The rainbow wave of last year’s midterm election is still resounding. As a record number of out LGBTQ lawmakers take their seats in state, local, and national offices, a record number are also gaining leadership positions in state legislatures.
The midterms saw more than 150 out LGBTQ candidates elected at all levels of government, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which endorses and works to elect such candidates. That brings the total to 680 serving in state bodies, local offices, and Congress, Victory Fund notes. And at the start of the 2019 legislative session, seven out LGBTQ lawmakers were chosen for state-level leadership positions, bringing the total to a historic high of 17.
One of them, Rep. Greg Harris of Illinois, is a gay man living with HIV. Harris, a Chicago native and Democrat, was named Illinois House Majority Leader in January by Speaker Mike Madigan, making him second only to the speaker in the state’s House hierarchy. Harris is the first out gay lawmaker to hold that position.
“There are more and more [LGBTQ] people who are ascending to leadership, and that’s a good thing,” says Harris, who was first elected to the House in 2006.
Harris was previously an executive for a trade association and chief of staff to a Chicago city council member. He first became involved in politics in the early 1990s, during the height of the AIDS crisis. Like most gay men, he notes, he saw people dying all around him.
“That’s when a lot of us got going,” he says. His appointment makes Harris one of only a handful of out HIV-positive people holding public office in the U.S. and one of the highest ranking.
Surprisingly, Harris admits that neither being gay nor being HIV-positive has impeded his political career. “I think I’ve been very fortunate,” he points out.
As majority leader, he’ll help set legislative priorities and advocate for key causes. One of them is improving access to affordable health care, something that’s especially important to LGBTQ and HIV-positive people as well as other minority demographic groups. “My number one job,” he adds, “is restoring fiscal stability and confidence” in Illinois, which during Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s tenure went without a complete budget for more than two years due to an impasse between Rauner and the Democratic majority legislature.
The impasse ended when legislators overrode Rauner’s veto of a budget in 2017, and last year Rauner lost his reelection bid to Democrat J.B. Pritzker. Harris is looking forward to working with Pritzker, “who’s going to be just great,” he says. “We’re going to have a progressive governor and a man who is a coalition-builder.”
Harris adds that he hopes legislators and the governor can give the people what they want, which he sums up by saying, “I think people want government to get down there and solve problems and make their lives better.”
The ascension of Harris and other out legislators to leadership positions is encouraging to Victory Fund and its sibling organization, Victory Institute, which provides training and support to LGBTQ politicians. “While LGBTQ people are severely underrepresented in state legislatures across the nation, more and more we are chosen for key leadership positions in those statehouses—a true testament to the effectiveness of LGBTQ elected officials,” Victory Institute vice president Ruben Gonzales said. “Rep. Harris’s ability to successfully navigate the legislative process and secure big wins for Illinoisans is why he was chosen House majority leader. But as an openly [gay] man, this elevated position allows him to champion and advance LGBTQ equality legislation and become an even greater role model for LGBTQ youth throughout the state.”