When Jolie Justus was elected to the Missouri State Senate 10 years ago, she broke new ground. The first openly LGBTQ person ever elected to the state’s legislature, she became a difference-maker. Jolie entered the state capitol, rolled up her sleeves, and teamed up with a Republican state senator to pass a non-discrimination bill to protect LGBTQ people.

When the votes came in, Jolie had won over nine additional Republicans to pass the bill — an incredible feat in the conservative legislature.

Power of representation

An analysis of the voting record that day reveals a fascinating pattern. The Republican legislators who voted in favor of the protections were those seated next to Jolie in the senate chamber. Working and interacting with Jolie daily had humanized the lives of LGBTQ people for these Republican legislators. Discrimination against an abstract LGBTQ community was one thing, but they could not support discrimination against their colleague Jolie.

“Working and interacting with Jolie daily had humanized the lives of LGBTQ people for these Republican legislators.”

Representation in government matters, because representation is power. LGBTQ elected officials influence legislation and debates, increase understanding of LGBTQ lives and persuade straight lawmaker colleagues to support equality.                         

A recent survey shows 70 percent of straight state lawmakers said LGBTQ colleagues had a strong impact on their decision to vote for a pro-LGBTQ bill. LGBTQ elected officials play an essential role in moving equality forward at every level of government. 

The current climate

But the reality is LGBTQ Americans are still severely underrepresented in government — making up a small fraction of 1 percent of all elected public positions nationwide.

Anti-LGBTQ legislation is being introduced in dozens of states this year, and the presence of LGBTQ elected officials could determine their fate. Electing more LGBTQ officials to fight these bills will be a high priority for the LGBTQ movement in coming years.