Ten years ago this month I gave a TEDx Talk titled “The Myth of the Gay Agenda.” It was shortly after President Barack Obama announced his public support for same-sex marriage, becoming the first commander in chief to do so while still in office. During the talk, I shared some graphics highlighting the number of states where it was still legal to deny someone employment and/or housing for being queer.
I remember being approached afterward by numerous left-leaning audience members who were genuinely shocked to learn Michigan, where the event took place, was among those states. I was shocked they were shocked.
At the time, Michigan was being sued by the ACLU over its 2011 law prohibiting same-sex partners of public employees from receiving health benefits. This was in addition to a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions that nearly 60% of voters embedded into the state’s constitution back in 2004. I wasn’t sure where those audience members thought Michigan was in terms of LGBTQ equality, but they needed someone to set the record straight.
“Representation matters” is more than the catchphrase of the hour. It’s recognizing the gaps that exist between our different life experiences. It’s about the willingness to admit we don’t know all that we do not know.
For the first time in our country’s history, we learned last week, there will be an openly LGBTQ White House press secretary. And while Karine Jean-Pierre is not charged with writing any laws, she will be asked to explain their impact. Ideally in a way no one before her has been able to do.
For nearly 100 years — from the appointment of the first press secretary, George Akerson, in 1929 to Jen Psaki in 2020 — there has never been an openly queer person entrusted with that responsibility. In recognition of that history, Jean-Pierre received the longest standing ovation of anyone who walked on stage Friday night at the GLAAD Media Awards. As she stood there smiling — appearing to reside somewhere between being overwhelmed and overjoyed — I prayed for her.
Regardless of party affiliation, it’s not an easy job. When I asked Jay Carney, Obama’s second press secretary, if he missed it shortly after he left in 2014, he couldn’t say “no” fast enough.
At this moment, when the country has seen a wave of attacks on voting rights, people of color, reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality, I prayed Jean-Pierre would be able to talk about the White House’s agenda with more than sympathy. Not that I want Jean-Pierre’s time at the lectern to sound as if she’s defending her very existence each time. But given the current political climate, as we head toward one of the most consequential midterm elections of our lifetime, defending her existence is oddly now part of the job.
Such is the life for those who are first.
Now I am sure the tenures of Carney, Psaki and Akerson were not absent of personal investment. It’s just that none of them had to wait for the Supreme Court to legalize their marriage. None of them had to do what is already a very difficult job while worrying that the Supreme Court might dissolve their marriage.
That was something I had to explain to some of my left-leaning family members who couldn’t fully understand my concerns following the Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. My husband and I were married in Michigan. Those laws banning same-sex marriage I mentioned earlier? Well, much like all of those state laws banning abortion, those anti-LGBTQ laws are still on the books.
In February, Virginia tried to remove the (currently unenforceable) same-sex marriage ban from its constitution. The efforts failed in the subcommittee when Republicans stopped a resolution that would have put the question on the November ballot. That’s what’s at stake for all of the couples who got married in a state that didn’t want them to after the Obergefell decision in 2015. Some of us may be rendered back to fearing losing employment and housing. Some of us live in states where we have never stopped fearing that.
I re-watched my talk from a decade ago. Sadly, I could change clothes, repeat every word and it would sound just as relevant today as it did then. Jean-Pierre’s promotion reflects how we’ve moved forward. What she talks about at the lectern will reflect the struggle as some Americans try to drag us back.