When I first heard the news that Representative Mike Fleck lost his seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, I felt a profound sense of defeat that went beyond just losing an election. The outcome of this election represents a loss for the people of the 81st District, and a major loss for one of the most underrepresented and disenfranchised groups of people in Pennsylvania: rural LGBT youth.
I grew up in Shippensburg, a small town that sits on the border of Franklin and Cumberland counties. I spent my teenage years questioning my sexuality and taking my first steps in LGBT activism. My school district was generally affirming, and my parents were always accepting of how I chose to express myself. But, I never for a minute considered sticking around in Shippensburg, or anywhere even close. I wanted to get out at the first chance I had. I even kept a list of cities: Toronto, New York, and Philadelphia. As far as I was concerned, there was no place for me in rural Pennsylvania. I never saw a positive example of an LGBT person in a rural area. If you heard anything about an LGBT person nearby, you could be certain it was bad news. The first positive message I ever received about a rural LGBT person was when I learned that Rep. Fleck had come out as a gay man in December of 2012.
Representation matters, especially representation in government, for two big reasons. The first reason is pretty obvious; an LGBT person in government is more likely to support measures that help improve the lives of LGBT people. Beyond just policy though, local politicians are respected members of their community. Having a gay man in a position of respect within a rural area is groundbreaking. LGBT people in rural communities are not told that they matter. Their identities are not celebrated or affirmed. They lack access to services, to community, to almost every resource that an urban LGBT person has. Having just one openly gay rural politician in Pennsylvania was a huge step forward.
Rep. Fleck’s loss in the 2014 election is a sign that it is not yet acceptable to be an out gay man in rural Pennsylvania. It is a huge blow to the state of Pennsylvania, where you can be fired for having a picture of your legally recognized same-sex wedding on your desk at work. It sends the message that no matter how hard you work on behalf of your community, the majority of your neighbors will not consider you fit to represent them.
Rep. Fleck lost this election because he is an out gay man. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who would tell you otherwise, but the facts are hard to ignore. When I see a candidate who ran for three terms with no opposition, who has years of experience in leadership, who was endorsed by a former governor, small business associations, education associations, and the National Rifle Association, and then I see that candidate lose to a county treasurer who couldn’t bother to turn in his paperwork for the primary election on time, I see a race that was motivated by bigotry, not reason.
This is a huge setback for the LGBT equality movement in rural Pennsylvania, but that certainly doesn’t mean that this is the final chapter. Far from it. Rep. Fleck’s loss is a sign that we have significant work left to be done in Pennsylvania. While Philadelphia is ranked as the most LGBT friendly city in the country, just outside the city a person can lose their home, their job, and their dignity for being open and honest about their identity.
I am tired of rural LGBT people suffering. I want to see rural LGBT people thriving. I want to see rural communities where diversity is embraced and differences are celebrated. I want to see the end the stigma of being an LGBT person in a rural area, and I want to see the end of the idea that you can only live an authentic life as an LGBT person in a city.
I am proud to be a queer rural Pennsylvanian. I am proud to be a supporter of Mike Fleck. I am ready to continue this fight for equality, and I am ready to work even harder to change bigoted attitudes and to empower rural young and LGBT people. I am looking forward to a future where every LGBT person can live a life of dignity, in any part of the country. The road ahead is a long one, and there will be more setbacks and challenges, but we will win. Today is the perfect time to start.