The South Texas town of Del Rio, population 35,998, elected its first openly gay officeholder on Saturday when Bruno Lozano won the mayoral race. Lozano, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran who wore a pair of heels while marching in Del Rio’s Veterans Parade last year, is part of what the Houston Chronicle described earlier this year as a “wave” of LGBT candidates seeking public office in Texas in 2018. According to Houston’s OutSmart Magazine, as of January there were at least 52 LGBT candidates across the state, chasing everything from small-town mayor gigs to state representative seats to the governor’s office.
Lozano had become well known in Del Rio for his work to clean up the border town’s waterways, according to Into, an online magazine produced by the gay online dating app Grindr, and he decided to run for mayor in 2016. “I’ve gained a huge following ever since I put my name in the hat,” Lozano told Into in April. “The Baby Boomers have been running the government over the last 20 to 30 years. Del Rio needs investment and infrastructure, flood prevention, and then they also need economic growth.” Into reported that Lozano’s decision to run for office was “fueled by a demand for change,” a motivation that seems to be shared by many of Texas’s current LGBT candidates.
It’s been a particularly difficult past few years for the LGBT community in Texas. Policy makers nationally and at the state level have worked—with varying degrees of success—to repeal some of the rights that LGBT people have painstakingly gained in the last decade. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s yearlong crusade to pass a “bathroom bill” in 2017 ultimately died in the Legislature, but the controversial bill pitted hard-line conservatives seeking to implement gender restrictions on public restrooms versus an LGBT community fighting against further marginalization. At the federal level, the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 signaled a shift from former President Barack Obama’s LGBT-friendly policies. In March, Trump signed an executive order banning transgender people from joining the U.S. military, and in June the Trump administration refused to recognize Pride Month.
As a result, the LGBT community in Texas has apparently been galvanized into political action. According to OutSmart, this year’s number of 52 LGBT candidates is three times more than the state has ever seen in an election cycle. “I think for many, the motivation to run is in sync with the adage, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,'” Chuck Smith, CEO of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Texas, told OutSmart in January. “We have recently been witnessing a continuous assault on our rights and freedoms. It is only by raising our voices and securing our ‘place at the table’ that we can ensure our constitutional rights to equal protection under the law are preserved.”
The field is overwhelmingly made up of Democrats, but other parties are represented by LGBT candidates in some key races—Libertarian Kerry Douglas McKennon is challenging Patrick for lieutenant governor; Shannon McClendon, a Republican, is running against State Senator Donna Campbell in the District 25 primary; and Republican Mauro Garza is seeking the Congressional District 21 seat, soon to be open due to anti-LGBT U.S. Representative Lamar Smith’s decision to retire.
While Lozano carried 61 percent of the vote in Del Rio, other LGBT candidates have not fared as well in their races, or face long odds in upcoming elections. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is openly gay, announced her intention to run for governor in early January and has long been considered the front-runner to challenge Governor Greg Abbott in November. She still faces a May 22 runoff election against Houston businessman Andrew White. But Valdez has stumbled lately amid criticism of her track record on immigration issues. One of Valdez’s fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates was Jeffrey Payne, an openly gay owner of a gay bar in Dallas. He was only able to muster 4 percent of the vote during the March 6 primary.
The same day Lozano was voted into office, another small town in Texas voted out its first LGBT mayor. New Hope mayor Jess Herbst, who is openly transgender, made international headlines last year when she was appointed to office by the city council following the unexpected death of the town’s sitting mayor. Herbst told the Dallas Morning News that her gender identity was not known to the council at the time (she was serving as mayor pro-tem), and she considered resigning soon after taking office. But she instead decided to stay, and penned a heartfelt note to her constituents explaining her transition and gender identity, and her name change from Jeff to Jess.
She had hoped to become the state’s first transgender candidate to be elected into office. According to OutSmart, Herbst was one of seven transgender candidates running for office this year in Texas—four lost in the March primary, and two more are on the ballot for November (OutSmart reported that several of the transgender candidates have said that they were campaigning in response to Patrick’s attempt to pass the bathroom bill). But Herbst lost over the weekend to the previous New Hope mayor’s widow, Angel Hamm. While Herbst’s gender identity was not brought up by Hamm throughout the campaign, an anonymous mailer circulated in the weeks leading up to the election, calling out Herbst’s social media posts and sparking some tension in New Hope over the intense media spotlight she’s brought to the town of seven hundred.
Lozano, too, faced some anti-LGBT resistance during his mayoral campaign. He told Into that at one point there was a meme circulating on Facebook bearing pictures of him wearing high heels and a tutu, with text referring to him as a “faggot with AIDS.” That didn’t stop him from running for office. “Stonewall happened because drag queens and a minority group stood up to animosity, and I had to go back in the closet because of that same hatred,” Lozano told Into in April. “I know what that was like, and it translates to today’s campaign. I’m not going to bow down. I am who I am. Accept me or not.”