Respect Diversity + Inclusion

For the first time in U.S. history, two openly LGBTQ+ candidates face off in congressional race

Robert Zimmerman, a Democrat, and George Santos, a Republican, are vying to represent New York’s 3rd congressional district.

Story at a glance

  • Two openly gay candidates in November will go head-to-head in a federal general election for the first time in U.S. history.

  • Should either Robert Zimmerman, a Democrat, or George Santos, a Republican, win in November, they will become the first openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the district and the fourth out LGBTQ+ person elected to Congress from New York.

  • More than 1,000 openly LGBTQ+ people this year ran for public office in the U.S.

In a first, two openly gay candidates in November will go head-to-head in a federal general election.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democrat, and George Santos, a Republican, are vying for a seat in New York’s 3rd congressional district left open by Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), who last year launched a bid for governor of New York and said he would not seek reelection in Congress.

The district leans Democratic — President Biden won it by 10 points in 2020 — but the race is still considered competitive by the Cook Political Report.

Should either Zimmerman or Santos win in November, they would be the first openly LGBTQ+ person to lead the district, which represents Long Island and Queens, N.Y. The congressman-elect would join two other openly gay members of Congress from New York: Rep. Ritchie Torres (D) and Rep. Sean Maloney (D). Rep. Mondaire Jones (D), the first openly gay Black person to serve in Congress, lost his bid for a second term in August’s primary election.

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“We all bring our personal stories into public life,” Zimmerman told Changing America in a recent interview. “The question is, do they prompt us to help others?”

Growing up in Nassau County in the 1960s and ’70s wasn’t easy for Zimmerman, 67, who knew he was gay at an early age.

“At that time, it was a very isolating place for those of us that were gay,” he said.

As a teenager, on nights when his friends took girls to school dances, Zimmerman sat alone at a table at the Seven Seas Diner in Great Neck, N.Y., watching the clock.

“I didn’t want to admit to my folks I didn’t have a date,” he said. “It’s just what you did.”

Once, after confiding in one of his school teachers that he thought he might be gay, Zimmerman was referred to conversion therapy — a discredited practice that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s since been outlawed in 20 states, including New York and the District of Columbia.

“I wasn’t gonna go there,” Zimmerman said, “but when you’re young, it’s kind of hard to shake the idea that maybe you’re not well.”

After decades of feeling voiceless, Zimmerman as a young adult decided to speak up for himself and his community, spending years on Capitol Hill working for Democratic congressmen. It’s a mission he carries with him today, as renewed threats to LGBTQ+ rights like marriage equality and privacy are introduced by state and federal officials.

“I have fought those fights, and I’m not going to let another generation of LGBTQ+ young people be shoved back in the closet,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not going to happen on my watch.”

Zimmerman and Santos are two of 101 openly LGBTQ+ candidates to seek a seat in Congress this election cycle, the most in U.S. history, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed Zimmerman in the race.

“LGBT candidates are more electable than ever before,” Cesar Toledo, the group’s political director, told Changing America in an interview.

Toledo said more races between openly LGBTQ+ candidates are expected to happen moving forward as the number of openly LGBTQ+ people running for public office continues to spike. More than 1,000 ran for office this year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which advocates for equitable representation in government.

“This is a new, beautiful problem we have,” Toledo said.

Still, just 17 openly LGBTQ+ people have won seats in the House in Congress’ 232-year history, and only two have been elected to the Senate.

Among openly LGBTQ+ Republicans who launched congressional bids this year, Santos is the only one to make it to a general election. All current members of Congress that openly identify as LGBTQ+ are Democrats.

Santos did not respond to multiple interview requests from Changing America, but he told NBC News this week that he sees no contradiction between his sexual orientation and the politics of his party.

“As a lifelong Republican, I have never experienced discrimination in the Republican Party,” Santos said. “I am an openly gay candidate. I am not shy.”

In July, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted against passing the Respect for Marriage Act, which would enshrine marriage equality in federal law. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), one of the lead negotiators on the measure in the Senate and the chamber’s first openly gay member, announced last week that action on the bill would be delayed until after the midterm elections, with Senate Republicans seeking stronger religious liberty protections.

Santos has also been an ardent supporter of measures largely unpopular among his LGBTQ+ peers.

In an Instagram post in April, Santos praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for protecting traditional values and the “innocence of children” by signing the state’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill into law.

The legislation has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its critics for its heavy restrictions on talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 classrooms, which the measure’s proponents — including Santos — have equated to “grooming” and child abuse.

According to Zimmerman, the two men’s shared sexual orientation is “the beginning and end of our similarities.”

Zimmerman said he’s prepared to work collaboratively with far-right congresspeople if he is elected in November.

“Part of the challenge of governance is that you sit at the table with people who don’t believe you’re entitled to the same rights they have,” he said. “But we have to come together, in a bipartisan way, to get things done.”

As of August, Santos had out-raised Zimmerman by about $600,000 and had $790,000 in cash on hand compared to Zimmerman’s $478,000.