Look at all the amazing, powerful and trailblazing LGBTQ+ leaders in this room!
Elected officials, appointed officials, program alumni, executive directors, activists, corporate leaders, students, philanthropists!
Everyone in this room is playing a vital role in the ecosystem working to increase LGBTQ+ representation. I thank you for that, and let’s give each other a round of applause.
Welcome to the 39th – yes, that’s right, the 39th International LGBTQ+ Leaders Conference. I tell this story a lot, but when I first started attending this conference more than 35 years ago, there were less than 50 people attending. Here in 2023, more than 650 LGBTQ+ leaders will be in attendance throughout the three days!
That’s real progress.
But why does that progress matter?
It matters because we are on the frontlines fighting for our community – pushing back against LGBTQ+ legislation and advancing pro-equality bills.
It matters because we are influencing policies in government agencies. We are advising powerful leaders.
But perhaps as important – maybe most important – is we are a community of LGBTQ+ people committed to defending and advancing democracy to ensure it works equitably for all.
Here in the United States and around the world, people are losing faith in democracy. We are seeing opponents of democracy scapegoat the communities most marginalized and blame them as the source of all social ills.
Immigrants, indigenous communities, people of color, and yes, LGBTQ+ people.
They do this because they believe inclusion is a zero-sum game. That gains for those most marginalized take away something from those who have always held power. It is why the anti-LGBTQ movement and the anti-democracy movements are so intertwined – in fact, they are inseparable.
Now, democracy is certainly not perfect. It probably never will be. But we know that when governments are reflective of the people they serve, they do better for those people. For all people.
It is why protecting and advancing democracy is fundamentally an LGBTQ+ rights issue. It is why those most active in undermining democracy also dehumanize our community and aim to take away rights – from Donald Trump to Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro to incoming Argentinian president Javier Milei.
Democracy – representative government – is an LGBTQ+ rights issue.
Our opponents know that – and will use any tactic to undermine it.
Earlier this year in statehouses around the country, young elected representatives were being censured and even removed from their seats by lawmaker colleagues who despised their efforts at inclusion. Among those targeted were two brave lawmakers with us today: Oklahoma state Representative Mauree Turner and Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr.
Both of these leaders were singled out and censured not because of their opposition to anti-trans bills, but because they are trans themselves.
Here in Washington, DC from the floor of the U.S. House, Representative Lauren Boebert launched a transphobic attack against Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly, the highest-ranking trans official at the Pentagon. Boebert introduced an amendment to reduce Shawn Skelly’s salary to just one dollar, because she is trans. She along with Marjorie Taylor Greene have attempted similar amendments targeting Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, as well as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg – only because of their sexual orientations and gender identities.
These are the types of anti-democratic attempts we face now – even after overcoming the enormous obstacles to become out public servants.
Fortunately, these efforts backfired. It raised the profiles of these leaders – sparked outrage – and has inspired more trans and non-binary people to seek public service. They cannot be intimidated into silence.
Let’s all give a huge show of love and support for these out leaders.
But that’s defense. Our best offense is to get more of us in the halls of power. In 2023, we did that.
In Tennessee, state lawmakers passed one of the most extreme anti-trans laws in the country: a total ban on care for minors. They tried to ban drag. Yet Nashville voters rejected the politics of hate and instead elected Olivia Hill to represent them on the Nashville Metro Council, making her the first out trans candidate to win office in that state.
In Mississippi, which also made anti-trans legislation a focus, voters again stood on our side. Earlier this month, Fabian Nelson won a seat to become the first out LGBTQ+ person ever elected to the state legislature there.
And in Brazil, whose LGBTQ+ community fought the anti-equality and anti-democratic efforts of Jair Bolsonaro for four long years, voters elected a historic number of LGBTQ+ candidates, including the first out trans people elected to the Brazilian Congress – Erika Hilton and Duda Salabert.
Let’s give all of them a round of applause, including our incredible Brazilian partner, Vote LGBT.
We are making progress. But opponents of inclusion and democracy are also on the march.
That makes the mission of Victory Institute – and I know the mission of everyone in this room – incredibly important at this pivotal moment. We must continue to build governments and societies representative of the people.
We do that because when there, we ensure we are considered in all legislation and policies that impact our population – not just bills on equality. Our presence restores belief in democracy and encourages others to participate, by running themselves, campaigning for candidates, and of course, through voting.
We change hearts and minds. We push forward pro-LGBTQ bills. We lead moral outrage when we’re targeted. And we join organizations and leaders around the world in building their political movements for equality.
At Victory Institute, we are proud to call Rep. Mauree Turner one of our Victory Empowerment Fellowship alumni – our fellowship for LGBTQ+ leaders of color and/or trans leaders. How many Victory Empowerment Fellow alumni do we have here today? Give a shout.
We are proud to call Rep. Zooey Zephyr an alum of our Women Out to Win program.
We are proud that both Representatives Turner and Zephyr, along with Nashville Councilmember Olivia Hill and Mississippi Representative-elect Fabian Nelson, are all alumni of our four-day bootcamp Candidate & Campaign Training!
We are proud Assistant Secretary Shawn Skelly and Admiral Rachel Levine are alum of our Political Appointments Program – which works with the Biden-Harris administration to secure appointments for qualified LGBTQ+ leaders.
And we are proud to have such a close partnership with Brazilian Congressmembers Hilton and Salabert – alumni of our Brazilian elected official summit and participants in our 600 person conference in Mexico City this past July, which we held in partnership with our partners Caribe Afirmativo from Colombia, Yaaj from Mexico, Diversidad Dominicana from the Dominican Republic, Promsex from Peru, Somos DC from Honduras and Vote LGBT from Brazil.
If you are representing one of these organizations, please stand and wave. Thanks for your incredible partnership and work this year.
Ultimately, Victory Institute, and the people in this room, help LGBTQ+ people believe that our democracy and political landscape supports them, because they see themselves as part of it. We help democracy flourish, when so many aim to tear it down. Our work is to ensure democracies work for all.
That is what you answer when someone asks “why support someone just because they are LGBTQ+, or just because they are a woman or a person of color or an immigrant.” We make democracy stronger. And a representative democracy just does better by its people. Period.
You’ve probably noticed that behind me and throughout conference, we are pushing the theme of “You Belong.”
It isn’t just a marketing ploy to get you to come to the conference (although if it worked, all the better).
“You belong” means that you belong everywhere – we need more leaders like you who will show up as their authentic selves in the places where important decisions are made. Despite what Donald Trump, Javier Milei or Lauren Boebert might say or do – You Belong.
Over the next couple days, you’re going to hear from and meet people whom you may look up to. You may see their titles and their accomplishments and think, wow, they must be a really remarkable person. They must be a really talented politician. They must have some secret figured out that I don’t.
But the truth is that everyone starts somewhere. The truth is that not everyone wins every race, but successful leaders are the ones who keep going. The truth is that nobody wins on their own – every successful leader has a network of people helping them.
So if you are already in the representation fight – as an elected official, appointed official or activist – keep going. And lend a helping hand to those eager to join us. If you are in this room knowing you want to represent and serve our community – and our democracy – let us, the people in this room, help nurture that spark.
Victory Institute, and all of us in this room, are with you and need you.
Friends, I’m not breaking news by sharing that the 2024 election cycle will be anxiety inducing and that our community will certainly be a target. But let’s remember we are in this together. We are in a fight for our community. For our countries. For our democracies. And ultimately, for all those who deserve a fair and equitable society.
Thank you for being here. We appreciate you. Enjoy the rest of conference.