Last year saw a rising tide of LGBT candidates and this November promises even more. Among them is Kelly Fryer, a lesbian running for governor of Arizona.
“I’ve been involved in leadership in my community for a long time in different ways,” Fryer, 56, tells NewNowNext of her desire to run. “I spoke at the Women’s March here in Tucson and when I looked out at the crowd I just felt really inspired.”
That view was in stark contrast to Arizona’s image on the national stage.
“This state has a reputation for oppressive policies—policies that are anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, anti-women,” says Fryer. “And here we had all these people say ’No, that’s not who we are.’ It felt like anything was possible.”
While Arizona went for Trump in the presidential election, she firmly believes her fellow Arizonans aren’t represented by the man in the White House. And they weren’t represented by SB 1062, the religious-freedom bill passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in 2014 but ultimately vetoed by then-Governor Jan Brewer.
“The people of Arizona were never in favor of that bill,” she says. “Overwhelmingly, Arizonans are in favor of equal marriage and they’re opposed to a border wall. The people of Arizona have a vision of America that we all share.”
The problem, she believes, is that elected officials aren’t listening to their constituents. “They’re towing this part line for billionaires and big corporations and special interest groups. I’m running so all the voices of Arizona are heard.”
She speaks of a real disconnect and despair. “There’s been a takeover of our state, and it’s related to dark money and redistricting. Its just made the process unfair.” She points to the fact that, in the last election, only a third of registered voters in Tucson showed up at the polls. “I’m running to inject some excitement and enthusiasm into this race.”
If there’s anyone on the ballot in Arizona who represents the mean-spiritedness and self-interest Fryer is fighting against, it’s Republican Senate hopeful Joe Arpaio.
“He’s a terrible person with terrible policies, who should be in jail, not running for the U.S. Senate,” she offers. “The best thing about him running, I guess, is that it illustrates what the Republican Party is about these days. It sets up a very clear differentiation between them and the rest of us. It makes it easy for Arizona voters to rise up on Election Day and say ’No!'”
Fryer knows it won’t be easy for a Democrat to unseat Republican incumbent Doug Ducey, but she’s not worried her sexuality will hurt her in the long run.
“Sure, there are people who won’t vote for me because Im a lesbian—but they probably wouldn’t vote for me, anyway, because we’d disagree on the issues. But that’s just a fraction of the population. I think the people of Arizona are open-minded. I think they’re open-hearted and I think they’re smart.”
And Fryer’s fought her share of battles before: After coming out as a lesbian in 2006, she resigned as a pastor from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which dictated that clergy “are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.” Though the ELCA changed its position in 2009, her resignation sparked public outcry—and mudslinging against her and her family.
But it’s that family Fryer credits with giving her strength: Between them, she and her wife have three grown children and a grandchild. “My family is a bunch of rock stars,” she beams. “We lived through my coming out and resigning from the ministry. We’ve been through the gauntlet, so we can handle what this election will bring.”
Today, she’s not affiliated with the church, but her faith and her commitment to justice and public service continue to be intertwined.
“I believe we all have responsibility to make a difference,” she says. “I really feel that I’ve been called.”