• June 1, 2021

Pride Month: LGBTQ Diversity in Congress

There are more LGBTQ+ people serving in Congress than ever before, and still a long way to go to achieve equal representation. Pride Month is a great time to celebrate their service.

As we kick off this year’s LGBTQ+ Pride Month, there are more lesbian, gay and bisexual people serving in Congress than at any other time in U.S. history. To honor their service, Capitol Canary is proud to release a Guide to LGBTQ+ Members of Congress.

In the wake of last year’s protests over racial equality, diversity in all of its forms—race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and more—has become a vital part of the national conversation. Pride Month is a good time to celebrate the LGBTQ+ Americans who have bravely pioneered new paths, who have advanced equality through fierce activism or who serve in government. 

Indeed, there may well be more openly LGBTQ+ Americans in public office than ever before. The number in Congress, while still far short of equal representation, is certainly at an all-time high. Serving from California to New York, there are now 11 openly gay, lesbian or bisexual lawmakers, including nine in the House and two in the Senate. 

Data from the LGBTQ Victory Fund shows that at least 220 LGBTQ+ candidates won races at all levels of government last year, including more than 100 state legislators, almost 80 local officials, a dozen judicial posts and at least four mayors. LGBTQ+ candidates continue to win in races across the country this year.       

To mark the occasion of Pride month, Capitol Canary’s Guide to LGBTQ+ Members of Congress offers a resource, as we did for Black History Month, Women’s History Month and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Our hope is to celebrate diversity in public office and help government relations and public affairs professionals connect with lawmakers and do the same.

Decades of Progress

The LGBTQ+ community has made great strides in the last five decades, but much of that progress was more recent than many may think. 

The first openly gay members of Congress were elected to the House in the 1970s and 1980s, but lawmakers like Gerry Studds, Barney Frank and Steve Gunderson came out or were outed while in office. The first candidate to campaign and win as an openly LGBTQ+ person was Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin when she earned a House seat in 1999. She went on to be the first member of the LGBTQ+ community to serve in the U.S. Senate in 2012. Even now, there have only been two, after she was joined by Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona in 2018. Simena became the first openly bisexual member of Congress when she won a House seat in 2012 and she is the first to serve in the Senate as well.  

The story is similar outside of Washington. The first openly gay governor was Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, but he came out in 2004 at the same time that he resigned. It wasn’t until Jared Polis became Governor of Colorado in 2018 that an openly gay governor was elected to office.

Even now, “firsts” are common. Pete Buttigieg, for example, was the first openly gay man to run a major presidential campaign and the first to win a presidential primary or caucus (he won Iowa in 2020). When President Biden named him as Secretary of Transportation, Buttigieg became the first openly gay cabinet secretary. 

Representatives Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, both of New York, became the first openly gay Black men to serve in Congress when they were sworn in this year. Torres, who is both Black and Latino, is also the first openly gay Latino member of Congress. 

Unequal Representation 

While much progress has been made, LGBTQ+ lawmakers represent only about two percent of Congress. That’s less than half what would be expected if representation were proportional to the number of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S., though there are questions about the size of that population.

Because the U.S. Census Bureau and other government offices do not traditionally track sexual orientation the way they do race or gender, there are no official numbers. The 2020 Census did count same sex couplesestimates in 2019 showed 543,000 married same-sex couples and 469,000 unmarried same-sex couples—but those numbers are not the same as a population estimate.

Population numbers depend on LGBTQ+ people identifying their sexual orientation, and not everyone is comfortable doing so. That means the counts that do exist may be low. Whatever the case, the best current estimates appear to come from polling. 

Gallup polling released this year showed that 5.6 percent of the population identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, based on roughly 15,000 interviews with Americans over 18 conducted in 2020. That would suggest more than 18 million Americans are part of that community in the United States. 

Interestingly, many Americans seem to think the number is far higher. In the last three Gallup polls on the subject, conducted in 2011, 2015 and 2019, respondents all said they think America’s gay and lesbian population is north of 20 percent. 

“It’s quite possible that LGBT self-identifiers will increase as a result of changes in societal norms and acceptance,” Gallup wrote in 2019. “Still, no available estimate is as high as what Americans perceive the size of the U.S. gay and lesbian population to be.”