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LGBTQ Voices in Politics: Tiffany Muller

‘Twenty years ago, when I started in politics, obviously, our community was being used as a punching bag to juice Republican turnout,’ the End Citizens United president recalled, ‘And we’re seeing that history repeat itself right now.’

By Will Fritz - May 31, 2023
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Tiffany Muller, President, End Citizens United, speaking at the 2022 J Street National Conference held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC.
Tiffany Muller speaking at the 2022 J Street National Conference in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP Images)

Tiffany Muller never foresaw herself working in politics.

Then she was elected to the Topeka City Council in 2004 as the first openly LGBTQ person ever voted into public office in Kansas.

“My City Council member left and I was encouraged to take his seat, and I said, There is no way in Topeka, Kansas, that they are going to select an out lesbian, the face of gay rights, and I think I was all of 26 at the time,” Muller told the American Independent Foundation.

But that’s what happened, and while that particular gig did not pan out — she lost a run for reelection the next year — Muller has spent the last two decades immersed in politics, giving her a unique vantage point for observing the ebb and flow of LGBTQ rights in the United States. Now she is the president of End Citizens United // Let America Vote, a political action committee that promotes candidates who target big money in politics and voter suppression.

“So 20 years ago, when I started in politics, obviously, our community was being used as a punching bag to juice Republican turnout, because they thought that they could use our community and use it to win elections,” Muller said. “And we’re seeing that history repeat itself right now. Right, there are 1,300 bills in state legislatures just this year that impact the LGBTQ community. Four hundred of those alone are anti-trans bills.”

Muller, who now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife and daughter, hails from Amoret, Missouri, a “little bitty town,” she said, a little more than an hour’s drive south of Kansas City.

Muller said that in the 1990s, “I realized when I was a junior in high school that I was gay. … And I realized, oh, no, I cannot stay in this really rural, really conservative area. And so I graduated high school a year early and actually left to go to college early,” ending up at Washburn University in Topeka.

It was during her time in Topeka that she found herself involved in political organizing.

“I never got the idea that I wanted to be in politics,” Muller said. “But what I did want to do was, I wanted to help change a situation that was hurting people.”

What Muller said she wanted to help change was discrimination in Topeka, the home of the anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the church as a hate group as well as a “family-based cult of personality” known for “harsh anti-gay beliefs.”

“They were known across the country for picketing, and their ‘God hates f*gs’ signs and for picketing funerals, but in Topeka, they picketed every single day,” Muller said. “They would just pick a random street corner or random park or an event going on in town, and they literally picketed in Topeka every single day. So that kind of hate really casts a very long shadow in the city.”

Muller said prior to joining the Topeka City Council, she did a citywide study of rates of discrimination in the city, particularly against LGBTQ Topekans.

“That directly led to an ordinance being introduced at the local city council to expand our anti-discrimination protections,” Muller said. “And I remember we had all these business leaders there. And I had for the first time done some of that grassroots organizing, had gotten hundreds of folks who cared about the community or were part of the community out to show support. … At the end of the night, we were one vote short.”

“There were a lot of people on our side who were heartbroken, and it was definitely a gutting moment,” Muller said. “But I have to tell you, I was actually really, really hopeful. Because in my mind, it meant we just needed one more vote. So we had to work a little harder, we had to organize a little more, and we had to flip the vote, and then we knew that we could pass this.”

Muller said she “became a leader of a local organization devoted to flipping that one vote”: “We did everything from, we wrote letters, we held rallies, we went door to door, we literally knocked on tens of thousands of doors of Topekans and talked to them about being gay.”

This was in 2004 — at the height of President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign and its attacks on LGBTQ rights.

“[Republican political strategist] Karl Rove’s big strategy was to put the anti-gay marriage amendments in states across the country to juice turnout,” she said. “And in Kansas, it was expected that that would fly through the state Legislature, because it was Kansas after all, and because of the organizing we had been doing for two years, we actually were able to defeat it in the state Legislature in 2004,” Muller said.

Later that year, Muller said, a member of the Topeka City Council left, and she was encouraged to run for the seat. She expected not to win, she said, as an out lesbian and “the face of gay rights” in Topeka, but she did win, becoming the one vote that had been needed to of pass anti-discrimination protections.

“I had everyone tell me, Don’t do it, don’t put it forward. It will be the death of your political career,” Muller said. “But like I said, I didn’t get in it for a political career. I got in it to make change. So of course, we voted on it and it passed. And they were also not wrong. I definitely got my ass kicked in the general reelection. But it was worth it.”

It wasn’t the end of Muller’s work in politics, though. She had gotten to know then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her team, and Sebelius was running for reelection.

“The governor’s team came to me and said, Hey, why don’t you help us set up her reelection campaign? I had planned on going to law school,” Muller said. “So I started working for her with the expectation that I would leave and go off to law school. And like so many of us that ended up in politics, I got bit by the bug. I ended up deferring law school, and seeing the changes that we can create for people’s day-to-day lives through the work that we were doing, that she was doing as governor, that we were doing by helping to get her reelected. That’s the work of politics that I really loved.”

Muller moved to Florida and worked on political races across the country. She has been at End Citizens United since 2016.

Being a queer person in politics has changed immensely since the start of her career, she said:

I think that’s always been the work of our community, is to keep pushing open doors, to keep changing hearts and minds and to keep pulling the country along with us. But there’s definitely been a backlash over the last few years. Now, being a queer leader in politics has also really changed. When I started in this work, it was rare. Most of the time I was the only woman in the room, let alone the only queer woman in the room. And it was not always smart professionally or personally for me to come out to my colleagues or my clients at the time. There were definitely some candidates I worked with who I’m guessing to this day have no idea that I was gay.

“Now I’m able to lead this big national political organization and do work that is really meaningful and isn’t only about gay rights work,” she said. “For a long time, if you were in the LGBTQ community, you were kind of relegated to doing LGBTQ politics. Now I’m running this big organization that’s really about the foundations of our democracy. And Laphonza Butler is running Emily’s List as a queer Black woman. We have more representation than ever. And yet, our community is under attack in a way that we haven’t seen in probably 20 years.”

Muller said that backlashes do not mean that everything that has been gained is being lost.

“In movements, there’s often also a backlash and a pushback,” Muller said. “And it doesn’t mean that all of the progress we fought for is gone, but it does mean we have to feel our spine and prepare for the next round. Because we can’t let these folks define how our community is going to be treated in this country, because I do not believe that they speak for the majority of people.”

Muller said the job of those working for LGBTQ equality is to build on the hard work of those who came before.

“Every single movement throughout history, the women’s movement, the Civil Rights Movement, all of these movements are built on pushing and pushing and pushing and then having these big moments of change, and then having backlashes and having to push against that backlash and keep trying to push for progress, and then having big moments of change,” Muller said. “That is the way this country moves forward, and it does not do so without hard work. And so it’s OK to be discouraged, it’s OK to get upset. It is OK for you to decide at this point in time how each of us can contribute to the progress. But it’s not OK to just stop. We all have to keep fighting.”

5-31-23 Correction: Muller was appointed to the Topeka City Council, not elected.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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