When Randy Ross was running for Orange County School Board in 2000, he had a secret.
“I was worried people were going to find out I was gay,” Ross said.
What a difference a dozen years can make. Now there are three openly gay candidates on this year’s Orlando City Council ballot — including Ross — and a transgender candidate running for the Orange County Commission.
As society has grown more accepting of gay people during the past decade, more candidates for public office have grown willing to campaign without concealing their sexual orientation. And with issues of equality — gay marriage, adoption and workplace benefits — heating up, more members of the gay community are drawn to politics.
“Being gay was not as easy as it is today. It’s really a relief to not have to worry about it. You’re going to see a lot more people from the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community stepping up to run for office,” said Ross, who works for a marketing company.
At the same time, few would-be politicians want to be seen as “gay candidates.” They say they’re running on mainstream platforms, not gay-rights issues.
“The way I look at it, being gay is just one small part of who I am. I want to focus on the broader issues that affect everybody in the city: jobs, ethics, keeping our neighborhoods safe,” said Chase Smith.
Smith and Ross both are running to represent City Council District 1, which doesn’t have an especially high percentage of gay voters. It’s a four-way race that also includes Jim Gray, a vice president of office leasing giant Parkway Realty Services, and state corrections Officer Stephen Rayle.
Smith grew up in Wauchula, a tiny city of 5,000 in Hardee County in southwest Florida. He was interested in public service from a young age and was elected to the Wauchula City Council at age 20. But he wasn’t comfortable being “out” in the conservative community. He sat on the council for the next 12 years as a closeted gay man.
Locally, Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who is lesbian, paved the way. In 2000, she became the first openly gay candidate to run for — and win — a seat on the Orlando City Council. She has been re-elected twice since then and will be on the April 3 ballot as she seeks her fourth term representing District 4.
Smith moved to Orlando and worked as Sheehan’s aide at City Hall. More recently, he has been an aide to Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs while also serving as county ombudsman. He has taken a leave from that job to campaign.
There are at least 26 LGBT elected officials in Florida, including Craig Lowe, who was elected mayor of Gainesville in 2010. But even nationwide, openly transgender candidates are still a rarity.
An official with the Washington-based Gay Lesbian Victory Fund, which helps LGBT candidates at the local, state and federal level, estimated that fewer than a half-dozen transgender U.S. politicians currently hold office.
The most recent to win, Alameda County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski, has described a common frustration of having to deal with media often focused on this one element of her life.
“That’s all reporters tended to ask her about,” Victory Fund spokesman Denis Dison said.
Dison said it’s “a natural curiosity,” especially in communities with few gay and lesbian politicians. But the group advises candidates to deal with the transgender or gay issue head on, “then talk about the issues you want to talk about.”
Orange County District 5 Commission candidate Gina Duncan said she experienced the same media “flood of exposure” because of her transgender background.
“But frankly, I find that I’m talking about the issues,” she said.
Duncan, a 56-year-old Democrat who has 30 years of experience in mortgage banking, is president of the Metropolitan Business Association, the region’s gay chamber of commerce. For 50 years, Duncan was Greg Pinkston, who grew up in Brevard County, starred on his high-school-football team and was homecoming king.
Pinkston was married for 25 years, fathered two children and had a successful career in banking. In 2007, he had the surgery that completed the transition from male to female.
Duncan is among the first openly transgender candidates to run for office in Florida. One of the most recent was Donna Milo, a conservative Cuban-American who ran unsuccessfully for Congress and Miami City Commission.
So Duncan said she appreciates the history that could be made: No openly transgender candidate has won prominent office in Florida.
But she expects it to play little or no role in her race, which at this point could pit her against incumbent Republican Commissioner Ted Edwards.
“I understand the significance of it,” Duncan said. “But I haven’t found it to be a detriment or something we’re dwelling on.”
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