Odessa Kelly of Tennessee could be first openly gay Black congresswoman

Odessa Kelly in Washington, D.C.
Odessa Kelly in Washington, D.C. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

Odessa Kelly, who could be the first openly gay Black congresswoman, is running in Tennessee’s newly redrawn 7th District


It was the kind of summer afternoon every D.C. resident is familiar with: lazy in the sense that the air isn’t inclined to move, even under the whirring fan of a neighborhood bar; sweat pools at the backs of your knees if you sit down long enough.

But you wouldn’t know that by looking at Odessa Kelly.

When Kelly recently stepped into As You Are, a queer bar in Southeast D.C., she cut a cool, confident and very tall figure, wearing a white polka-dot blazer over a white T-shirt, skinny blue jeans and white loafers. And crowning her long locs was a massive pair of black headphones, from which she’d been playing Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T.

Since declaring her candidacy for Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District, the former college basketball player, public servant, activist and mother of two has been thinking a lot about how to best present herself.

“As an openly gay Black woman, 6-foot-tall, you know, masculine-leaning, I want to make sure I show up well,” said Kelly, 40.

If elected in November, Kelly would make history on multiple fronts: She would be the first Black woman to represent Tennessee and the first openly gay Black woman to be elected to Congress, ever. (This could be true of three other candidates this year: Aisha Mills and Queen Johnson in New York and Kimberly Walker in Florida, according to the LGBTQ political advocacy group Victory Fund.)

She’s running for Congress, despite the anti-Asian attacks against her

It’s the kind of history Kelly says her hometown of Nashville is ready to make. But to get there, Kelly not only has to defeat a well-established Republican incumbent but also has to win a redrawn district that voting rights advocates have called among the most gerrymandered in the country.

It is a battle emblematic of the South’s political tensions: Liberal urban areas that are quickly growing, diversifying and gaining political influence vs. a powerful conservative infrastructure that has been able to maintain its power, in part, by redrawing electoral maps and increasing voter restrictions.

If Kelly is sweating the odds, she isn’t showing it. Her background has only increased her willingness to fight despite the challenges.

“Running up the hill might be hard,” Kelly said of her chances. “You just prep to run up the hill harder.”

Even under the best of circumstances, Kelly would have been an outside shot to win a congressional seat. When Kelly announced her candidacy last year, she was slated to represent Tennessee’s 5th District, an area that encompasses all of Nashville — a Democratic stronghold in the state for nearly 150 years. She had expected to face a tough primary against longtime Rep. Jim Cooper (D).

But that was before the Tennessee state legislature drew a new election map, which was approved this year. It slices the city of Nashville, home to fewer than 700,000 people, into three parts, dividing one of the few Democratic districts in the state into three conservative-leaning ones.

How redistricting is shaping the 2022 U.S. House map

Kelly is now the sole Democrat running to represent what has become the 7th Congressional District, which extends from the Kentucky border through the state’s center and down to the edge of Alabama.

During a midterm election in which the Democratic majority in Congress balances on a razor’s edge, splitting a solid Democratic district into three Republican seats would not only diminish the voting power of Nashville, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, but also could help shift power back to House Republicans by the end of the year.

State Republicans have denied that the new district lines are gerrymandered.

“The recommended maps are fair and legal, disturb no…

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