Shatter Every Closet Door: The Political Fallout of Rep. Mike Fleck’s Loss

Where do we go from here? The midterm election has given us more homework to do, and if we refocus, we can win.

All eyes on Rep. Mike Fleck’s re-election campaign

In understanding where they can side on LGBTQ issues, many Pennsylvania legislators have been paying close attention to the outcome of the 81st House District election. Rep. Mike Fleck, the state’s first openly gay legislator, lost his seat on Tuesday following a fiercely fought 22-month long campaign. His loss is devastating for many in his district, and thousands of LGBTQ people in Pennsylvania – particularly for rural LGBTQ youth who have lost positive representation in their government and community. Beyond the social impact, Rep. Fleck’ loss has significant political consequences as well. The outcome of this election will be sending a ripple effect throughout the commonwealth.

For a long time, there has been a widespread feeling of trepidation amongst the conservative legislators who control the General Assembly of engaging with LGBTQ issues. And so, there has been silence – even from those conservative legislators that support our causes, or those who are genuinely interested in learning more about LGBTQ issues. This lack of conversation has presented the opportunity to assess how Rep. Fleck performs in the election as their testing ground on LGBTQ issues without getting their own hands into the issues directly. If he lost, and depending by how much, that would be the measure by which they could make their future political calculations. Will supporting LGBTQ issues be worth it? If this Central Pennsylvania district cannot accept an out legislator, will they oust me if I support LGBTQ equality?

Pennsylvania legislators now have evidence to shelve LGBTQ rights

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have been looking to the 81st district to get a pulse on where middle-Pennsylvania stands. Would they embrace their longtime-adored state legislator in spite of his being out – or, would they oust him in a political subterfuge of bigotry? The latter appears to have become reality.

The Pennsylvania legislature has sustained deep-rooted silence on LGBTQ issues for decades. The status quo has been inaction for nearly 40 years since the first non-discrimination bill was introduced in 1976. When Rep. Mike Fleck came out in December 2012, he bravely helped change the discourse within the Republican majority. No longer was being gay something that could be ignored or be seen as being a complete outsider. He was and continues to be their respected colleague.

Moderate Republicans have the power: Will they use it?

Yet, as I write this, I wonder if the power of increased popular opinion toward LGBTQ rights could still help push things forward. At least for the moderate Republicans, especially in Eastern Pennsylvania, could his election serve as a shaming wake-up call toward action? Moderate GOP members who support LGBTQ equality have the votes and the power – but we do not know if they will use it. Will suburban Republicans lay themselves down on the line for us? If they do, we can win.

In a small way, Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), from suburban Harrisburg, balked at this divide last month and put the LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes bill up for a committee vote. He openly pushed back at members of his own party in the House Judiciary Committee during the meeting, when Rep. Brian Ellis (R-Butler) among others, called for him to table the bill. It ultimately passed 19-4.

The tides are changing in the popular support of LGBTQ equality, especially in moderate areas. Outside of Rep. Fleck’s race, it seems that not one other elected official lost because of their support for LGBTQ equality. This is a major development from just a few years ago when a position on marriage equality could cost someone their election.

We will have to look to the new House and Senate leadership for answers

While there are shifting attitudes with moderate Republican and Democrats in suburban regions, the widening margin of the social conservatives’ majority presents a serious blockade against significant progress.

It will take more than half the Republicans in each chamber, likely over two-thirds, to be fully supportive of an LGBTQ-related issue for it to move. While we could have the necessary number of votes to move a non-discrimination bill without a majority of the GOP members, the Republican leadership has not provided evidence it would be willing to fracture its caucus over our issues – as they have for the transportation bill or liquor privatization.

The Republicans will continue a strong rein in both legislative chambers. We do not yet know if it will be led by rural, more socially conservative Republicans, or the more suburban, moderate members. Even a mix of the two could provide progress for us.

Over the next month, political battles will wage behind the scenes for leadership positions within the General Assembly. Should the moderates secure control in key roles and committees, we can have hope. If not, we will have another two years of gridlock on LGBTQ equality issues.

Specifically, if we have key moderate allies in both the House Speaker and House Majority Leader, then we could actually see HB 300 assigned to a committee with a favorable chair and NOT the State Government Committee with Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) – and actually have it be put up for a vote on the House floor.

Money is where the heart is

One of our strongest indicators of this progress is within the many Republican House members who gave to Rep. Fleck’s campaign. An extremely diverse network of conservative Republicans came to his support. It would be one thing for a sitting legislator, running for re-election themselves, to say they support their friend Mike Fleck. It is quite another to give their money to his re-election campaign. The following Republicans gave to Rep. Fleck’s campaign over the past several months:

Rep. Ron Miller (R-York) $5,000
Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R-Bucks) $3,000
Rep. Jim Marshall (R-Beaver) $1,000
Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R-Delaware) $1,000
Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York) $1,000
Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) $500
Rep. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) $500
Rep. Mark Mustio (R-Allegheny) $500
Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) $500
Rep. Martin Causer (R-Bradford) $250
Rep. Tom Murt (R-Montgomery) $250
Rep. Kathy Watson (R-Bucks) $250
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) [through Good Jobs PA PAC] +$20,000
*Other legislators have given through their associated Political Action Committees

Will Governor Tom Wolf make deals to advance LGBTQ rights?

Another factor for us in the 2015-2016 session will be Governor-elect Tom Wolf. He ran on a pro-LGBTQ rights platform. However, in the partisan world we live in, he will be faced with a legislature that is not set out to work with him. If he can develop meaningful relationships with the legislative leaders, he could help us press for victories. Only time can tell.

It is my greatest hope that Rep. Fleck’s loss will not be a cautionary tale against supporting LGBTQ people. I am upset in thinking how many have viewed this race as a referendum on being out in rural Pennsylvania. I would rather us understand this in the spirit of Harvey Milk. If Rep. Mike Fleck should lose re-election, let that loss shatter every closet door.

We have had enough. If rural LGBTQ Pennsylvanians rise up – and if LGBTQ advocates in our cities reach out across the divide to help – there is nothing our community cannot accomplish. This work to nudge the movable middle of Republicans into becoming true LGBTQ allies is possible, but it will take serious commitment from us all.

The next steps for the Pennsylvania LGBTQ equality movement

The future of the LGBTQ justice movement rests in the hands of rural and suburban Pennsylvania legislators. No passionate speech by a progressive legislator in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh will deliver us LGBTQ equality. Will our broader community roll up our sleeves to work with our LGBTQ family in the Pennsylvania heartland, or will our metronormative movement infrastructure remain nested in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? We must develop the capacity of our rural and suburban conservatives to love and affirm LGBTQ people in their communities in order for us to break down the barriers which prevent critical progress.

Rep. Fleck and Fiona

Rep. Mike Fleck and Fiona Grugan (Villanova ’13), a constituent, at the 2013 Pennsylvania Youth Action Conference at the University of Pittsburgh
(February 2, 2013)

I am proud that the 2015 Pennsylvania Youth Action Conference will be focused on “Cultivating New Possibilities for Rural LGBTQ Youth.” In providing a positive platform for rural LGBTQ youth leaders to be resilient in taking action out in the silence, our movement will take a major step forward toward a fully realized dream of social justice for all.

A substantial movement of rural and suburban LGBTQ people, allies, and legislators, will be necessary in the session ahead for our community to win – and we can do it.


The featured image for this post is Rep. Mike Fleck with PSEC leaders and Sen. John Wozniak (D-Cambria) at Johnstown Pride 2013 (Faith Elmes (PSEC Assistant Convener + IUP ’15), Rep. Mike Fleck, Mike Campbell (PSEC Delegate + IUP ’13), and Sen. John Wozniak)

What Mike Fleck’s Loss Means to Me















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.

Victoria in Huntingdon

Victoria Martin in Huntingdon, PA (November 4, 2014)

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.

Why the Victory Fund Kept Mike Fleck in the Closet

This week marks the one year anniversary of PA State Representative Mike Fleck (R-81) coming out as openly gay. His courage, strength, and grace while coming out and being out have had a profound impact on countless Pennsylvanians, rural youth, and people around the world. However, Rep. Fleck was ready to come out much earlier than December 2012.

In the December 6th issue of the Philadelphia Gay News,
Rep. Fleck shares publicly for the first time that the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund instructed him to stay in the closet when he reached out to them. The Victory Fund is the premier national organization dedicated to electing out LGBT people to public office. As a young Pennsylvanian and President of a rural GSA, I find their treatment of Rep. Fleck highly problematic and indicative of a larger framework
that separates the LGBT political elite from local leaders who happen to be LGBT.

Coming out is a very personal process. Above all else, it is important that the person who is doing so maintain control of how events unfold. Rep. Fleck’s long journey of understanding who he is took several years. By the spring of 2012, he was ready to come out. His close political advisors, including former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, encouraged him to come out before the summer. However, a friend of Rep. Fleck’s suggested he reach out to the Victory Fund for their strategic counsel.


Rep. Brian Sims Speaks at a Victory Fund Event (Credit: Out Smart Houston)

The Victory Fund had a very strong incentive to keep him closeted until 2013, or to delay his coming out as much as possible. One of their campaign board members, Mr. Brian Sims, was running on the explicit platform of being the first openly gay state legislator in Pennsylvania. There is a clear conflict of interest on the Victory Fund’s behalf: If Rep. Fleck, a highly popular third term legislator, were to come out before 2013, he would be “taking away the title” from Mr. Sims. Not only would this hurt his personal ego, but also bruise the fundraising power of the Victory Fund on Mr. Sims’ behalf. Through his position, Mr. Sims has regularly stumped for the Victory Fund at private fundraisers, and once told Houston’s Out Smart, “I am an absolute junkie for the Victory Fund”.

If Mr. Sims secured the full title of “first openly gay legislator in PA,” the organization would have amplified media presence after “their guy” won. The Victory Fund could claim credit for prevailing in what they call on their website, a “Horizon State.” But, if Rep. Fleck came out before the election, they would lose recognition for supporting the first openly gay legislator in Pennsylvania.

To this day, Rep. Sims presents a media image as though he were the first openly gay legislator in the state, and is still regularly mischaracterized in the media as such (1-4).  Not coming out to gain some
historic title, Rep. Fleck is humble and has never publicly asserted a need to correct them.

The Victory Fund played Rep. Fleck. He finally broke under the pressure and came out on his own terms on December 1, 2012 through the Hungtindon Daily News. Upon coming out, Rep. Fleck received nasty attacks from Mr. Sims’ supporters for ‘stealing his crown.’ On PoliticsPA, one Sims’ supporter wrote that “[Rep. Fleck is] swooping in and stealing all his thunder [which] reeks of opportunism and some cowardice…way to hedge your bets then take advantage.” All because he made a personal decision stop following the problematic advice of just ‘waiting’. At the time, Rep. Fleck most likely had no idea or did not care who Mr. Sims even was.

So why would an experienced national organization dedicated to electing LGBT people to public office tell a legislator to stay in the closet? Their reasoning with Rep. Fleck was likely regarding the nature of his conservative district and not wanting him to “risk” his seat. Rep. Fleck was re-elected twice with 100% of the vote and was already expected to sail to victory again without any formal challenger. The primary election already happened in April, so the only way to challenge Rep. Fleck would have been in the form of a write-in candidacy. In a rural district against a well-liked incumbent, the amount of resources needed to run a successful write-in campaign in only a few months would likely be cost-prohibitive. In asking for him to wait until after the election, it opened the door to some of his constituents thinking that he was ‘deceiving them’ until after election day. Did the Victory Fund plan on asking him to stay in the closet through 2013?

web_header_DCThe Victory Fund’s base of supporters is largely built from cocktail parties and black-tie events which speak to the non-profit industrial complex. To survive in difficult economic times, when many LGBT organizations have shuttered, the organization may be drawn toward tactics of self-preservation over maintaining the integrity of their mission.

Their matrix for endorsements and providing financial support is not based primarily on the importance of a race, but rather if they are guaranteed or near-guaranteed to win. It seems they want to keep their ratio of winners high, which can allow them to share a high rate of success with their donors. They tout on their website: “In fact, more than 350 openly LGBT candidates ran for office in 2010, but just 164 earned Victory’s endorsement. And 65% of those individuals went on to win their election.”  This strategy is successful, as the Movement Advancement Project found the Victory Fund, along with several other national LGBT organizations, increased their profits by 17% in 2012. They have little reason to support grassroots candidates who would not return the Victory Fund’s investment by drawing wealthy crowds to their cocktail fundraisers, as would someone from within their inner circle.


PA Rep. Candidate Fern Kaufman

Under these parameters, Harvey Milk would not get support from the Victory Fund even if he tried – at least not during his first attempts running for City Supervisor. However, those elections were necessary to get his name out there and eventually win. There are countless examples of important campaigns to elect LGBT people that fell outside the mainstream political community. In a special election earlier this year, Equality Pennsylvania declined to support out Republican Bryan Tate for an open seat in York County in order to endorse now-Rep. Kevin Schreiber, a Democrat. In 2008 and 2010, out lesbian Fern Kaufman ran for state representative against an incumbent Republican in Chester County. She became the earliest serious contender to take the title of first LGBT person in the Pennsylvania legislature – in 2008 she secured 48% of the vote. Advocates would like to think that since she was running in a Philadelphia suburb, the larger LGBT community and the Victory Fund would have been at her side. But they were not, and she slammed them in the Philadelphia Gay News after her loss in 2010:

“I actually had to fight with my own community for this. I don’t know if I can take on another uphill battle when my community was not there for me,” she said. “That’s a harsh statement to make, but they weren’t. It was sporadic, and I had to fight for them to pay attention but, by and large, they did not. It’s one thing to say, ‘We really support you,’ and slap me on the back and say, ‘Go, girl, you’re great.’ That’s great, but I need people who are actually willing to put rubber to the road because this isn’t something that can be done alone. I don’t know if I have that fight in me again to go back to the community and try to get them to actually show up.”

“Our community needs to take stock of what’s really important to them, and I hope, if nothing else, this election will open up a greater conversation about politics in our country and our community.”

Conversely, many LGBT New Yorkers saw City Council President Christine Quinn’s recently failed bid for Mayor as a victory.  They believed she had become corrupt and sold out the queer community in numerous instances, including by supporting the Stop and Frisk program. The Washington Blade reported that:

Quinn_Ward Morrison-Metro Weekly

New York Mayoral Candidate Christine Quinn Speaks at a Victory Fund Event (Credit: Metro Weekly)

“The national LGBT groups Human Rights Campaign and Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund contributed thousands of dollars to her campaign and dispatched volunteers and field organizers to help in locations throughout the city.

Victory Fund President and CEO Chuck Wolfe issued a statement Tuesday night noting that eight of its 10 endorsed candidates in New York races, including City Council candidates, won their races in the New York primary.”

The Victory Fund, and other LGBT political elite organizations, have an incentive to perpetuate a culture that keeps them close to elected officials in power, who can raise them funds and keep their message relevant. Of the 21 board members listed on their website, 14 are older white cis-men. When LGBT political communities are led by individuals from privileged classes, they are likely to be also designing an agenda for their own needs.

So, what is the value in analyzing Rep. Fleck’s experience with the Victory Fund? In writing this, I asked myself: is it worthwhile to provide constructive criticism of a national LGBT organization so publicly? I believe it is critical for us to recognize this behavior when it occurs because there are serious implications for the integrity and purpose of the LGBT movement. In this system, LGBT dollars have and will continue to go to privileged gay leaders entering politics who come from the inner circles of organizations such as the Victory Fund or HRC. It seems the Victory Fund may have lost their sight of their mission when telling our state’s first openly gay state representative to sit down. It was never their place to make that call. We must challenge these institutions and hold LGBT political leaders accountable so we may promote a movement that fights for the justice of all people.


Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown Speaks to the Press After House Floor Debacle (Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

In the end, while both Rep. Fleck and Rep. Sims were elected, what has happened? It seems rather misguided to have quelled Rep. Fleck in coming out while over-promoting Rep. Sims given evidence of their effectiveness in the legislature. Rep. Sims has not made any earth-shattering progress on LGBT issues in the House. He staged a debacle with Rep. Daryl Metcalfe on the House floor over DOMA in June, and has held several inflated press conferences. It would have been common knowledge to all legislators that members of the majority party have the power to silence any legislator in the minority from speaking about a controversial issue during a unanimous consent forum. He was present in session on February 13, when several black legislators were silenced when they went to speak about Black History Month on the House floor. Likewise, marriage equality bills have been introduced six times before he and Rep. McCarter did so, without fanfare. In contrast, Rep. Fleck used his resources to gain the acceptance of a majority of his Republican colleagues – and foster strong relationships with major political players so our GOP majority state government can start to move forward on equality issues.

On the heels of the 35th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination, I think it is important to remember that he once called out:

“It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power… it’s about the “us’s” out there. I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement. I think that there’s a distinction between those who use the movement and those who are part of the movement.”

Harvey Milk, Fern Kaufman, and Rep. Fleck are among a select breed of out leaders who have refused to be bought or sold by the LGBT political elite. Perhaps this is why wealthy LGBT organizations have been making calculated decisions for decades such as the one to stall Rep. Fleck coming out.

PA Rep. Mike Fleck and PA House Majority Leader Mike Turzai

Rep. Mike Fleck and PA House Majority Leader Mike Turzai

If the LGBT political establishment keeps themselves limited to investing only in their golden boys of the Horizon States, there will never be a true win. Rep. Fleck was clear in his interview that he “didn’t want to be some big poster boy for gay rights,” but rather focus on being a successful legislator, and by virtue of being out, help the movement. The red states, as well as Pennsylvania, will not all of the sudden become LGBT safe havens. We must rally with all out legislators, including conservatives, who may be outside the established LGBT community.

When the larger LGBT community can break down the barriers between the grassroots and establishment communities, we will have secured the truest victory: the building of a world where everyone is provided respect, dignity, and equality.

1. Philebrity: Q&A: Rep. Brian Sims, PA’s First Openly Gay Legislator, On The Day That DOMA Died (June 26, 2013)
2. We’re not done yet. What’s next in the fight for LGBT rights (September 16, 2013)
Rep. Sims opens his opinion piece for The Guardian with:
“As the first openly gay representative in Pennsylvania, I’m confident civil rights for all will win despite more legal challenges.”
3. Your State Rep Brian Sims Visits Erie (November 2, 2013)
4. Campus Pride Speakers Bureau Profile: Brian Sims
Post Photo Credit: The New York Times

First LGBT State Legislator in Pennsylvania Comes Out

Press Release from PSEC:

BREAKING: First LGBT State Legislator in Pennsylvania Comes Out;

Republican Rep. Mike Fleck Becomes
First Openly Gay Legislator in Pennsylvania History

HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition (PSEC) and LGBT youth across Pennsylvania commend Republican State Rep. Mike Fleck (R-81) for coming out today, becoming the first openly LGBT lawmaker in the Keystone State. Not only is Fleck the first and only legislator currently in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly who is openly gay, he is also one of only two openly gay Republican state legislators nationwide.

This is a historic and significant event for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A Pennsylvania General Assembly that reflects the true diversity of her citizens is a better state for us all. Fleck said he hopes his openness will help others better understand the journey people have to take to live an authentic life, according to the Huntington Daily News.

Rep. Fleck represents a largely conservative and rural district stretching over Blair, Huntingdon, and Mifflin counties in Central Pennsylvania. In the breaking article in his local paper today, he noted that he remains committed to the same political ideals as before the announcement, as he has since he was first elected in 2006.

PSEC has been proud to work with Rep. Fleck. Prior to his big announcement, Rep. Fleck was already a friend of PSEC as a cosponsor of the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act (HB 2636), which is a landmark anti-bullying bill to update Pennsylvania’s weak safe schools statute. Supporters of the PASS Act have appreciated considerable diversity of cosponsors, in terms of political affiliation, gender, and now–as of today–sexual orientation.

“Rep. Fleck has made history in becoming the first openly gay member of the Pennsylvania legislature. We could not be more proud of his courageous decision to be open and affirming of his identity.” said PSEC Executive Director Jason Landau Goodman.

PSEC wrote personally to Rep. Fleck on the day of his announcement. “On behalf of the thousands of LGBT youth we represent across the state, we thank you for coming forward and becoming a role model for us.”

PSEC is excited to continue working with Rep. Fleck in helping make the Commonwealth a better place for all Pennsylvanians, regardless of their sexual orientation.


The Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition (PSEC) is Pennsylvania’s statewide LGBTQ youth organization.