Only two states in the nation, Louisiana and Mississippi, have never elected an openly L.G.B.T.Q. lawmaker.
Now, there will be only one.
On Tuesday, Fabian Nelson won a Democratic primary runoff in Mississippi’s 66th state House district, southwest of Jackson, where Republicans have no candidate on the ballot.
Mr. Nelson, 38, was raised in the Mississippi Delta by politically active parents.
But, while he said he believed having a gay man in the State Legislature was significant, the historic nature of his campaign was never his focus. When he campaigned in South Jackson, he talked about the city’s water crisis and about crime. When he campaigned in rural areas, he talked about broadband access and economic development.
The New York Times spoke with Mr. Nelson after his victory. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. Tell me about yourself — your background, your family, what made you decide to run for office.
A. I come from a very politically motivated family. My father is a leader in the community, and he worked with a lot of our elected officials.
I remember going to the voting precinct with my mom any time she voted. I saw my parents every single day fighting to help people in the community, whether it was helping people pay their rent, helping people pay their light bills, donating food, donating clothes.
When I was in fourth grade, we went to the Mississippi State Capitol, and I remember walking in the galley to look at the floor of the House. I saw these guys in suits and these big, old high-backed chairs. I remember looking down, and I told my teacher, “One of these days I am going to sit down there.”
Q. This is your second time running for this seat. What was different this time?
A. The first time, I ran in a special election, so I had about a month. I’ve done work in the community, but I’ve mostly done work behind the scenes, so a lot of people didn’t know who I was. Then the special election was right when Covid hit. We really couldn’t get out there, knock on doors, meet people — I wasn’t able to do anything other than social media and put signs up.
I said this time I’m going to make sure I do every single thing to get in front of every single person that I possibly can get in front of. I’m going to become a household name. That’s not going to guarantee that people are going to vote for me, but everybody in this district is going to know who Fabian Nelson is.
We knocked on everybody’s door five times. The first two times I went around, I was just introducing myself. The third time, that’s when I sat down and developed a platform.
Q. Mississippi is one of only two states that have never elected an openly L.G.B.T.Q. legislator. Did you know that when you started your campaign?
A. Honestly, I thought Mississippi was the only one. I didn’t know that it was Mississippi and Louisiana. Mississippi, we’re always the last to do the right thing. I said, So we’ve got to beat Louisiana this time so we won’t be No. 50. Now I’m happy to say we’re No. 49.
Q. What does it mean to you to be the first in Mississippi?
A. I have talked to so many people that say: “We are now hopeful. We feel like we’re in a new place.”
What I want people to understand is Mississippi now has somebody that’s going to fight for every single person. I’m going to fight for people in District 66 — those are the people I represent. The issues I’m going to fight for are my platform issues. However, when anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation comes up, which I know it will, I am going to fight that every single day.
I’m not only going to the Capitol to fight against anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills. But we cannot have any group discriminated against. It’s OK to disagree with a person, it’s OK to disagree with a person’s lifestyle, but it is not OK to impose on that person’s civil liberties and civil rights. If we look back in our African American community, slavery was pushed because it’s in the Bible. That’s what was used to keep my people oppressed. And so there’s no room for oppression of any group of people.
Q. Politically, this is such a complicated time in that there’s this flood of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation, and at the same time we’re seeing increased representation in government and public life. How do you navigate that?
A. You’ve heard the saying that when you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re what’s for lunch. We’ve been for lunch for so long. The thing is, our politicians can come out and stand on the steps of the Capitol and say, “Oh, we love the community, we’re going to do everything we can to help you, we’re going to fight for you, love, love, love,” then go in the Capitol and close the door — you don’t know what they’re saying. And then the next thing you know, we’ve got a harmful piece of legislation coming out.
Now that they have someone sitting at the table, they’re not going to be able to continue along that path. It makes it so much harder. Once we started getting African Americans elected into office, that’s when we started to see things change, because you can’t sit in the Capitol and have the same conversations you were having before we were at the table.
Q. Did this come up when you were campaigning? Was it something you talked to people about?
A. My campaign was strictly focused on the issues of District 66, because at the end of the day, I represent District 66, and I represent the issues that are germane to District 66. My platform wasn’t, “I’m the first openly gay guy,” because that doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t make me a better lawmaker or a worse lawmaker. People voted on someone who had experience, people voted on someone who’s going to make a positive impact within our community, and people voted for a fighter.
But I come from a family of firsts — my grandmother being the first African American nurse [at a hospital in Yazoo City, Miss.], my dad being one of the first African Americans to graduate dental school from Virginia Commonwealth University.
And so I said, I have to raise the bar some type of way. My children are going to have to really raise the bar.