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LGBTQ voices in politics: Lauren Baer

A former Florida congressional candidate and adviser to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry shares her story.

By Will Fritz - June 26, 2023
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Lauren Baer, candidate for Florida's 18th Congressional District, attends a Jimmy Buffett concert in support of Florida Democratic candidates including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Andrew Gillum, candidate for Florida governor, at Meyer Ampitheatre in West Palm Beach on November 3, 2018.
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 3: Lauren Baer, candidate for Florida's 18th Congressional District, attends a Jimmy Buffett concert in support of Florida Democratic candidates including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Andrew Gillum, candidate for Florida governor, at Meyer Ampitheatre in West Palm Beach on November 3, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Two major factors inspired Lauren Baer to run for the House in Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which includes her hometown, in 2018.

First, she would be the public, openly queer face of a congressional campaign — quite different from the not-yet-out New York City lawyer she had been just seven years prior.

And second, it would be her first time involving herself in domestic politics. She had worked in foreign policy for six years, first as an adviser to secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and later to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. But she had never worked on a stateside campaign before, let alone run as a candidate.

It may have been quite the change, but Baer, now a managing partner at Arena, an organization that helps train Democratic candidates and campaign staffers, told the American Independent Foundation it was “the most profoundly meaningful decision that I’ve made in my life” and “the most significant job, if you will, that I’ve ever held.”

Baer, who is from Palm Beach Gardens, said: “The reason I thought it was such an incredible experience is because it exposed me to my community, the place that raised me and made me into the person that I am, in completely new and eye-opening ways. If you are a candidate and you’re doing it right, in my opinion, it means that you are out in your community every day. You are listening to people, you are learning from them, you are understanding how policies in Washington actually resonate with people across this country. And that’s a vantage point that I didn’t have from my desk in the State Department.”

Baer started her professional career as a litigator, but found working in policy to be the answer to her urge to do something she felt was more meaningful.

“I’ve always asked myself at every point in my career, How is it that I can have the most impact? What is it that I can be doing that will have the widest reach and address the most urgent issues?” Baer said.

Baer ultimately decided to jump into foreign affairs because she had a background in international law. “Early in my career, after practicing law for a number of years, it was very clear to me that I needed to be doing work in the public interest, not private sector law, and an opportunity availed itself at the State Department, and I jumped in,” Baer said.

Just before starting at the State Department, Baer came out as lesbian.

“I guess I came out, in this day and age, relatively late in life, at age 30 when I started dating my then-girlfriend, now wife, with whom I share two wonderful daughters,” she said.

Baer said she found the work incredibly meaningful as she publicly embraced her identity — especially because Hillary Clinton was particularly focused on LGBTQ rights abroad when Baer started at the State Department in 2011.

“She very much went out on a limb as secretary of state in terms of calling attention to the importance of LGBTQ rights as a part of the human rights that we were fighting for as the U.S. government and making sure that promoting and protecting LGBTQ people was seen as an integral part of our foreign policy. And then also that members of the queer community who worked within the State Department were afforded all of the same rights and protections as everyone else,” Baer said. “And so I was working in her office when she made her famous speech in Geneva, that gay rights were human rights and human rights were gay rights. And I witnessed and worked on the efforts to extend full benefits to all individuals who worked at the State Department, whether they were straight or gay.”

Baer said that for the first time, while working at that job, she found her identity to be an asset.

“I’ve carried that with me throughout the rest of my career, when I ran my own political campaign, now running a political organization, how important that signaling is at the top, how important it is what you say outwardly about what you as an individual or an organization value, and then also how you turn around and make that reflected in the policy towards your employees and how you treat them,” Baer said. “So I think I just, I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to her, and I’m so thankful that the State Department under Hillary Clinton was the first place that I got to be a queer woman at work.”

Baer stayed with the State Department through President Barack Obama’s second term, under Secretary of State John Kerry. The outcome of the 2016 election pushed her down a different path.

Baer said she had just given birth to her oldest daughter two weeks before the 2016 election, and the sudden, unexpected news of Donald Trump’s victory hit her hard.

“I remember at the time, my wife and I were just so excited about the world that our daughter was going to be into,” Baer said. “We assumed she would never know a world where a woman couldn’t be president. We thought she was going to encounter a life with rights that were significantly more expansive than rights that we had known, that she would only know acceptance of her family and feel that she could grow up to be her full, authentic self, whoever that was.”

Trump’s election fractured this worldview for her.

“For me, in many ways, that was my political awakening. It was certainly what led me into domestic politics, as opposed to foreign policy,” Baer said. “But it also really increased my vigilance over ensuring that the rights of our community broadly, the LGBTQ+ community, were protected. Because I knew that that wasn’t a guarantee, for me or for my daughter.”

Baer’s congressional campaign began less than a year later. That campaign, though ultimately unsuccessful, is something she sees as having been a unique privilege. Baer would have been the first LGBTQ congressional representative in Florida history, and she said she was touched by how meaningful her candidacy was to kids who were growing up queer in South Florida like she had.

“One of the most profound things for me was seeing my campaign office fill up with volunteers, a number of whom were young queer kids, as young as in high school, and them telling me how much of an impact it had on them that they saw someone like them standing up publicly in a place like Florida, running for office,” Baer said.

Baer never got to see that sort of representation during her teenage years.

“I think, growing up and particularly as a high schooler, I was aware that I was different in some way, and didn’t perhaps have the right set of words to attach to myself, and in my sexuality and the complexity of the range of emotions and feelings that I had,” Baer said. “And what certainly wasn’t available in Florida in the 1990s was a sense that if I verbalized what I was feeling, there would be any sort of open acceptance or welcoming community that I could be a part of. My family has always been open and accepting and very liberal. But very much in the broader community and the culture, there were signs that these were things that you did not talk about, you did not call attention to.”

Baer said getting to provide the representation she never saw herself hammered home the power of leading by example.

“If you have an impact on one life, then it’s worth it,” Baer said

So when she lost to the incumbent Republican congressman, Brian Mast, she knew it stung for more than just her, but she’s still proud of her campaign

“Of course it’s on one level personally disappointing,” Baer said. “On a broader level, it was disappointing for my community, I think, because I know that so many individuals had put their hopes and aspirations for a better, more responsive, more effective, more humane, more just government in me.”

However, Baer said she’s still proud of everything she did during that campaign.

“People ask me if there’s anything that I would change,” Baer said. “And, you know, the answer is actually no. I ran that race in a very authentic manner, consistent with my values, being my true self.”

When Baer ran for Congress, her home district was considered competitive; a Democrat had represented it from 2013 to 2017. Now its successor, Florida’s 21st Congressional District, appears solidly Republican. Mast received more than 60% of the vote in 2022.

She said it has been “deeply upsetting” to watch her home state lurch to the right in recent years:

It’s not the Florida that I know. It’s not the Florida that I was raised in. And I still believe in the deepest parts of my heart that most Floridians are truly good people who want to see only the best for their community and their neighbors. But what I think Ron DeSantis has tapped into is deep fears and anxieties that exist among many individuals who are truly and genuinely suffering. And because he does not have policy solutions for the economic, environmental, other issues that are actually plaguing the state, he instead chooses to scapegoat the least fortunate and most vulnerable among us.

That’s something she’s thinking about this Pride month.

“To me, pride is a call to action, to be proud of who we are, to be visible, to be vigilant and to never stop fighting for the rights that we and all people deserve,” Baer said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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