Earlier this year, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the landmark Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under existing federal civil rights laws. At the hearing, several Republicans tried to claim that they favored rights for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people but drew the line at trans rights.
Anti-trans activist Julia Beck, the Republican witness at the hearing, threw out a parade of alleged horribles that would transpire should trans people – particularly trans women – became protected under the law.
But midway through the hearing Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) revealed that her child had recently come out to her as non-binary. Through tears, she brought a personal and emotional appeal to debate over the bill before it was advanced out of the committee on a party line vote.
Jayapal is co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus and has taken a leadership role in pushing for progressive legislation like Medicare for All.
She sat down recently with LGBTQ Nation to talk about the current state of LGBTQ rights and the value of having queer people and allies in government.
LGBTQ Nation: I was particularly moved by your speech during the committee hearing for the Equality Act hearing. Given that there’s no openly trans members of Congress, how can you give voice to trans people as an ally and a parent of a non-binary child?
Rep. Pramila Jayapal: First of all, I hope that changes soon. I was so excited to see [Delegate] Danica Roem elected in Virginia and you know, I believe that we’re going to have more of that across the country and hopefully in Congress. But I think our role is always to bring the voices of those who are not in the room to the table, and to bring those individuals to the table as witnesses, as testifiers, to hear those stories.
That’s the role I see for myself as an ally, is first of all to make sure I fully understand the broad scope of the issues that people are facing, to bring them up constantly, to invite trans members and non-binary members to testify in front of us, which I did with the Immigration Bill. And then, when I came out, I guess it is, as the mother of a non-binary child, which I had to ask them, I had to ask my kid if that was okay in the middle of the hearing and they were so generous and said, “If it’s going to help people then yes.”
But I think it’s important for people to see, I think I’m the only member who has at least openly said that I have a gender nonconforming child. I don’t know if I’m the only member that has one, but I’m the only one who has proudly claimed that label. But it gives me an opportunity to make this not just about the issue and how important it is to everybody, but also to put a personal point on it, and to proudly declare my support as a mother.
I heard so many incredible comments and emails from people who just really felt like my voicing that from the hearing room, in the records of Congress, means that it wasn’t just a generic [representative] that got a voice there, it was all of the non-binary and trans folks across the country who had been the tip of the spear, and particularly folks of color have been the tip of the spear on this issue.
QN: This administration has made no bones about opposing LGBTQ rights and you serve in Congress with several openly LGBTQ people. So I was hoping to get a quick insight from you about how the process changes when LGBTQ people and allies are in the room making these decisions.
PJ: It makes all the difference in the world because those personal experiences, the overall issue, knowledge, and education is so much higher. And the commitment frankly to making sure that we push back on bad policies but also that we put forward our vision of a proactive, inclusive policy that welcomes and celebrates and gives rights to LGBTQ folks has been wonderful.
And so the Equality Act and the pushing of the Equality Act is one of our top 10 pieces of legislation in the democratic majority was really spearheaded by [Rep.] David Cicilline, who is a co-chair, I forget his exact title of the equality caucus. And I’m proud to be a vice chair of that caucus. And I think the passage of that was so significant for everybody, but particularly for the LGBTQ folks who felt themselves recognized and seen and heard in a whole different way.
QN: I really appreciate how you bring an intersectional lens to the issues but you recognize that for trans people, everyday issues are also important to trans people because we’re all human beings. Can you just give me a little bit of insight into why it’s important to you to bring that approach to the issues?
PJ: Well, I like to say I’m not a woman on Monday, an immigrant on Tuesday, I worker on Wednesday, and a mom on Thursday – I’m all of those things all at the time, we don’t separate those out.
So when people talk to me about being intersectional, I’m like, “Well, I am.” I mean, I’m all of those things.
And I just think that it is really important to understand that we will never win with the hierarchy of oppressions. We will always win when we build a broader collective movement. And when we understand that there are lots of different people who were affected in different ways, and the more we can identify the common enemies of scarcity and greed and injustice and hate, the more we will win with our own values of generosity and love and brightness and possibility.
This interview has been edited for clarity.