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LGBTQ+ candidates earn historic victories nationally, locally

LGBTQ+ candidates earn historic victories nationally, locally

Tuesday, Nov. 7 was an important night for out LGBTQ+ candidates across the country, the state and Haywood County, with more running — and winning — than in any previous odd-year election in U.S. history. 

According to the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, a political action committee that since 1991 has worked to promote out LGBTQ+ candidates running for office at all levels, at least 514 out LGBTQ+ candidates ran, with 312 officially on the ballot.

“More LGBTQ+ people are being elected for many reasons, including visibility and changing attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights,” said Anthony Sutton, a Waynesville Town Council member. “I think the trend will continue with qualified candidates running.” 

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Anthony Sutton. File photo

Sutton was one of the Victory Fund’s endorsed candidates after becoming the first out LGBTQ+ member of Waynesville’s governing board back in 2019, when he won his first term. He was reelected to a two-year term last week.

On election night, Sutton told The Smoky Mountain News that the election wasn’t about LGBTQ+ issues per se, but he did say that it “felt personal.” 

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Earlier this year, a Facebook post by a Haywood County man alleged improper behavior  by a transgender person at Waynesville’s recreation center. The allegations prompted violent online threats against the LGBTQ+ community, as well as a police investigation that found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Detractors maligned the town’s investigation and thereby its police force after dozens of speakers crowded into a town meeting on July 25 — even pushing for the outing of the trans individuals at the center of the investigation, who have maintained anonymity . At least one speaker at the meeting threatened trans people  who might try to exercise their constitutional right of access to public facilities.

The backlash over the non-incident ended up having the opposite effect, energizing Western North Carolina’s LGBTQ+ community.

At the meeting, Waynesville’s Town Council unanimously passed a resolution, authored by Sutton, decrying the threats and declaring the town’s support for the LGBTQ+ community. Another Town Council member, Chuck Dickson, initiated a review of all town policy to ensure there was no latent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression.

Some who rushed to embrace the false claims became candidates for Waynesville’s Town Council, running as a team.

At a campaign event, candidate and planning board member Peggy Hannah held up a photo of Sutton taken at one of his campaign events — a drag performance.

Hannah called the photo, which shows Sutton with a performer, perverted, according to a person in attendance. Sutton said he took that, as well as a subsequent comment to the effect of “not in my town,” as a threat.

Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, said threats and attacks directed at LGBTQ+ candidates are all too common.

“Some of those are mostly just posting on social media, or an anti-LGBTQ+ mail piece or being called a slur, but sometimes there are actual threats as well,” Meloy said.

A report issued by the Victory Fund’s partner organization, LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, says that more than 70% of LGBTQ+ candidates reported attacks during their 2022 campaigns, with almost 14% saying they experienced attacks at least once a week. Nearly 33% of those attacks came from conservative groups, and nearly 20% came from religious groups, according to the report.

“The rhetoric has become so toxic and the misinformation is so strong that people potentially make those threats,” said Meloy.

Sutton said he’d received nonpartisan election training from the Victory Institute, including how to deal with the negativity that sometimes comes with being an out LGBTQ+ candidate.

Nationally, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund endorsed 166 candidates in 23 states.

As of election night, at least 148 out LGBTQ+ candidates had won races across the country, on state and local levels — a total that was expected to climb as results continued to be reported and certified.

One highlight for the group was in the Commonwealth of Virginia, electing the first out trans state senator in the South, Danica Roem. A number of other LGBTQ+ candidates, both incumbents and challengers, also achieved important victories in Virginia’s House of Delegates, which flipped from Republican to Democratic control.

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Danica Roem. Campaign photo

The flip, along with the Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate, will hamstring Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to increase abortion restrictions there and is widely seen as yet another referendum on the controversial overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 2022.

In North Carolina, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund endorsed 10 candidates, six of whom won races in Carrboro, Charlotte, Hillsborough, Waynesville and Wilmington.

Sutton was one of them, but he’s not even the only out LGBTQ+ candidate in Haywood County.

“I worked hard and I’m hoping to continue that same momentum,” said Amy Russell, a newly-elected member of the Town of Clyde Board of Aldermen.

Russell, a Clyde native, is a small business owner and lives in town with her wife.

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Amy Russell. Photo from Facebook

“I’m a community member that owns a business and takes pride in her community and wants to work hard,” Russell said. “I don’t think about myself as being anything but me. I don’t hide the fact that I’m gay. I really believe in our community in Clyde. I’m very honored to represent Clyde, but I’m also honored to represent the gay community.”

It was Russell’s first time running for office and she led the ticket, according to unofficial election night results, besting popular longtime incumbent Dann Jesse by one vote. Jesse will also return to the Board.

Russell said she was pleased with the election results, but that the real win came when her wife looked down at the election results on her phone and then looked up and told Russell, “You won, and I am so proud of you.”

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