Rosemary Ketchum initially hesitated to get involved in politics.
“In my eyes, I felt like, while I secretly maybe wanted to run for office, it wasn’t a space I thought ... I was allowed inside,” Ketchum, 26, said. “I wasn’t even sure I had the permission to do something like that.”
After what she said was months’ worth of soul-searching, Ketchum decided to run for the Wheeling City Council. In June, she became the first openly transgender person in West Virginia to be elected to public office.
In addition to Ketchum’s historic victory, four openly gay candidates either were elected to office or won their June 9 primary races in West Virginia, according to Fairness West Virginia, a civil rights group based in Charleston. Michael Martin won a seat on the Berkeley County Board of Education and Rob Dunlap was elected to the Beckley City Council. In Randolph County, Delegate Cody Thompson, 33, won his Democratic Party primary race in his first re-election campaign. Ally Layman, 40, advanced to the general election for the Huntington City Council.
“West Virginia voters showed in the primary election they want their leaders to support equality for all people, no matter a person’s sexual orientation or a person’s gender identity,” said Andrew Schneider, director of Fairness West Virginia.
None of the candidates and new officeholders come from political dynasties, vast wealth or both, and they each had concerns when they were younger about whether they could participate in public service.
“I didn’t think it would be a possibility for someone like me to run, especially not in West Virginia,” said Thompson, who graduated from Elkins High School in 2005, where he now teaches civics. “I didn’t think someone could come from a middle-class working family and accomplish something in politics at that time.”
Ketchum recalled an interviewer asking her how “something like this” could happen in West Virginia last month.
“I think there’s probably no place better suited for something like this to happen,” said Ketchum, associate director of the National Alliance for Mental Health office in Wheeling. “In so many ways, our structures are broken, and our trust has been betrayed countless times. LGBTQ people are some of the most resilient, straightforward, compassionate people. Those are the folks we need to lead and serve our community.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we have really, really good candidates across the state who happen to be in the LGBTQ community running and winning.”
Four percent of West Virginians identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, comparable to the national average, according to data compiled in 2017 by UCLA’s Williams Institute. West Virginia leads the nation in the share of people identifying as transgender, researchers found.
Political advances in the Mountain State have been hard-fought.
During his House bid in 2018, Thompson said, someone stole a campaign sign, marred it with a homophobic slur in red paint and placed it along an entrance ramp in his district. Delegate Eric Porterfield, a Republican from Mercer County, used the same slur during a Feb. 7, 2019, House Government Organization Committee meeting.
“That word carries a lot of hurt to me and to many people in the community, the LGBTQ community,” Thompson said.
The hurt was compounded by the lack of immediate consequences in the House and by additional comments Porterfield made in the following days, Thompson said.
“The inaction was insulting,” Thompson said.
In his first reelection bid last month, Porterfield finished last in his primary race. Finishing fifth out of five candidates, 2,022 people voted for Porterfield in his district, which includes most of Mercer County and a small portion of southeastern Raleigh County.
Thompson’s experience in the West Virginia Legislature has helped him further understand the effects words can have between different groups of people and that people’s perceptions can change over time.
“It may not happen overnight — that understanding and acceptance,” Thompson said. “It may not happen entirely at all but, slowly, people’s perceptions do change, and that has been a wonderful thing.”
Thompson follows in the footsteps of Charles Town attorney Stephen Skinner, who, in 2012, was the first openly gay person to be elected to the Legislature. He served two terms in the House before losing a state Senate race to Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, in 2016.
Skinner said the state has come a long way, but there is work still to be done. LGBTQ representation in the Statehouse does not match that community’s share of the state population.
“We have to understand that there are homophobic people around,” Skinner said. “There are racist people around. There are sexist, misogynistic people around, and we’re always going to have to understand that they’re part of the electorate. But I think what we’re looking at right now is that most folks in the Mountain State aren’t just tolerating LGBTQ people, but they’re accepting them.”
Skinner is a longtime organizer with the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that promotes equality for LGBTQ people in public office throughout the United States.
Last month, the Victory Fund released a report showing the number of openly LGBTQ elected officials nationwide increased 21%, to 843, last month over June 2019.
“It does give me hope that the state does still have a chance, that we still do have good people, and they understand we still are human beings,” he said.
Skinner’s encouragement boosted his run, Martin said. The marketing coordinator for River Riders, in Harpers Ferry, Martin ran in the wake of local scandal following the release of a recording that parents said depicted teachers verbally and physically abusing special needs students at Berkeley Heights Elementary School in 2019.
Thompson came up two votes short in a 2017 run for the Elkins City Council. Support afterward inspired his successful pursuit of a House seat, and his desire to better the state keeps him going now in the hope that more LGBTQ people will hold public office.
“It may not happen overnight — that understanding and acceptance,” Thompson said. “It may not happen entirely at all, but, slowly, people’s perceptions do change, and that has been a wonderful thing.”
Like Thompson, Layman said she is working to make the town where she grew up a better place. She will be the Democratic Party’s nominee facing Republican Dale Anderson in November for a Huntington City Council seat.
A social butterfly by nature, Layman is the manager of The Taps at Heritage, a downtown bar, and president of Huntington Pride.
“One of the biggest issues for me is making Huntington your home,” Layman said. “Huntington has now become very progressive in diversity and inclusion. With the Open to All campaign, that’s keeping people here and bringing people seeking community — not only Huntington as a community but as an LGBTQ community. That is something we are looking to provide is an environment of positivity and acceptance.”
She said people in West Virginia more and more are looking at candidates as whole people, not just their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“Being a lesbian is part of who I am,” she said. “It’s not all of who I am.”
Last month’s election results signaled to Ketchum that Mountain State voters are dedicated to creating a future of acceptance and support for all West Virginians.
“It’s going to take a long time to heal those wounds,” Ketchum said. “But this past election is the first healing of a lot of trauma.”