There was a celebratory feeling at this year’s Victory Institute International LGBTQ Leaders Conference as a result of the U.S. midterm elections.
Annise Parker, former mayor of Houston and current president and CEO of the Victory Fund gave the welcome address to the conference saying with pride: “We are the only organization dedicated to building the bench of LGBTQ+ candidates ensuring there is a pipeline for the future.”
Parker introduced a community “she-ro,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who just had an astounding nearly 11-point margin of victory in her reelection campaign. Baldwin rightfully bragged she had shirt-tails which helped bring in the Democratic statewide ticket including the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. She spoke about the campaign and how it was activists across the state who made the difference. She also reminded everyone that in 1982 Wisconsin had the first statewide equality act, which was signed by a Republican governor. She then presented the Victory Fund award named in her honor, the Tammy Baldwin Breakthrough Award to Danica Roem, the delegate from Virginia; the first transgender person in the nation seated in a state legislature. This year she was joined by three more transgender women elected to state legislatures, including Brianna Titone, a Democrat in Colorado’s House District 27. Titone was introduced by Jared Polis the gay governor-elect of Colorado who also spoke. Polis is always great but was upstaged by his son who stood with him at the podium and was clearly fascinated by the large screen where he saw his image displayed. He danced and waved his arms and made some faces at the screen. We now know how Jared won by nearly 11 percentage points. Not only is he a brilliant guy but he has a secret weapon in his son.
Between Baldwin and Polis, the crowd heard from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who came to collect her Best Ally Award. She gave a great short speech saying how proud she is to stand shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ community in the fight for equality. Then she added, “I am going to carry the fight up the Hill and I hope you will all be with me.” Some figured that was her way of saying she is running for president. Guess we will find out soon enough if she is one of apparently dozens who will announce they are running for the Democratic nomination.
The lunch plenary on Friday was another blockbuster session with too little time for all the great speakers. It began with a compelling speech by lesbian dynamo Sharice Davids, the congresswoman-elect from Kansas’s 3rd District. Davids is a former MMA fighter, which clearly intrigued Parker who kept mentioning it. Then came a panel discussion with all ‘firsts’ in their careers. The first panelist introduced was former Congressman Barney Frank, always worth listening to. I had the opportunity to chat with Frank prior to the panel and found he is recovering from successful spinal fusion surgery. That hasn’t kept him down and he told me at a Wider Bridge event the previous evening he got to introduce his amazing sister, Ann Lewis, who was being honored. The other speakers were Michael Guest the first out ambassador confirmed by the Senate when he served our country in Romania; Eric Fanning for his service as Secretary of the Army, Christine Quinn first lesbian and woman speaker of the New York City Council and Danica Roem.
There were many young members of the community attending the conference who are either elected, running or planning to run for office. On Saturday there was a panel of millennials in office and they made everyone proud. One young man I met who is running to be the first gay man on the Denver City Council, Tony Smith, had the chance to meet Barney Frank who told him “Go for it, you have nothing to lose and whatever happens you win.” Considering his state now has a gay governor-elect and a transgender member of the state legislature he can feel confident his sexual orientation shouldn’t be an impediment to election. Following the millennial panel was one titled: Returning the favor; fighting for those who sparked the fight. It was moderated by a hero to many, Diego Sanchez, now at PFLAG. The panel included Dr. Imani Woody and the current speaker of the New York City Council, Corey Johnson. Many in the room felt confident one day we would be able to address him as Mayor Johnson.
More than 500 people attended from around the world. While the conference has many great educational sessions, the ability to network and learn from each other one-on-one makes this annual conference one of the movement’s best.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.