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Anti-LGBTQ laws inspire many LGBTQ people to seek public office

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Some statehouses across the country are trying to limit conversations about sexuality and gender identity in schools or block gender-affirming care for trans children. But as the Mountain West News Bureau's Bert Johnson reports, they're inspiring some LGBTQ citizens to push back by seeking public office.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BERT JOHNSON, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday in Sparks, Nev., Nnedi Stephens was walking down a quiet tree-lined street, wearing bright-purple braids and a mask with their name printed on it. Spring was in full bloom, but Stephens didn't have time to savor it.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

NNEDI STEPHENS: Hi. My name's Nnedi Stephens. I'm a Democratic candidate running to be the next state senator for District 13.

JOHNSON: With Nevada's primary election coming up in June, they're trying to connect with as many voters as possible.

STEPHENS: It's incumbent upon us to be very conscientious about who is in the room, who is sitting at the table and whose perspectives are being value in this conversation.

JOHNSON: Stephens, who's nonbinary, says they're running for office to bring more representation to the Statehouse, especially for the young folks whose classrooms are on the front lines of the culture war.

STEPHENS: Being able to see themselves represented in this space is something that I want to be able to give today's students because they deserve it.

JOHNSON: More than 600 LGBTQ candidates are on ballots this year. That's according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports candidates running for office. Annise Parker is the fund's president and CEO. She expects that number to grow.

ANNISE PARKER: Each two years, we're still seeing a large surge of folks from marginalized communities stepping up.

JOHNSON: And Parker says, despite stereotypes about smaller communities, running for office in a place like Sparks allows the right candidate to really connect with their neighbors.

PARKER: It is more important for a voter to know that you understand their daily life than who you go home with and may share a bed with.

JOHNSON: That's been Jacob Torgerson's experience. He's a gay man running for Montana's House of Representatives.

JACOB TORGERSON: I'm running because they passed some of the most discriminatory bills we've had, you know, ever in the state of Montana.

JOHNSON: Last year, Montana's Republican-led legislature passed a trio of anti-LGBTQ bills. Torgerson estimates he's knocked on almost 3,000 doors in his district. And he says most Montanans are really concerned about things like the high cost of housing and child care.

TORGERSON: In the session, these folks knew that these bills weren't popular, and they knew that Montanans didn't want these bills passed. And they still passed them.

JOHNSON: According to a February survey by the left-leaning firm Data for Progress, 63% of all voters they polled said the government should stay out of decisions about gender-affirming care. Back in Nevada, Kimi Cole is running to be lieutenant governor. If successful, she'd be the first trans person elected to statewide office here. Cole began her gender transition when she was 54. She says facing discrimination during that process was an eye-opening experience.

KIMI COLE: And I said, I've got a few chapters left in me; I got to do something about this. So that was what prompted me to get politically active.

JOHNSON: Cole lives in rural Carson City and says, thanks to her transition, she's able to be more authentic as a person.

COLE: It makes it very easy for me to - generally speaking - to connect with and talk with people from various different backgrounds.

JOHNSON: And connecting with different people is what she says makes her the best candidate to represent others, whether they're LGBTQ or not.

For NPR News, I'm Bert Johnson in Reno, Nev.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDLESS DIVE'S "BLURRED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.