Less than three weeks before Election Day, Odessa Kelly, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District, took time from the campaign trail to attend a counter-protest in support of transgender rights.
Kelly, a mom of two, joined protestors in rallying for gender-affirming care for children after Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced in October it would pause gender-affirming surgeries on minors. Republican leaders in Tennessee called for an investigation into the hospital after videos surfaced on social media, including one of a doctor saying gender-affirming procedures are "huge money makers," according to The Associated Press.
For Kelly, as a member of the LGBTQ community, she said the issue was personal.
If elected in November, Kelly would make history as the first openly gay Black woman to be elected to Congress.
"With all the rhetoric that you do hear from a small group of people here who just have a very loud microphone, it's not the definition of Tennessee," Kelly told "Good Morning America." "I'm here to show you a definition of the new South, and that's one that is open to and accepting of members of the LGBTQ community, and to speak on a myriad of issues that go a lot further than just what is happening in our community, because we are part of the American fabric."
Efforts in Tennessee to curb access to gender-affirming care for minors mirror efforts underway in other states, from Texas to Florida.
Legislatively over the past year, LGBTQ rights have been targeted across the country, with more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in at least 28 states this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
As the same time, a record number of LGBTQ people are running for Congress this year.
More than 90 candidates who identify as LGBTQ ran for Congress this election cycle, more than ever in history and a 16% increase from the 2020 election, according to Victory Fund, a nonpartisan organization that supports LGBTQ political candidates.
On Nov. 8, three dozen LGBTQ candidates will be on the ballot, after winning their primaries, another increase from 2020, when 10 openly LGBTQ candidates for Congress were on the ballot in November, according to Victory Fund.
Kelly, a 40-year-old former college basketball player who became a community organizer and activist, said her motivation to run for office came from wanting justice for the people of Nashville, her hometown.
Kelly said that justice includes equality, noting that the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation in her state and across the country, added "fuel to the fire" in pushing her to run.
"I'm running because justice is justice, whether that is economic justice. racial justice, social justice," said Kelly, who faces a longshot bid to unseat a Republican incumbent in a newly-redrawn Congressional district. "LGBTQ justice, it is justice."
Becca Balint, a married mother of two teenagers and the Democratic candidate for Vermont’s U.S. House seat, said her decision to run for Congress was made shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, when she reflected on what she saw as the state of the country.
"I see the attack on the Capitol really as an outgrowth of a movement in this country that's really focused on fear and hatred, and driving divisions between Americans," Balint told "GMA." "Whether it's attacks on the LGBTQ community, attacks on reproductive rights, a resurgence of people who'd like to keep women down, it's all part of this same fanning the flames of hatred and fear."
If she wins on Nov. 8, Balint will make history as the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress, as well as the first woman.
When Balint first entered politics nearly one decade ago, she said she had to push through her "anxiety and fear" to run as an openly gay woman, after not being out in her professional life as a middle school teacher.
Last year, she became the first woman and the first openly gay person to hold the highest position in the Vermont Senate.
When she decided to run for Congress this year, Balint said she made sure her wife and their two children were part of her first campaign ad.
"We certainly got feedback from supporters and donors and people who were very concerned that it was front and center that I was an openly gay women, and they thought that would hurt my chances," said Balint. "We needed to just continue to say, 'Becca has always been out in her political career. She's not going to go back into the closet now ... She's going to have her wife in the commercial. She's going to have her kids.'"
"If we were so up front about it, we were hoping it would be kind of a non-issue, and that's what it seems like happened," she continued. "People saw me as Becca Balint, leader, and not Becca Balint, queer leader, and that feels really good. I can be a support to other candidates coming up behind me, and it also doesn't define who I am."
A 'perfect storm' in the 2022 midterms
Seeing candidates like Balint and Kelly running for Congress and doing so with their sexuality and families front and center marks an important turning point, especially for female candidates, according to Annise Parker, former mayor of Houston and president and CEO of Victory Fund.
"When I first ran for office, when I was elected mayor in 2009, I’d been out for a long time and people knew I was a lesbian, but my wife was not part of the campaign," Parker told "GMA." "She wasn’t in the strategy sessions and wasn’t part of the campaign."
Parker continued, "Now it’s clear that our candidates are comfortable with who they are and they want the world to see that they’re multidimensional."
Even though representation in Congress remains small -- there are currently nine out LGBTQ members of the House and two out LGBTQ members of the Senate -- there are now enough candidates winning races at the federal, state and local levels to show it is possible to run and win, according to Parker, who summed it up as, "success begets success."
The examples of others combined with the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation has created a kind of "perfect storm" motivating a record number of LGBTQ candidates running this year, according to Parker.
The Victory Fund's data shows that at least 678 LGBTQ candidates will appear on the general election ballot on Nov. 8, an 18% increase from 2020.
Parker noted that one of the biggest increases is the number of people who identify as transgender who are running, up from five in 2020 to 10 in 2022, as a number of states have passed legislation targeting transgender people, specifically kids.
This year, nearly one dozen LGBTQ candidates are running in competitive districts and swing states that could determine the control of Congress, according to data shared by Victory Fund.
"People aren't running to lose or just to make a point. They're running because they want to serve," said Parker. "They see that it is possible and there's so much success, and then you have the ever increasing attacks on the community, you have sort of a perfect storm to bring people out."
Still, in 2022, most female LGBTQ candidates running for Congress are running in races where, if elected, they would become a "first."
In North Carolina, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is running as the Democratic candidate in the state's 11th Congressional district, a seat currently held by Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who lost in the Republican primary in May.
If she wins in November, Beach-Ferrara, a married mother of three young kids, would be the first woman and the first openly gay person to hold the office.
"This district has only elected white men, historically," Beach-Ferrara told "GMA." "I think anyone who brings a different kind of experience and identity into the mix faces the same kind of structural barriers and the message that, 'Someone like you isn't really going to be able to put together a viable campaign.'"
Beach-Ferrara said she talks about her wife, Meg, and their family on the campaign trail just as any heterosexual candidate would, saying, "Meg and my kids are the loves of my life so I talk about them as often as possible."
She said that while she doesn't center her campaign around being an LGBTQ candidate, she is well aware of the representation she is showing as an openly gay, female candidate.
"A lot of what motivates me on a very personal level is wanting to make sure that no kid ever hears the message, ‘Someone like you can’t,’" she said. "And the way we change that is by showing that someone like you can."
Beach-Ferrara acknowledged that she often hears voters tell her, "You’re different than what we’ve had before." But she said what people in her district want to talk about more than her gender or her sexual identity is what she will do for them in Congress.
"Mostly what people want to talk about is what's happening in their lives and what they need in terms of representation and how sick and tired they are of divisive, extremist politics and how they want change," she said. "The message I've heard from voters across the political spectrum is what they want is someone who will represent them and get the job done."
'We still have a long, long way to go'
There have been out LGBTQ elected officials since the late-1970s in the U.S., but it's been over the past nearly two decades that the pace of LGBTQ candidates running for office has accelerated, according to Gabriele Magni, assistant professor of political science and founding director of the LGBTQ+ Politics Research Initiative at Loyola Marymount University.
The U.S. is unique among advanced democracies in having such a vast difference in LGBTQ representation among political parties, according to Magni, who noted the majority of openly LGBTQ candidates in the U.S. who get elected are Democrats.
Magni said he believes that is due in large part to America's electoral process in which candidates must typically win primaries to go on to the general election.
"In the primaries, the more extreme part of the electorate is the one that tends to show up more," he said. "When it comes to Republican primaries, there is still a very strong power of religious evangelical groups that are strongly homophobic and transphobic, so it becomes very hard for openly LGBTQ candidates to win Republican primaries."
Female LGBTQ candidates in both parties also face obstacles in representation, having to "go the extra mile" to prove they are qualified across the issues and can appeal to a wide electorate, according to Magni.
"For women, they have to prove that they are qualified on everything," he said. "As candidates, they have an interest in showing that they are qualified when it comes to a variety of issues, so that once they're in office they can fight for abortion rights, they can deal with inflation, they can be competent in foreign policy."
"I don't think they want to be seen only as the lesbian candidate," Magni continued. "That is an important aspect of their life, but that's not the only reason they're running."
While the number of LGBTQ Congressional candidates overall has spiked, the number of lesbian Congressional candidates has decreased each election cycle since 2018, according to Victory Fund.
At the same time, the number of female Congressional candidates overall has risen or remained steady over the past several cycles, while their representation still lags compared to men, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
"There is still a lot of work to do about who gets elected among LGBTQ community," said Magni. "We still have a long, long way to go."
Heather Mizeur, the Democratic candidate in Maryland's 1st Congressional district, described running as an openly gay candidate as "one of the least interesting things" about her, despite the fact that she would be Maryland's first openly gay official elected to Congress if she wins.
"I think it's a bigger deal that I am a Democrat who is competitively running in a district that is considered Trump country," said Mizeur, who is facing a Republican incumbent. "And we're doing that by addressing what I think is the greatest national security threat that our country faces right now, which is our polarization."
Mizeur recalled a moment recently on the campaign trail where a voter told her he wanted to make sure she wasn't "flaunting being gay." The voter, according to Mizeur, ended up putting one of her campaign signs in his yard after she helped connect the man, a veteran, to a caseworker at the Veterans' Administration.
Mizeur and the other candidates "GMA" spoke with all described the importance of their visibility in moments like that, on the campaign trail, in their communities and in the rooms where decisions are made.
Mizeur said she experienced it firsthand when she was a state delegate and spoke to colleagues about her own marriage and her kids as they voted on a marriage equality bill.
For Balint, the candidate in Vermont, she said she experienced the power in representation as an openly gay female state legislator, and as a homeowner in her own neighborhood.
In her first campaign commercial, Balint told the story of she and her wife seeing an anti-LGBTQ banner hanging in their neighbor's garage as they moved into their newly purchased home several years ago. Balint said she and her wife and kids would go on to connect with the neighbor, helping him with things like snow-plowing and recovery from surgery.
"By the time my neighbor was close to death, I overheard him telling someone who was thinking of moving into our neighborhood, he gestured over to our house and said, 'Those are the best neighbors you’ll ever have,'" Balint told "GMA." "Those kinds of relationships happen over time and thousands of moments of trust, and that's who I have been on the campaign trail and that's who I've been in my career."
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Oct. 27, 2022.