Delaware has never sworn an openly gay person into its General Assembly. That will change this January, when three members of the LGBTQ community join the legislature, making history for the state.
WHYY reporter Zoë Read spoke to queer people across the state who said they saw this election as an especially important victory. They say that their hard-fought rights have slowly come under threat during the Trump administration, and they worry they could lose things like marriage equality with the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Zoë explains the progressive agendas of Delaware’s new representatives, and what they’ll be able to do to protect the rights of their LGBTQ constituents.
On Sarah McBride, Delaware’s first transgender lawmaker
Sarah McBride has probably gotten the most national attention [of Delaware’s new LGBTQ legislators]. She was already pretty well known nationally for her advocacy work for the LGBTQ community. She’s the national press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. But she also worked for the campaigns of former Delaware Governor Jack Markell and the late former state attorney general Beau Biden, who we know is the son of President-elect Joe. And she made history at the 2016 Democratic National Convention as the first openly transgender person to speak at a major party convention, [where she said]: “Despite our progress, so much work remains. Will we be a nation where there’s only one way to love, only one way to look and only one way to live? Or will we be a nation where everyone has the freedom to live openly and equally, a nation that’s stronger together?”
One of the most important issues to Sarah is medical leave for all Delawareans. That issue is really important to her because she knows what it’s like to care for someone. Her husband Andy battled tongue cancer, and he passed away in 2014, only 4 days after they got married.
On some of the fear LGBTQ Delawareans are feeling
There’s a real concern among some people that the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ policies were undermining their rights. For example, the issue of marriage equality. I spoke with Christian Williams and Gianfranco Rizzo, a gay couple who had a whirlwind romance and moved in together during the height of the pandemic. They started talking about getting married in 2021.
But they were a little concerned about some things: One, Trump’s anti-immigration policies, because Rizzo is an international student from Honduras. But then they read about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and got even more scared. They knew Amy Coney Barrett had been criticized for her religious views and for her opinions on LGBTQ issues. And she was also mentored by Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented in the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on gay marriage. So they decided to get married intentionally before the presidential election on October 31st.
“We just wanted to do it as quickly as possible, in a sense, to prove that we have a right,” Rizzo said.
When the Trump administration came into office in 2016, one of the things they immediately tried to take away was protections for trans kids in schools and LGBTQ protections in health care and employment. There’s a whole list of LGBTQ protections created by former President Barack Obama that Trump eliminated. Now Biden has promised to reinstate many of the protections that Trump eliminated. But still, it could be hard, even with Biden as president, to keep LGBTQ rights intact if Republicans control the Senate. And, of course, there’s still the looming threat of a conservative Supreme Court.
On whether these new legislators will be able to make a material difference for their constituents
That remains to be seen, how much difference these lawmakers will make. Delaware has taken some big steps forward when it comes to LGBTQ rights in the last decade, but it’s also hit some stumbling blocks. It’s been about 10 years since the state outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. There’s also been several proposals put forward by Delaware’s top lawmakers. A couple years ago Governor John Carney wanted to protect trans students, and that included asking staff to not notify parents if a transgender student wants to use a different name at school than at home. And it would have also allowed students to use locker rooms and bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. But that received some pushback from some conservative parents, and that initiative stalled. And I think members of the LGBTQ community, they’re hoping that with this representation, they’ll actually have a voice at the table, and they’ll have people that will push forward some of these initiatives that have been talked about over the years but actually haven’t had enough traction.