John Bazemore/AP/REX/Shutterstock Stacey Abrams
There's a lot to celebrate coming out of the 2022 midterms, including the election of the nation's first openly lesbian governors — two of the record 12 women who will lead states concurrently next year — and the victory of Wes Moore, only the third Black man to be elected governor of a U.S. state and the first in Maryland.
At the same time, the incremental progress is a wake-up call that leadership positions are still overwhelmingly occupied by men and disproportionately white. The wins of Nov. 8 are a step, but a small one that comes astoundingly late in the country's timeline.
"Lack of representation is one of the greatest threats to our democracy," says Erin Loos Cutraro, CEO and founder of nonpartisan organization She Should Run. "This is a crisis."
Though women represent more than half the U.S. population, they will hold fewer than one-fourth of governor seats next year, the highest in history. And though Black Americans comprise an estimated 14% of the population, only one of 50 governors in the upcoming term will be Black, up from zero currently.
A Black woman has never served as governor of a U.S. state, and none currently serve in the U.S. Senate. This year, several women of color hoped to change that — with the candidacy of Stacey Abrams for Georgia governor, Yolanda Flowers for Alabama governor, Deidre DeJear for Iowa governor, Val Demings for Florida senator, Cheri Beasley for North Carolina senator, Natalie James for Arkansas senator and Krystle Matthews for South Carolina senator — but all were defeated.
"Black women across the country lead and continue to show up in record numbers at the polls, and women of color overall account for 20% of the U.S. population," Cutraro tells PEOPLE. "It's time to look beyond the candidates themselves and instead address as a nation the nonexistent but necessary ecosystem we must build around women to see equal representation in the halls of power."
Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty National Governors Association meeting in 2022
True diversity in executive leadership will require a number of additional "firsts" on several fronts — people of all abilities, races, sexual orientations and gender identities — then "seconds," "thirds," "fourths" and beyond.
This year, the election of Tina Kotek and Maura Healey, who are lesbian, bolstered the roster of LGBTQ+ Americans who have ascended to the highest state-level office. Outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is bisexual, was the first LGBTQ-identifying politician elected as a state governor in 2016, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was the first openly gay male governor elected in 2018.
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To date, no transgender politicians have held the office of governor, nor a position in U.S. Congress, but since Danica Roem, a trans woman, was notably elected and sworn in to Virginia's state legislature in 2017, there's been an increase in trans and nonbinary candidates around the nation — many of whom have been successful — thanks in part to political action committees like the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which spends a significant amount of its resources on state legislature races.
"These are the petri dishes of democracy and a lot of conservative states have generated hateful and hurtful anti-LGBTQ legislation — legislation that then metastasizes to other places," says former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president and CEO of the Victory Fund. "And these are places where good candidates can have face-to-face conversations with constituents and win with grit and shoe leather. The rapid rise in the number of trans candidates is a testament to that."
Steve Helber/AP Danica Roem, first transgender member of a state legislature
Parker adds that getting more diverse representatives in state governments "means we are filling the pipeline for the long term," as every major "first" had to begin somewhere. She notes that Brown, Polis, Kotek and Healey each served in lower positions before rising to governor.
"We need more [LGBTQ] candidates down ballot to ensure there will be future candidates for governor…and future governors to run for president," she says.
Parker believes it's important that underrepresented communities have prominent seats at the table so they can speak for themselves.
"Our country deserves to benefit from the broadest range of skill sets and life experiences," she says. "Discussions change, ideas and opinions change, and laws change when we are in the room."