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More than ‘firsts,’ LGBTQ elected officials pave the way for the next generation of politicians.

Taylor Small met a transgender girl from her state who gained international public attention for using a school locker room that matched her gender identity earlier this year, after receiving the One Young World Politician of the Year Award and wrapping up her first term as Vermont’s first openly transgender legislator.

Small, impressed by her bravery, asked the girl what she could do as an elected official to better serve students like her.

“(The girl) said, ‘You’re doing everything and more than I need from you,'” Small explained to USA TODAY. “And I said, ‘No, you’re giving me the strength to see that this is going to pass, that this is a storm that I will get through, but there’s more in my future,’… that gives me everything I need and more to continue on.”

According to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to electing LGBTQ candidates, Small was one of more than 400 openly LGBTQ candidates who won races for elected office across the country in November, breaking the previous record of 336 set in 2020. Small was re-elected to the Vermont legislature for a second term this year.

Among the historic “firsts” were the first openly lesbian governors, Tina Kotek of Oregon and Maura Healey of Massachusetts; the first trans man elected to a state legislature, James Roesener of New Hampshire; and Erick Russell, Connecticut’s state treasurer-elect and the first Black openly LGBTQ person elected to statewide office.

In the midst of this “rainbow wave,” some of those about to take office spoke with USA TODAY about the importance of diverse representation in local government, the difficulties of being a “first” in new spaces, and how they are showing LGBTQ youth what is possible for their futures.

The significance of LGBTQ representation in municipal government

With the number of Americans who identify as LGBTQ rising to a record 7.1%, more than doubling from 2012, openly LGBTQ elected officials see a pressing need for legislators and state officials whose identities reflect that shift.

Joe Vogel, a 25-year-old newly elected member of the Maryland House of Representatives, told USA TODAY that his lived experience as a Gen Z gay immigrant helped him understand issues affecting those communities during his campaign.

While running as an openly LGBTQ candidate could have jeopardised his campaign, Vogel saw the advantages of being true to himself and his constituents.

“I said I’m going to run as my fully authentic self because I don’t think it’ll be a liability to my candidacy,” he told USA TODAY. “I believe it will inspire many other young LGBTQ people to see themselves in government and feel more confident in who they are.”

According to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, the number of LGBTQ elected officials increased by 5.8 percent between 2020 and 2021, but the United States would need to elect 35,854 more to achieve equitable representation. Mississippi will be the only state without an out LGBTQ state legislator after the 2022 elections.

Erick Russell has also witnessed the impact of representation firsthand, with young people telling him how important it is to see someone who looks like them in local government.

“Throughout this campaign, a number of people have approached me and said, ‘It’s really meaningful that you put yourself out there and that you’re representing us or you’re representing me,'” Russell said.

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