© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Equality PAC raises millions to boost LGBTQ representation in Congress

New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, seen here at Equality PAC’s National Pride Gala on June 13 at Union Station in Washington, D.C., is working to increase LGBTQ representation in Congress.
Jon Fleming Photography provided by Equality PAC
New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, seen here at Equality PAC’s National Pride Gala on June 13 at Union Station in Washington, D.C., is working to increase LGBTQ representation in Congress.

On a recent night in Washington D.C., the historic hall at Union Station was decked out for a glittering gala. A drag queen, political heavyweights, and Hollywood stars were all gathered to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Equality PAC.

“Welcome to our annual convening of the gay mafia,” quipped Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., to the crowd.

Torres is the co-chair of the Equality PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Equality Caucus which was created to advocate for “equality for all people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics.”

The celebration was more than just an anniversary, it was an opportunity to raise money to add to the $12 million the group has already raised this cycle to help elect more openly LGBTQ members and allies to Congress and advance the Equality Act – a bill that would enshrine protections for the LGBTQ community.

The PAC’s success over the years has allowed the group to expand beyond just electing LGBTQ candidates. It's now raising funds to support other major battlegrounds for the Democratic party, including so-called frontline members fighting to keep their seats in challenging districts and “red to blue” candidates who are running to unseat Republicans.

“[Co-chair Rep. Mark Takano] and I are very proud of that,” Torres said. “Because we recognize that without a pro-equality Congress, without a Speaker Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president, we will never be able to make the Equality Act the law of the land.”

Passing the legislation is a tall order. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made that much clear, laying out the steps for the crowd: if Democrats get a majority in the Senate, they could vote to “pull back” the filibuster in order to pass the Equality Act with 51 votes, rather than the standard 60 required.

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif, used his remarks to remind supporters their success depends on electing allies at all levels, including President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. He told attendees it is “our job to remember” the support of the Biden administration.

“It was Joe Biden that as vice president came out in favor of same sex marriage that then nudged President Obama to coming out and being the first administration to support gay marriage,” he said. “And Vice President Harris, some of you from California may remember that she began marrying gay couples when she was the D.A. in San Francisco — before gay marriage was even legal across the country.”

Expanding LGBTQ representation in Congress

There are currently nine openly LGBTQ House members and three senators in Congress. Equality PAC, one of various identity-based political action committees that fund Congressional races, is backing six House candidates to increase their ranks – all Democrats.

“If you were a Republican who sponsored the Equality Act and sponsored every legislative priority for the LGBTQ community, then in theory you're eligible [for PAC support],” Torres told NPR ahead of the gala. “But in practice, no such Republican exists. And even if you had a Republican who was pro-LGBTQ, if you're voting for a speaker who's anti-LGBTQ, then that is a factor against you.”

He said many in the LGBTQ community fear established rights could be on the chopping block following the 2022 Supreme Court decision that overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

Texas State Rep. Julie Johnson, seen here at Equality PAC’s National Pride Gala on June 13, says she feels a sense of urgency to bring awareness at the federal level to anti-LGBTQ measures that are advancing in state legislatures.
Jon Fleming Photography provided by Equality PAC  /
Texas State Rep. Julie Johnson, seen here at Equality PAC’s National Pride Gala on June 13, says she feels a sense of urgency to bring awareness at the federal level to anti-LGBTQ measures that are advancing in state legislatures.

“Despite the success of marriage equality in 2015, I think we have to be careful not to prematurely declare mission accomplished, not to lull ourselves into a false sense of security,” Torres said. “A woman born in 2024 has fewer rights than she did in 1973, which is a tragic reminder that progress cannot be taken for granted, that LGBTQ rights can be every bit as fragile as reproductive rights.”

Torres said he views an “emergence of a new culture war, and the prime target is the trans community.”

“We are witnessing unprecedented fear mongering and scapegoating against LGBTQ people, against members of the trans community in particular,” Torres said.

Torres — who became the first openly LGBTQ Black-Latino member of Congress in 2021 — said his own political journey is a success of the PAC, and he’s now paying it forward to help a new slate of candidates win decisively.

“I think campaigning is part problem solving and part psychotherapy,” said Torres, who joined last year as the PAC's co-chair, serving alongside co-founder Takano.

“We will host fundraisers, but also we provide technical assistance on how to run a campaign. We provide emotional support to the candidates. We give our cell phone numbers to every candidate we endorse. So if there's anything we can do to be helpful, we're on speed dial.”

‘PACS are not the enemy of politics’

Texas State Rep. Julie Johnson said that kind of support from Equality PAC helped her fend off a runoff election in the March primary, where the second-place candidate was thirty-one points behind her.

“PACs are not the enemy of politics. PACs create a vehicle for donors to unite around a common cause. I think that we need to really get out of this misnomer,” Johnson told NPR. “[Equality PAC has] been the single greatest partner I've had on the road. They have introduced me to donors, they've helped me secure good consultants, they've helped me navigate some of the media issues, the policy issues.”

Democratic congressional candidate from Delaware Sarah McBride hugs Delaware State Treasurer Colleen Davis during a press conference on the steps of Delaware Legislative Hall on March, 4 2024 in Dover, Delaware. If elected, McBride would be the first transgender person to serve in the U.S. Congress.
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images / Getty Images North America
/
Getty Images North America
Democratic congressional candidate from Delaware Sarah McBride hugs Delaware State Treasurer Colleen Davis during a press conference on the steps of Delaware Legislative Hall on March, 4 2024 in Dover, Delaware. If elected, McBride would be the first transgender person to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Her district is considered a safe bet for Democrats. If elected in November, Johnson will be the first lesbian representing Texas at the federal level and the first openly LGBTQ person to serve Congress from the South.

“It's not lost on me the significance of what my election represents to a large number of people in Texas and across the country,” Johnson said. “For us to be able to have victory is very important and also to be out and proud. I think it's a message that I am more than a gay person. It's certainly a significant part of me but it’s not all of me. I'm a mother. I'm a lawyer. And the whole of me comes to the process. And it makes it to where I can resonate with voters and they see themselves in me, whether they're straight or gay or not or whatever, because we have so many other things [in common] too.”

She said outside of her history-making bid, there’s power in the representation of the campaign itself.

“The visibility of it at home is a big deal,” she said. “I come from a very large media market in Dallas-Fort Worth. And to be able to see political ads on TV that are positive, that engage the LGBT community and reflect LGBT people in such a positive way, is really key when they get a lot of messages to the contrary on the Republican side. It really makes a difference for people to be able to see themselves — 'oh, my goodness, there's somebody – they see me. They are me.' And that makes a huge impact.”

‘It’s much harder to hate up close’

Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride is familiar with the feelings that come with being “a first.” She was the first openly transgender person elected to a state senate and is poised to win the sole Delaware House seat in November, which would make her the first trans member in Congress.

“When people like me are facing a cruel and concerted attack, it's critical to have full and effective legislators at all levels of government who happen to be trans, proving that trans people are part of the rich diversity of this nation and reinforcing that trans people are people,” she told NPR.

She said she’s part of a text group of Equality PAC-endorsed candidates.

“It’s a small cohort of people who know what it’s like to do what we’re doing day in and day out, and that’s incredibly comforting and helpful as a candidate," she said.

McBride said she's witnessed the impact of representation in her time in state politics.

“It's much harder to hate up close,” she said. “I've seen the power of those interpersonal relationships that you have when you are present as a peer and as a colleague – I've seen them transform people's approach, people's minds, people's hearts in Delaware. I know it might be a taller order in Washington, but I know it's possible.”

She said ultimately, if elected to the U.S. Congress, she hopes people won’t think of her identity first when they think about her tenure.

“They'll think about the policies I've helped advance – I think that is the best way to guarantee that while I may be a first, that I'm not the last, and that we build a world where it's no longer noteworthy when a trans candidate runs and wins,” she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.