December 14, 2017 at 8:27 am PST | by Michael Fleming
Building LGBTQ Political Power Across the Nation

Michael Fleming (Photo courtesy Michael Fleming)

Election Night 2017 was a historic one for the LGBTQ community. Candidates across the country campaigned hard, talked to voters, raised funds, and spread their message. Their diligent work paid off. Forty LGBTQ candidates won their races. And now, more than ever, it is crucial that LGBTQ leaders have a seat at the table when critical decisions affecting our rights are made.

In 2002, at the suggestion of our good friend Fred Hochberg, a number of funders met in the Washington, D.C. home of Marylouise Oates to pool their funds to cover several partial scholarships to the Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program at Harvard Kennedy School. The program had existed for decades, but, even by its own admission, it suffered at times from a lack of diversity, including the absence of exceptional LGBTQ elected and appointed officials.

The Fellowship that the funders created was immensely popular, and it quickly became clear to all of us that a larger long-term commitment was required. Victory Institute’s mission is “to change the face and voice of America’s politics and achieve equality for LGBTQ Americans by increasing the number of openly LGBTQ officials at all levels of government.” Its mission makes Victory Institute the perfect partner for the nation’s premier leadership program; you see, as funders, it’s our goal to bring like-minded folks together. This, to us, seemed a match made in progressive policy heaven.  

In 2005, the Los Angeles-based David Bohnett Foundation began to fund the program in earnest and, since then, with our investment of more than $1.7MM, the David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellows Program has become not simply a signature program for Harvard and Victory Institute but a great example to other funders about the power of investing in the leaders who will determine the future of our community and, indeed, our country. Designed for senior and mid-career executives from state, county, and local governments, as well as their elected counterparts, the curriculum thrives on the political expertise and real-world experience of its esteemed participants. Fellows for each class are chosen to represent a full spectrum of governmental levels, functional responsibilities, geographic distribution, and diversity in the LGBTQ community.

Funders are always asked how we measure the success of a grant. When I look at the caliber and quality of the 143 Fellows whom we’ve helped attend Harvard, the transformative leadership skills they’ve developed, and the essential relationships they’ve honed both in Cambridge and after they’ve returned home, I know that by any measure this program is a success.

This training has enabled those leaders to move forward in their careers and achieve higher levels of public service, including:

  • Jolie Justus – Missouri State Senate, now running for Mayor of Kansas City
  • Ricardo Lara – member of the California State Senate, now running for Insurance Commissioner
  • Annise Parker – former Mayor of Houston, now set to become President and CEO of Victory Fund and Victory Institute
  • David Richardson – Florida state representative, now running for Congress in 2018
  • Brian K. Sims – former staff counsel for policy and planning at the Philadelphia Bar Association, now a Member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the 182nd district
  • Kyrsten Sinema – U.S. Representative from Arizona’s 9th congressional district, now running for U.S. Senate against an anti-LGBTQ challenger
  • Lupe Valdez – Dallas County Sheriff, an elected position, now running for Governor of Texas

In the past several decades, the LGBTQ community has made significant strides in achieving equality, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning California Proposition 8, helping make marriage equality the law of the land; gains in employment and healthcare protections; repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. military; and establishing the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act.

However, in the time of Trump and its accompanying surge of homophobia, transphobia, and white supremacy, these advancements are under threat. For instance, Trump wants to reinstate a ban on transgender Americans serving in the military, while a Federal court ruled that the military must pay for trans-inclusive medical services, including gender-affirming surgeries. It is vital that we have highly skilled representatives at all levels of government to safeguard our rights – as court challenges may or may not result in positive outcomes.

We are encouraged by the recent election wins that more than doubled the number of elected openly transgender officials in the United States, creating much needed visibility for the trans community and more pressure on lawmakers to make progress on equal rights legislation.

With these landmark victories, we look forward to welcoming more trans applicants for the 2018 Bohnett Fellows program. We encourage members of the LGBTQ community to consider applying to the Harvard Senior Executives Program, three-week sessions that take place during the months of June and July. Individuals wishing to be considered should apply to both the Harvard Kennedy School and Victory Institute. See further details at

The Bohnett Leadership Fellows’ increasing power and influence in local, state and national governance is supported by the David Bohnett Foundation’s mission to improve society through social activism by applying philanthropy strategically.

— Michael Fleming is the Executive Director of the David Bohnett Foundation


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