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Gay athlete campaigns for gay legislator in West Virginia and sees hateful side of politics

Michael Martin reflects on his first campaign experience.

Michael Martin, left, with West Virginia legislator Stephen Skinner.

Michael Martin is getting a taste of how nasty West Virginia politics can be.

Martin, an openly gay soccer player at Wilson College in Pennsylvania, hails from West Virginia and working on the state Senate campaign for Democrat Stephen Skinner, himself an openly gay representative in the state House.

Skinner voted against a “religious freedom” bill that failed in West Virginia this year and would have forced transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender indicated on their birth certificate. This led to this robocall this past week against Skinner and in favor of his opponent, Republican Patricia Rucker:

“Hi, my name’s Courtney and a man came into our changing room last night while I was getting dressed after swim practice. So the Family Policy Council of West Virginia paid so I could tell you why that scared me. I’m only 12. I’m not old enough to see a naked man. I know what a girl is, and it’s not that. My [unintelligble] says Stephen Skinner pushed the city council to let men into our showers. She says it’s because Mr. Skinner only cares about gay activism and not common-sense safety for girls. I’m not old enough to vote yet and no candidate or any candidate’s committee authorized me to call but please vote against Stephen Skinner. I want to feel safe. Patricia Rucker has a daughter and she understands. Please vote for her.”

The Family Policy Council is a state group aligned with the conservative Family Research Council, long opposed to LGBT rights.

“This is a low blow to the first openly gay legislator in West Virginia,” Martin told Outsports. “It hurts they would go this low to a man who wants the best for every citizen. Stephen is the best boss I have ever had. He is a man that gave me the opportunity to explore careers and make great connections throughout the political world. Them saying these false actions personally hurts since I know how great a person he is.”

Martin, 20, a college sophomore whose 2014 coming out story on Outsports went viral, worked for Skinner’s West Virginia law firm this summer. Skinner had seen Martin’s story and wrote him a letter congratulating him on being brave to come out in a state like West Virginia. Martin also is working on Skinner’s state Senate campaign in a state the has politically shifted from reliably blue on a presidential level to ruby red in the last four elections.

“I live in a state where Hillary Clinton has a 2% chance of winning over Donald Trump,” Martin said. He comes from a section of the state close to Washington DC and more liberal than the rest of West Virginia, but with a strong conservative presence.

“Stephen is a progressive Democrat and was elected to terms as a delegate [state rep] for the 67th district of West Virginia that covers historic Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry. Stephen has championed LGBT rights in West Virginia.

“Stephen is not the only gay candidate running in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Rod Snyder is running for Stephen's old seat and Stephen is taking over Rod's father's old West Virginia Senate seat. If both get elected, it will mean a very strong LGBTQ presence in West Virginia, giving people like myself a voice. Having gay policymakers in a state that is so conservative is very meaningful. It makes me very, very proud.”

Martin said he saw the anti-gay attack on Skinner coming. Over the summer he attended meetings in Charles Town, W.Va., which was debating a nondiscrimination ordinance. He said the Family Policy Council was at the meetings and its head, Allen Whitt, spoke out against the ordinance at one of them. The meetings were packed and the debate was heated, but in the end the town passed the ordinance.

When asked by the Huffington Post to comment on the radio ad against Skinner, Whitt said it was “awesome,” adding that he didn’t think the ad could be considered homophobic. “Why would any reasonable person think that?”

Skinner condemned the ad, writing on Facebook:

“It was bound to happen. They went low. My opponent’s friends have begun their gutter attacks. These attacks are the worst kind of politics, and I know more are coming. … But we will go high. Instead of letting these attacks break our spirit, we are rallying for one of the biggest fights of our life. I hope you will join us.”

Over the weekend, Martin campaigned in Virginia with his boyfriend Quincey Smith, canvassing people to vote for Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, he will do the same for Skinner in his West Virginia senatorial district.

This is what democracy looks like. #WithHer

A photo posted by Quincey Smith (@quinctagram1) on

Martin has had his eyes opened by his first foray into politics and said one thing he learned was to be prepared and be ready.

"As a young gay man working on my first campaign, I learned that in politics you need to make sure you are comfortable enough with your sexuality if you run for office. There are people that will attack you just because you are gay."

Michael Martin can be reached via Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter.