Texas sees historic number of LGBTQ candidates running for office


Gina Ortiz Jones, a former army veteran and the Democratic nominee for Texas' 23rd Congressional District, is gunning for office — and the history books. If elected, Jones will be the first Iraq veteran, the first Filipina-American and the first lesbian to represent Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jones, who served as an intelligence officer under the defunct military policy "don't ask, don't tell," says her perspective provides an uncommon vantage point.

"Given my own experiences in national security, I don't just think of China, Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, I have to think about the pipeline of talent into national security," Jones told NBC News. "I'm very much thinking about how to ensure everyone in this country, if they are able and willing to serve, has the opportunity to do that."

The congressional hopeful was raised by her single mother, who migrated to the U.S. in search of a better life in San Antonio, Texas. After graduating high school, Jones attended Boston University through an Air Force ROTC scholarship, which required her to sign a form agreeing not to express her homosexuality.

Jones is one of a record-breaking number of LGBTQ-identifying Texans seeking office this election cycle, according to OutSmart, a Houston-area LGBTQ magazine. Earlier this year, OutSmart estimated there were at least 52 LGBTQ political hopefuls in the state — roughly three times more than in any previous cycle.

"The most vulnerable, the people who have the most to lose, you can't be surprised when they are raising their hand and saying 'Actually, I've got something to say about that. I'm going to run,'" Jones said.

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LGBTQ history makers
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LGBTQ history makers

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) - Civil rights activist and openly gay man. He served as an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

(Photo by Patrick A. Burns/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) - Civil rights activist and author from Harlem. He wrote his second novel in 1956 -- "Giovanni's Room." The work dealt explicitly with homosexuality and was published at a time when few other writers dared to publish gay-themed works, according to LGBT History Month

(Photo by Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Gety Images)

Alan Turing (1912-1954) - British mathematician whose work is widely acknowledged as the foundation of research in artificial intelligence.

(Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Moms Mabley (1894 – 1975) - Lesbian stand up comedian who starred in films and frequently headlined at the Apollo Theater. 

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) - A famous transgender woman and LGBT activist, Johnson was a veteran of the Stonewall Riot in New York City. She and Sylvia Rivera founded STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in 1970 to push for trans rights and offer shelter for homeless transgender teens.

(REUTERS/Diana Davies-NYPL/Handout)

Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975) - Singer, dancer and actress who became very popular in France in the 20s. She was also a civil rights activist. Baker was bisexual -- she married and divorced several men, as well as carrying on affairs with women, including Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

(Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Harvey Milk (1930-1978) - First openly gay man to be elected to public office in California when he served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

(Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

Alexis Arquette (1969 – 2016) - Transgender actress who transitioned to female in her 30s. She is known for her roles in films like “The Wedding Singer” and “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”

(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Sally Ride (1951-2012) - America’s first woman in space waited until her death to tell the world that she was gay. The NASA astronaut’s obituary referred to “her partner of 27 years.” After Ride’s death, her sister wrote in an essay that she hopes “it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them.”

(Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Lesley Gore (1946 – 2015) - The famous American singer, most known for her hits “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me,” was openly gay.

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Tennessee Williams (1912-1983) - Williams was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, who wrote some of Broadway's most successful shows -- including 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' Several of his works were adapted into Oscar-winning films, starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, among other famous actors at the time. 

Williams was in a relationship with his longtime partner, Frank Merlo, for 14 years until Merlo's death in 1963. 

Matthew Shepard (1976 – 1998) - Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming when he was killed in a horrific hate crime. At the time, hate crime laws did not extend to the LGBTQ community. His death sparked a nationwide debate and ultimately led to the passing of new legislation -- the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009)

(Photo credit ANDREW CUTRARO/AFP/Getty Images)

Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) - She considered herself “a black feminist lesbian mother poet.” She was also a vocal civil rights activist and leader for the advancement of the LGBT community.

(Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Nancy Kulp (1921 – 1991) - Lesbian actress most known for her role as Miss Jane Hathaway in the popular ‘60s sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies."

(Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

Rock Hudson (1925 – 1985) - The legendary actor kept his sexuality a secret at the height of his Hollywood fame in the '60s. Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS in July 1985 and revealed he was gay in a press release just months before he died in October of the same year. 

His death is credited with fueling Elizabeth Taylor's AIDS advocacy. 

Alvin Ailey (1931 – 1989) - American choreographer and LGBT activist, Ailey formed the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York City in 1958. His dance company welcomed and celebrated black dancers who were frequently ignored by major companies. 

American drag queen and actor Divine (1945-1988, born Harris Glenn Milstead) - Milstead, who identified as male, found mainstream success with his drag persona -- Divine. Divine's biggest hit was in 1988's 'Hairspray,' playing the role of Edna Turnbald. 

At the peak of his fame, he died of an enlarged heart. 

(Photo by Tim Boxer/Getty Images)

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Former Dallas sheriff Lupe Valdez, another Texas-based candidate, already shattered a ceiling last month when she became the first Latina and openly gay nominee for governor in the state.

"Tonight is a victory for all of us who are fighting for a stronger and fairer Texas," Valdez, a Democrat, said in a released statement.

Valdez, 70, is no stranger to breaking barriers. Despite her family's fear that her running for public office would ignite a homophobic backlash in Texas — where it is still legal to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity — Valdez was not deterred. In 2005, she became the only Latina sheriff in the U.S. and one of the country's few out LGBTQ public officials.

"I'm an army veteran, I was a federal agent, law enforcement, I'm Hispanic, I'm female, I'm LGBT," Valdez, who will face current Governor Greg Abbott in November, said. "I know there's a lot of people in Texas that will identify with one or two or several of those issues."

The fight from nominee to governor is uphill for the candidate. Valdez's campaign confirmed to NBC News she owes more than $12,000 in Texas property taxes after the Houston Chronicle first reported on the issue. She is planning to pay it off in regiments, according to her campaign spokesperson, and blames the high fees on Gov. Abbott's current policies. Recent polling suggests Gov. Abbott will maintain his office.

Valdez said her parents, migrants who traveled across the U.S. for work, never accepted her sexuality, and her campaign is prepared for the fact that her sexual orientation may be controversial for some Texan voters.

"Hopefully within one or two generations, this is not even going to be an issue," Valdez said. "It's just going to be who you are and what you represent."

She said confronting discrimination impacted her and impassioned her to fight for laws that protect minority identities.

"We still have hate crimes," Valdez said. "That's not where we want to be as a state. That is not the Texas brand that we want to show."

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