Jared Polis and Lisa Culpepper lead very different lives. Polis was raised in a loving home with a lot of support. Culpepper found herself homeless at the age of 14. Polis is rich. Culpepper is middle class. Polis is male. Culpepper is female.
One is a seasoned politician who ran for the state’s highest office. The other ran her very first race for a local office in Adams county.
What they do have in common? Both are a part of the LGBTQ community. Both won their respective race. And both are a part of the history-making rainbow wave washing over our country and our state.
An unprecedented number of LGBTQ people threw their hats into the political arena this midterm election. Six LGBTQ candidates ran for a seat in the Colorado statehouse, and all six won. Rep. Polis made history by being elected the first out, gay man to serve as governor.
Nationwide, the nonpartisan Victory Fund reported more than 600 LGBTQ political candidates running for office. Not all made it onto the final ballot, but an unprecedented number did, and 226 ended up as winners.
Breaking those figures down even further, we find diversity at an all-time high. LGBTQ candidates of all races are represented, with transgender representation in state legislatures tripling. The Victory Fund reports six transgender candidates winning, with Colorado’s Brianna Titone among them.
“This is an exciting victory for me, my team, many people in the district and in the LGBTQ community, here and across the country,” Titone told OUT FRONT. “I am extremely grateful that the electorate saw me as a problem-solver and committed to working with the community to work on the issues pertaining to the voters and didn’t just focus on my identity. My main focus is on constituent services and being the leader they expect me to be. I will continue to be an advocate and visible presence for the LGBTQ community and be sure that their needs are being considered when policies are being drafted. In a time when trans people have been singled out for discrimination, this election, we send a message to those who wish to erase us: We won’t be erased; we will be elected.”
This level of diversity within LGBTQ politics is new.
“No matter what we do, we have to remember the rainbow does include brown, and it includes yellow, and it includes red. We cannot be anything less than fully inclusive. Otherwise, we don’t stand for anything,” said Culpepper, who will be Adams County’s next treasurer.
Inclusivity is spreading to some of the most unlikely places. States like Kansas, Nebraska, and Indiana elected their very first queer candidates.
It’s not just candidates, but LGBTQ voters who are changing the nation.
“For a while, it was women voters who were gonna sway the vote. Now, it’s LGBTQ voters that are gonna sway the vote,” said Kayla Fersuson, a 28-year-old Denver activist who attended Colorado’s Democratic watch party at the downtown Westin.
Diversity is especially strong here in Colorado. The statehouse candidates included an African American and two Latino, LGBTQ candidates. They range in age from 28 to 61.
“I think our state is moving to a place of more inclusivity,” said Leslie Herod. And she should know. The Denver resident is the first African American, LGBTQ candidate to win a seat in the statehouse.
“As an LGBTQ person of color, I believe protecting our neighbors from hate and bigotry is non-negotiable,” said Alex Valdez, who will also represent Denver in the statehouse.
Hate and bigotry are no stranger to another first-time candidate. “I can remember marching when there were more protesters than there were [queer people]. And they had shotguns pointed at us,” said Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a long-time LGBTQ activist who won the statehouse position representing Boulder County.
Daneya Esgar has represented Pueblo County since 2015. She said people told her the southern district wasn’t ready for an LGBTQ candidate, but she ran anyway. “It’s always been a place where I felt like you can be who you want to be,” she said. This held true, as she was reelected.
Rochelle Galindo faced a tough race in conservative Weld County, but she ended up pulling ahead and winning. She hopes her candidacy will inspire others. “If you want to run for office, run. We need more regular people… We need more candidates that reflect their community,” she said.
Why They’re Running
Every candidate who spoke to italicize/space OUT FRONT said the rainbow wave is a direct result of the Trump presidency.
“In recent years, we have been somewhat complacent, because we were getting our way. It was feeling good, and we were more frequently being counted. Now [Trump’s] not even going to count us on the census,” Culpepper said.
She said, like many others, she was complacent during the 90s and the early 2000s when civil rights were being won at record speed for the LGBTQ community. But, she remembers the long, hard road the community walked to obtain rights like marriage equality.
Culpepper came out at 14 and was kicked out of her house. She was also kicked out of high school for being LGBTQ, so she started college early and became a successful attorney with her own firm in Denver.
While her qualifications lend themselves to many different political positions, she said she opted to run for the hyper-local Adams County position because that is where change begins, and the community can no longer rely on the national government to protect them.
“I thought it was really important to shore up what we’re doing on the local level, and there are a lot of LGBTQ persons who are doing exactly that,” she said.
Others said they ran to help others see themselves in the political arena.
“People are starting to realize they want a government that represents them, and it’s time for people like me to step up and run to make sure our government represents who we are,” Esgar said.
What the Future Holds
The Pueblo native also had a lot to say about what the community needs to do with its new-found power.
“During the debates, it was said I would ‘run a gay agenda.’ In the last four years, I’ve proven the gay agenda is everyone’s agenda,” she said.
Esgar, Herod, and Jaquez Lewis all said their top issues include health, education, and affordable housing, the same things all Coloradans want.
“I think people realize because we are LGBTQ does not mean we have different values than the rest of our communities,” Herod said.
Herod also points out the future will mean more work. With more LGBTQ people being elected in Colorado, she said the state can expect to be targeted by the far right. Expect more money and more campaigning against LGBTQ rights.
“Just because we have a gay governor does not mean hate has gone away, that homophobia has gone away; it actually means we have more work to do, but we [now] have an army that can do it,” she said.
Culpepper agrees. She said the rainbow wave is already pushing buttons. But, while some may become even more set against LGBTQ rights, she believes the more centrist republicans will realize queer people are just like everybody else. As long as the candidate is doing a good job, she believes sexual orientation will begin to matter less and less.
What This Means for the Community
Corky Blankenship has seen it all. The 74-year-old Colorado native wasn’t about to miss history being made. Standing in the swell of democrats, he was among the hundreds of people at the democratic watch party who went crazy as Polis’ win was announced. Most of those gathered were not a part of the LGBTQ community. Most only care about Polis’ politics, not his sexual orientation.
It was a moment Blankenship never thought he would live to see.
“I didn’t think I’d see the day when we could hold hands on the street and get married, let alone having a gay man elected governor,” he said.
It was 60 years ago when Blankenship said he first learned how hard life would be as a gay man. In order to meet other men, at just 17 years of age, he said he would stand in an alley behind 16th Street and wait for someone to come out of a hidden gay bar to secretly usher him in. This night, he was standing inside a hotel right on 16th Street watching history be made.
“It just shows so much that people now are not afraid to be our friends, that we are not the monsters we were always depicted to be,” he said with tears welling up.
58-year-old Dave Bishop is the finance chair for Colorado’s 30th House District. He and his husband have lived in Adams County for 10 years. At 58, he also said he never thought he would live to see a gay governor. And now that the moment is here, he said he plans to do everything he can to continue to push civil rights further ahead.
“I think it’s going to open up a myriad of opportunities for the LGBTQ community, and more people believe now, as the wave has opened up their mindset. They’re much more open,” he said.
From Hate to History
Colorado’s new governor actually credits the so-called “hate amendment” Colorado passed in 1992 for pushing LGBTQ rights forward and putting Colorado in a leadership position.
The amendment legalized discrimination against the queer community. It provoked a boycott of the state and led to Colorado being called “the hate state” for many years. It was later found unconstitutional.
Polis said it ultimately pushed the state forward, as LGBTQ activists targeted the state for change, change that has paid off. Big time.
Polis brought cheers from the crowd as he introduced his husband, Colorado’s first First Man—another title never held in this country before Polis’ win. And then he said it was time for the state to come together and move forward.
“The time is now to unite in our common purpose, rooted in our shared love for our home of Colorado and confident that what makes us unique isn’t just the boldness of our ideas—it’s the resilience and the spirit of Coloradans who make change happen, who bring these bold ideas to life.”