Political LGBTQ&A with Jessica Benham, State Representative Elect PA House District 36

Jessica Benham
Representative-Elect Jessica Benham

I know that many bisexual people and many Autistic people see themselves reflected in me, and that my win gives them hope about the ways they, too, can make a difference in the world.

As of this most recent election, Pennsylvania has at least 57 openly LGBTQ individuals holding elected office. In November 2020, we re-elected two gay men serving in the General Assembly and, for the first time ever, elected an openly bisexual woman to that same body – Jessica Benham is the first openly LGBTQ person to win state office from Western Pennsylvania, the first LGBTQ woman to win state office, and the first Autistic person elected to higher office in Pennsylvania. I believe she’s also the only openly bisexual person holding state level office in Pennsylvania.

I’ve interviewed Jessica before, but I wanted to document her historic victory in a district that has been notoriously rightwing Democrat. Two of my niblings live in her district so I am especially pleased she will help to shape their future as Pennsylvanians.

Your Name: Jessica Benham
Your Age: 29
Your Pronouns: she/her

How do you describe your identity? I’m a bisexual disabled woman.

We did an interview during your campaign (read it here!) I’m glad to see you on the flip side. What was your first thought when you knew it was official official?  My first thought was, now the real work begins.

You recently won election to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Tell us about your district and the communities you will represent.  My district covers parts of south Pittsburgh – the South Side Flats, South Side Slopes, Arlington, Mt. Oliver/St. Clair, Bon Air, Carrick, Overbrook, part of Mt. Washington, and part of Brookline – Mt. Oliver Borough, Brentwood Borough, and northern Baldwin Borough.

You set records as the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the General Assembly from Western Pennsylvania, the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to the general Assembly in Pennsylvania, and the first autistic person to be elected to the General Assembly. That’s a lot of accomplishment and a lot of pressure to carry into your new role. How do you balance being the first with being Jessica Benham? I ran to make a difference in my community, not to be the ‘first’ or make history, so that helps keep me grounded. I’m honored to serve my community and that so many Autistic and LGBTQ people are inspired by my work to serve their communities as well.

Why did you decide to run for this office? I ran for state representative to protect public health and fight for an economic recovery that prioritizes the needs of everyday Pennsylvanians, not the richest of the rich or huge corporations.

Tell me about your endorsements and supporters. I’m excited to have earned endorsements from a broad coalition of elected leaders, community advocates, and groups, including SEIU PA State Council, Victory Fund, UNITE PAC, State Reps. Dan Frankel and Ed Gainey, and Pittsburgh City Councilors Theresa Kail Smith and Bruce Kraus. A full, up-to-date list of endorsements can be viewed at: http://www.benhamforpa.com/endorsements.html

What are your top legislative priorities for your first months in office? My top legislative priorities are ensuring people have access to healthcare and economic support as we navigate this pandemic.

What is happening with COVID-19 in your district? How do you wrap your arms around that?  The handling of COVID-19 has resulted in many people getting COVID, people losing access to employment and health insurance, local businesses closing, and overall, a climate of uncertainty and fear about the future. I carry in my heart the stories of each person who has entrusted me with the ways in which they are struggling, and will continue to center them in my policymaking.

How did your identity as an openly LGBTQ person impact and inform your campaign? How will it impact and inform your tenure in office? I was always open about my identity during my campaign. As the first out LGBTQ+ woman elected to the state legislature in Pennsylvania, a state that does not have civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ people, I’m committed to working together to achieve equity for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or other identities. I look forward to being a spokesperson on the issues that our communities face. Particularly, I’d be a strong proponent of the PA Fairness Act and the PA Safe Schools Act, as well as legislation banning the so-called ‘panic defense’ and banning conversion therapy.

How does open and visible representation of different LGBTQ identities in elected office change the world?  It’s critical, to me, that we have everyone who is impacted by a policy leading the discussions about that policy change. Having many folks who represent the full diversity of the LGBTQ community is part of moving toward a just world.

I’m not even sure what the right question to ask about the impact of electing a person with autism to state office. Can you put this in context so folks realize the magnitude of that reality?  I know that many bisexual people and many Autistic people see themselves reflected in me, and that my win gives them hope about the ways they, too, can make a difference in the world.

How will autism inform your role as a legislator? I’m fighting for a world where you never have to hide who you are to be seen as capable of serving your community and for a world where all people are treated justly.

Are there ways in which the harmful impact of the pandemic on the lives of LGBTQ folks and people living with autism (and those who are both) could be lessened by government intervention? Yes. I’ve written a COVID-19 response plan that emphasizes the importance of making sure that everyone has access to healthcare and financial support, among other things, as we navigate this pandemic. It’s available on my website issues page.

Please tell us about your very first impression of Pittsburgh: I would have been very young, so I’m not certain how to answer this question.

What Pittsburghers have influenced your life and work? So many! But to name a few, I would start by saying that my colleague at PCAA, Cori Frazer, has been a critical, influential partner in my life’s work. I’m also inspired by the ways in which Ciora Thomas has centered Black and Brown Trans people in her work. I’m not sure if Dustin Gibson counts as a Pittsburgher anymore since he moved, but I have learned so much about disability justice from him.

Please tell us about the first LGBTQ person that you knew and what impact they had on your life. I honestly don’t specifically remember the first LGBTQ person that I met. I knew I was bi from a young age, but growing up in a religious family, I was closeted. I don’t remember meeting openly LGBTQ people until college and by then, I was out myself.

What is your message to the LGBTQ youth who may not realize that people like them hold elected office? That they can serve their communities too! Whether in elected office, community organizations, neighborhood organizing, or so much more, LGBTQ leaders are everywhere, and we need more young folks to lead too.

Where can readers find you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/BenhamforPA/

@JessicaLBenham on Twitter

Thank you, Jessica.


 

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