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LGBTQ Texans running for office share setbacks, triumphs on campaign trail

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Photo provided by Jalen McKee-Rodriguez
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Jalen McKee-Rodriguez is the representative for District 2 on the San Antonio City Council.

Running for public office is already a gamble; running as an openly LGBTQ candidate in a red state is a whole other kind of risk.

The LGBTQ community has been a recent target of Texas lawmakers, from Gov. Greg Abbott’s argument that gender-affirming care is child abuse to State Rep. Bryan Slaton’s proposed ban on letting kids go to drag shows.

LGBTQ Texans running for office build their campaigns on many of the same platforms as their opponents. Their identity makes facing the odds that much more important for themselves and for people like them.

While marriage and family therapist Bethany Luna spoke at an event during her campaign, she happened to say “she” in reference to her wife. Luna said she watched as the crowd’s energy shifted.

“It took that snapshot of me saying ‘she’ for everyone in that room, almost, to completely check out,” she said.

Luna ran to become a school board trustee for Lubbock ISD’s District 4 back in March. She wanted to make children’s mental health a priority in schools. But Luna identifies as gay, and she said that forced her to consider how this race might put her and her family in danger.

“I think that, to me, is one of the hardest things about running as an openly queer person here, and having to ask very different questions,” Luna said.

Ben Chou, who ran for Harris County Commissioner this year, got his first taste of politics back in high school when a family friend ran for mayor in a suburb of Sugar Land. During the speech, Chou said an audience member stood up and told the candidate he wouldn’t get their vote because he was a “communist” and had an accent, and therefore wasn’t an American.

Being on that campaign trail inspired Chou to get into politics himself.

From working under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to getting a law degree from Northwestern University, Chou checked all the boxes of experience. That didn’t mean running for office in 2022 was easy.

“There were people who were not pleased with the fact that once they learned more about me, you know, basically gone onto my website and read that I was gay, they weren't happy about that,” he said.

Chou would have been the first openly gay person in Texas to become a county commissioner and the first Asian American to fill that role in Harris County. He saw potential in the power to use a county commissioner's budget to create a legal defense fund for trans kids, for example.

Even though he lost the seat, Chou said he saw how he inspired his diverse group of supporters to get involved.

“Being openly gay and being Asian American, those were the two communities that were really out there helping me all along the way,” he said.

Over in San Antonio last year, a candidate just a bit younger than Chou was trying to make some of the same efforts.

Jalen McKee-Rodriguez did not start out on a direct path to politics. After getting a degree in communications, he became a high school math teacher on San Antonio’s east side. McKee-Rodriguez said the classroom was where his dissatisfaction with local government grew. He thought elected officials were not doing all they could when it came to public education, infrastructure and policing.

“I think I realized that when I was working with my students, there were so many of the things that they were going through that I wanted to help them with,” McKee-Rodriguez said.

So, after working on other people’s campaigns, McKee-Rodriguez decided to run for city council. At 26, he was already one of the youngest candidates; being openly gay on top of that added another challenge.

District 2 is a predominantly Black area that has consistently elected Black city council members. McKee-Rodriguez said his Hispanic last name was more of a concern to voters than his sexuality — that is, until runoff season, when he saw local pastors openly opposing him because he was gay.

“And they were saying a vote for me is essentially a vote for sin. And I could … someone like me could never represent them,” he said.

These words hurt, especially when McKee-Rodriguez said he felt his opponent was not condemning the homophobia. Still, he had lists and lists of goals for his campaign, and he cared too much to back down.

The night polls closed, McKee-Rodriguez was on FaceTime with his friends, anxiously refreshing the results page. One more refresh showed he would be a clear winner.

“And words can't ever — can never describe how that felt in that moment,” he said. “To be accepted, so overwhelmingly, and to be chosen.”

It’s been just over a year since that day Councilman McKee-Rodriguez became the first Black, openly gay man elected to office in Texas. His list of goals for the community is still as long as ever; it includes efforts to center equity in infrastructure, mental and physical health for people of color and the LGBTQ community.

McKee-Rodriguez has seen the effect his position has had on young people around him. The councilman said his victory has opened a door for the community that can’t be closed.

He said: “People like to feel represented. It's a simple thought. It's a simple idea and concept, really.”

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