Political climate for gay candidates in state begins to thaw

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina and Charleston County have an abysmal record for electing gay candidates for public office, but advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community say the legalization of same-sex marriage is the harbinger of a more welcoming political climate.

As far as Jeff Ayers, the chairman of the board of SC Equality, knows, there are no openly gay people serving as members of the state Legislature, holding a statewide elected office, or an elected municipal office anywhere in the state, except for Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon.

But Ginny Deerin, one of six candidates in the Charleston mayor's race, identifies herself as a member of the LGBT community. Tasha Gandy, who is a lesbian and a married mother of two, is running for a North Charleston City Council seat. And Condon said she plans to run for re-election in 2016.

Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, said that while the climate is improving for LGBT candidates, "we still have a long way to go."

In South Carolina, there is no statewide employment protection for gay people, he said. "The vast majority of people in South Carolina could be fired simply for their sexual orientation or gender identity."

Indeed, many state lawmakers staunchly have opposed lesbian and gay issues. For instance, last year, the S.C. House budget-writing committee sought to penalize the College of Charleston by withdrawing $52,000 from the school's budget because it selected Alison Bechdel's book "Fun Home" as a reading assignment for incoming freshmen. The book deals with author Bechdel's struggle with her homosexuality and her childhood with a closeted gay father.

The censorship controversy, however, prompted a forceful response from college students, faculty and administrators and also provided the impetus for the off-Broadway cast of the musical "Fun Home," accompanied by its writers and Bechdel herself, to assemble in Charleston for a concert version of the show.

Earlier this year, "Fun Home" won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Redman-Gress said that openly gay candidates likely will first win seats in the Charleston and Columbia areas, South Carolina's more progressive pockets.

But Ayers said he thinks voters are beginning to focus on local and state issues, rather than sexual identity. And he attributes the change to marriage equity, which happened here in November after two federal judges found the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. "Since then, we've felt a slight shift. Public opinion is starting to sway our way." Even less than a year ago, he said, "LGBT candidates wondered if they had a chance."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states could not ban same-sex marriage.

Deerin has been focusing on the big issues in her campaign, such as traffic and the redevelopment of West Ashley, in the historic Charleston mayoral race to take the reins from Joe Riley, who has held the city's top post for the past 40 years.

"I'm part of the LGBT community, a mother, a grandmother, the founder of WINGS for Kids, and the only candidate for mayor with a comprehensive transportation plan," she said.

Gandy said she also thinks the legalization of gay marriage has improved the climate for gay candidates. "Since it's been permanently resolved, it's allowed us to go on to work on other things," she said.

"It used to be presumed you were not electable if you were LGBT. I don't think that's a concern for people any longer," Gandy said.

She thinks she has a fair chance to land the District 8 North Charleston City Council seat, which includes the Park Circle, Charleston Farms and Liberty Hill neighborhoods. "I love where I live and can serve well."

Gandy also said that as a member of Project XX, an organization co-founded by Deerin that encourages women to seek elected and appointed office, she urged other women to run for public office. So she decided to take her own advice and run for office herself.

South Carolina also has a poor record of electing women. Only one of the state's 46 senators and 17 of its 124 representatives are women.

Charlie Smith, an advocate for West Ashley and for the LGBT community, said he ran for the state House District 119 seat against the ultraconservative John Graham Altman in 2002 and 2004.

He lost in 2002, with 41 percent of the vote, he said. "Back then," he said, "I was always 'the openly gay candidate.'"

He also lost to Altman in 2004, he said, but he pulled in 48 percent of the vote. It was proof things already were changing, he said.

Smith thinks gay candidates today can focus on the issues and have a fair chance of being elected. They even have an advantage over some candidates when it comes to fundraising, he said, because they can get financial support outside their communities from supporters of the larger gay community.

Condon said she doesn't think many people in her district will consider her sexual identity when she runs again. One day last week, she said, she had meetings with constituents about recycling, a library and a ditch. Nobody asked her about her sexuality. "I'm just a boring person with 'honey-do' list waiting for me when I get home," she said.

Members of the gay community also focus on issues when they decide who to vote for, she said. They don't just vote for other gay candidates. For instance, she was supporting Paul Tinkler in the Charleston mayor's race until he withdrew last week. Now, she's supporting Deerin, she said.

Redman-Gress's group and SC Equality continue to encourage more gay candidates to run for public office, Ayers said.

He thinks the numbers will continue to grow. As more gay people become open about their sexual identities, more straight people are becoming comfortable with their gay family members, friends and co-workers, he said. A lot of people who were afraid of the impact of same-sex marriage are seeing that "nothing has changed," Ayers said. "The sky hasn't fallen."


Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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