Mike Carroll, a retired flight attendant living in his north Mississippi birth town of Ashland, has collected many of the signs from the local political campaigns he has run.
“Ashland does not deserve a gay mayor,” one particularly understated sign reads of one of Carroll’s several local campaigns.
“My husband Tim asks, ‘When are you going to get rid of those signs?’” Carroll said with a good-natured laugh of the signs — some of which are much more offensive.
Mississippi is the only state in the nation without an open member of the LGBTQ community serving in elected office, according to a recent study by the Victory Institute, a national nonprofit that works to increase the number of LGBTQ officials. The study said the number of lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer officials nationwide has increased 17% over the past year but still had a long way to go to achieve equity in terms of representation.
“LGBTQ elected officials are significantly more diverse than the overall elected official population, so their impact extends beyond LGBTQ equality alone,” Ruben Gonzales, executive director of LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a news release. “LGBTQ elected officials are on the frontlines in legislative efforts to end police brutality, defend voting rights and secure inclusive healthcare reform. LGBTQ people are represented in every community in America and that diversity allows for more thoughtful policy changes when we are in office.”
Their representation includes members serving in the U.S. Senate all the way down to people serving in tiny municipalities.
While Mississippi has no LGBTQ members serving in elected office currently, Carroll, age 65, did serve one term from 2013 until 2017 as a member of the Ashland Board of Aldermen. He was defeated in a re-election bid. He ran again earlier this year and came within 20 votes in the Benton County town of 600 of again winning a seat on the board.
“They worked awfully hard to keep me from being re-elected,” he said. He said those opposing his campaign included his brother, Mitch Carroll, who is the mayor of the town, and other elected leaders in the town.
Still, Carroll said he had support from a large portion of the town and looks back fondly on the progress made in Ashland during his tenure on the board, including a new town park.
Rob Hill, Mississippi state director of the Human Rights Campaign, said he does not know of any open member of the LGBTQ community serving in an elected office in Mississippi.
“I think I can go on the record saying there are LGBTQ people serving in elected office, but are not out,” Hill said. He said the stigma associated with being a member of the LGBTQ community and “the fear of what could happen” are the reasons more politicians have not come out.
There has been at least one other open LGBTQ person in the past to hold elected office in Mississippi, Hill said, but currently there are none.
Carroll said that is disappointing because “there are as many LGBTQ people here as any place in the nation.” Hill said not having LGBTQ people serving in office “hurts our image as a state.” In addition, “young people are not able to look to someone serving openly as LGBTQ” as a role model.
In recent years, the Mississippi Legislature has gained national attention for passing a bill that allows government officials and businesses not to provide services to people based on religious objections. Many believed the law would be used to allow individual circuit clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, though there has been no known instance of that happening.
And earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves prohibiting transgender students from participating in sports designated for the gender in which they identify.
Still, Hill said through the years the Human Rights Campaign has been fortunate to have strong allies among elected officials in Mississippi on both the state level among multiple members of the Legislature and in local offices. Multiple local governments have passed resolutions and ordinances that strengthened the rights of the LGBTQ community.
But Hill said it would help to have more public officials to come out — not just as members of the community but as allies of the community.
In the meantime, Carroll, who moved back home 19 years ago and has no intention of moving away, also did not rule out another run for elected office.