said. “One of the offenses to society of being gay is that you're violating your assigned gender role by being attracted to or loving somebody who's of the same gender.”

That dynamic sometimes carries over to the campaign trail, he said.

“I’ve been told, ‘Don’t talk about being gay so much,’” Evans-Frantz said. “If I were heterosexual, I don’t think I would have been told that. You just get a lot of advice from people.”

Balint recalled instances early in her career in the Legislature when she had to deal with stereotyping from her coworkers. People would tell her she “doesn’t look gay” or ask if she was sure about her sexuality. 

“What’s been the hardest is people thinking that we all have the same experience as we go through the world,” Balint said. “I’ve had to say, on so many occasions, with colleagues and constituents, ‘Your experience has not been my experience.’ We have to be mindful of that not just for LGBTQ+ candidates, but also for all the people of color who are trying to run for office here in Vermont.”

Impacting policy

In addition to Feather’s murder, the Pride Center of Vermont’s headquarters was vandalized in April. These instances of homophobia in Vermont signal that there is more work to be done to support LGBTQ+ rights, Siegel said. 

“We're seeing some very severe hate and bias towards the community right now in the state in a very overt way,” she said. “While I think we've come so far, we clearly still have a lot of work to do in this community.”

Mike Pieciak, who was commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation at the time, presents the state's Covid-19 modeling data at a press conference on August 10, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Pieciak said that although there are a number of openly LGBTQ+ candidates running in the primary election, having them on the ballot is not enough. Currently, there are no statewide elected positions occupied by openly LGBTQ+ politicians. 

“It's great to have people running for these offices, but we really need people to be successful and to win these offices and to be governmental leaders at all levels,” Pieciak said. “We're still largely underrepresented in state government, local government and federal government.”

In 1996, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as occurring between a man and a woman. The act also allowed for states to not recognize same-sex marriages. (Leahy later supported efforts to overturn the law.)

Evans-Frantz recalled the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in the U.S. Senate at the time. 

“If there had been an openly gay male senator, I wonder if he might have voted differently,” Evans-Frantz said. “It’s one thing to vote when everybody else in your circle shares the same identity. When somebody else is there, it can be harder to actually vote against the person who’s sitting next to you.”

Evans-Frantz also referred to the AIDS crisis and the lack of political representation for the LGBTQ+ community at the time. 

“If openly gay men had been at the table in leadership positions in the United States government, we could have saved lives. … We need people who have had the experience of being on the outside to have them on the inside,” he said. 

Siegel said she is focusing on specific platform points to advance LGBTQ+ rights in the state, including making Vermont a sanctuary state for families fleeing persecution from anti-LGBTQ+ laws around the country, such as Texas’ push to classify youth gender-affirming care as child abuse. She also wants to enshrine LGBTQ+ rights in Vermont’s Constitution. 

“(LGBTQ+ rights) should be a given, not something that should change with a given Legislature or governor,” she said. 

If elected to Congress, Balint said, she hopes to pass the Equality Act — an act that would include people who identify at LGBTQ+ in federal civil rights laws. 

Christina Nolan smiles after filing her petition for candidacy for U.S. Senate at the secretary of state's office in Montpelier on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

In a statement to VTDigger, Nolan expressed her dedication to supporting the community if elected to the Senate. Nolan is the first openly gay woman seeking to represent Vermont in the U.S. Senate. 

“As someone who has walked in their shoes, I will be a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, a fighter for equality and champion for policy decisions to make our lives better,” Nolan said in the statement. “We must never stop blazing new trails, breaking glass ceilings, and showing the next generation that the fight against discrimination and intolerance can persevere to secure lasting change and progress.”

In light of recent shootings in Ulvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, and the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade, Evans-Frantz said he hopes to focus on passing laws in support of gun control and abortion rights — laws that would support a number of underrepresented communities. 

“My friend lost a loved one in the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando a few years ago. I remember the grief I felt after that,” Evans-Frantz said. “We need to pass laws that protect our communities because whether you’re Black, you’re young, you’re gay, whoever you are, you should be able to leave your home feeling confident that you’ll be able to come home afterwards.”

Pieciak said he hopes to increase financial literacy for Vermont’s LGBTQ+ population, such as navigating the financial differences between civil unions and common law marriages and health insurance in regard to trans-affirming care. 

“Being LGBTQ+ impacts your perspective because you come from a place where you try to accept people for who they are,” Pieciak said. “You try to be thoughtful and understanding and try to really appreciate somebody else’s perspective and where they’re coming from. It informs your worldview overall as well.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story used the incorrect town for which Rep. Taylor Small is a representative.

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Jenna Peterson

About Jenna

Jenna Peterson is a student at the University of Southern California, where she is majoring in journalism and political science. She is news editor at the Daily Trojan at USC and was an editor of the Burlington High School student newspaper when it received a special New England Newspaper & Press Association award for successfully fighting a censorship effort by school administrators.

Email: [email protected]

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