The election of the first openly gay U.S. senator has LGBT activists in delirium, but it’s some of the community’s lower-profile victories that signal there’s been a “sea change” in American politics.
For years, conservatives have wedged issues such as the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and same-sex marriage as tools to win elections. Ohio’s 2004 ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, for instance, is credited with helping secure President George W. Bush four more years in the White House.
Moreover, many gay candidates who were successfully elected, even Democrats, kept their orientation secret (think former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey).
But that closeted tide appears to have shifted.
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s comfortable victory in the Wisconsin senate race over Republican former Governor Tommy Thompson was among a host of wins for LGBT-supportive candidates on Tuesday.
A short tally includes Baldwin’s successor in the House of Representatives, Democrat Mark Pocan, who is also openly gay—the first time that a homosexual politician has succeeded another.
Another telling win was the reelection of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who was part of the state’s landmark ruling in 2009 to allow same-sex marriage in the state.
And of course President Obama and Vice President Biden both backed marriage equality and were reelected.
In total there were 118 victories for LGBT-allied candidates on Tuesday, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee.
“You can’t continue to use identities as a wedge in politics, I think that’s the shift,” Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, an LGBT civil rights advocacy group, tells TakePart. “This changes how we talk about issues.”
It’s not just LGBT-allied candidates who won big Tuesday. Maine, Maryland and Washington voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and LGBT activists defeated a constitutional ban in Minnesota.
“Take all of these things together, you’ve got a sea change,” says Belanger.
And with Baldwin’s election, the LGBT community now has a known presence in the Senate. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, they’re not talking with you, they’re talking about you,” says Belanger.
Baldwin’s win didn’t come solely on the strength of LGBT activism. She built a broad coalition and stressed that she was running to represent all of Wisconsin.
“I am well aware that I will have the honor to be Wisconsin’s first woman U.S. senator,” Baldwin said in her victory speech Tuesday night. “And I am well aware that I will be the first openly gay member of” the Senate.
The remark brought cheers from the audience and chants of “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy.”
“I didn’t run to make history; I ran to make a difference,” she continued, “but in choosing me to tackle those challenges, the people of Wisconsin have made history. I will be a senator for all of Wisconsin.”
The Democrat’s sexual orientation briefly became an issue during the race. The campaign political director for former Governor Tommy Thompson, Baldwin’s rival for the senate seat, emailed and tweeted out a video of Baldwin dancing with a singer in a Wonder Woman costume at a gay pride event as the congresswoman was set to speak at the Democratic National Convention in September.
“Clearly, there is no one better positioned to talk ‘heartland values’ than Tammy,” Brian Nemoir said in the email, according to reports. Baldwin’s speech was on the topic of heartland and Wisconsin values.
Nemoir was subsequently demoted, and Thompson apologized, saying he was “very upset” and that Baldwin’s sexual orientation is “absolutely not an issue.” After that, Baldwin’s sexuality receded to the background.
“I think the fact that Tammy’s sexual orientation wasn’t an issue was a tremendously good sign,” says Belanger.
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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.