Arizona's Sen. Kyrsten Sinema may have taught us a valuable lesson in the past week: when it comes to politics, visibility and representation will only take you so far.
Sinema, the first openly bisexual person to be elected to Congress, went viral for the wrong reasons on Friday when she voted against a provision in the coronavirus relief package that would have increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And she didn't just vote against it, but went out of her way to get Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's attention before giving a sassy thumbs-down on the floor of the Senate.
The #girlboss jokes practically write themselves — she made her vote after showing up to work with a large chocolate cake (ostensibly for Senate staffers but begging for comparisons to Marie Antoinette), wearing knee-high boots and a pleated skirt, carrying a giant Lululemon bag.
Her spokesperson Hannah Hurley was quick to decry these observations as sexist, telling HuffPost, "Commentary about a female senator's body language, clothing, or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet."
Maybe she would also say the backlash is biphobic, since Sinema's humor and playful fashion sense have been a big part of her brand appeal for LGBTQ+ supporters. Finally, a bisexual queen who will shake up the old boys' club on Capitol Hill — so the narrative went.
"Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema: Smart, Funny, Bi and Running for Senate," The Advocate announced in 2018, covering a HRC gala in Los Angeles where Sinema rubbed elbows with Rep. Maxine Waters and Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon.
"HA HA: Mike Pence Had to Swear In Bisexual Senator Kyrsten Sinema," we wrote as she officially joined the Senate in 2019, "... And Rachel Maddow loved it."
Last year, the newly-elected senator was proudly featured in our Women's History Month project, and we jumped to her defense when men criticized her for wearing colorful wigs in solidarity with people who couldn't visit hair salons during the COVID-19 pandemic, underlining the casual sexism that women face when they go into politics.
Which is why it's baffling that Sinema thought it was a good idea to make a joke out of her vote while cozying up to McConnell, of all people.
She struck a different tone in a statement she posted to Twitter later that day. "I understand what it is like to face tough choices while working to meet your family’s most basic needs. I also know the difference better wages can make, which is why I helped lead Arizona’s effort to pass an indexed minimum wage in 2006, and strongly supported the voter-approved state minimum wage increase in 2016. No person who works full time should live in poverty… [The] Senate should hold an open debate and amendment process on raising the minimum wage, separate from the COVID-focused reconciliation bill."
Were we too quick to throw our support behind Sinema because she's bisexual? SiriusXM host Michelangelo Signorile certainly thinks so. "I warned you all about Kyrsten Sinema—years ago," he tweeted on Friday. "When she came on my show in 2012 and couldn’t 'remember' her very public coming out as bisexual on floor of the AZ legislature — when she suddenly decided she needed to play it down. My jaw dropped. But here we are."
At the very least, this should be a reminder to not let Sinema's style obscure her track record. Throughout her career in Arizona, where she started out as a Green Party member, working with Republicans has always been one of her personal selling points.
"Sometimes it surprises people when they hear I'm friends with colleagues from across the political spectrum," Sinema told The Advocate in that 2018 interview. "That’s the way I've always been — willing to work with anyone to get the job done."
More to the point, Sinema's vote shines a light on the fact that women are more likely to work minimum wage jobs that keep them in poverty — especially LGBTQ+ women and women of color.
"Numerous studies have shown that the federal minimum wage is not enough income to keep a family out of poverty, nor has it been for many decades," says a 2015 report from the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project.
"LGBT women are more likely than other groups — both LGBT and non-LGBT — to live in poverty. Nearly one in three bisexual women ages 18-44 lives in poverty, and one in five LGBT women living alone lives in poverty."
Unsurprisingly, transgender women have it even worse. "Although the National Transgender Discrimination Survey does not break out poverty rates for transgender women separate from transgender men and gender nonconforming people, transgender and gender nonconforming people as a group have poverty rates nearly four times the rate of the general population."
As much as we hope for greater LGBTQ+ representation in Congress, the implications of Sen. Sinema's decisions for our community is where our focus should be.
Christine Linnell is a writer and the social media manager for The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @CNell_LA.