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Kamala Harris: Our One-on-One With the Vice President

Kamala Harris: Our One-on-One With the Vice President

<p>Kamala Harris: Our One-on-One With the Vice President</p>
photo by Mike Nelson

As Republicans vehemently attack reproductive and trans rights, the VP sees a linked battle for bodily autonomy.

Leadership is about lifting people up rather than putting them down. That’s what good leaders do, at least. But one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Republicans have embraced spite as a feature, not a bug, as they escalate their campaign against abortion access and attack bodily autonomy rights through a legislative assault on transgender Americans.

Even though six out of 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal, conservatives see removing a federal right to abortion as a feather in their cap.

As the U.S. political ecosystem heads into yet another election cycle, Republican politicians try to divide Americans along cultural lines. Using their old playbook, they have decided to target transgender Americans in their next culture war after severely limiting or eliminating abortion access in red states.

photo by Jen Rosenstein

“I hate bullies,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris says.

Over several days, The Advocate had rare, extensive access to the vice president, including a one-on-one interview, accompanying her to various stops in Los Angeles (The Advocate witnessed Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, and Brittney and Cherelle Griner share a quiet, private moment as the WNBA star was set to play her first game since being released from Russian captivity) and the historic commencement speech she delivered at the U.S. Military Academy West Point, the first woman in the school’s 221-year-old history to do so.

“I can’t stand it when so-called powerful people intentionally try to strike fear in innocent people,” Harris says vehemently.

The American Civil Liberties Union reports that more than 520 pieces of legislation target LGBTQ+ individuals nationwide.

Republican state legislators have focused on denying trans minors’ access to essential services, including gender-affirming health care prescribed by their doctors; care endorsed by nearly all professional medical organizations. In addition, some GOP-controlled states have taken steps to strip adults of this proven medical treatment.

photo by Mike NelsonVice President Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff arrive at West Point

photo by Mike NelsonVice President Harris with Advocate senior national reporter Christopher Wiggins on Air Force Two

The assault on corporeal freedoms is significant. In 24 states, Republicans have enacted laws restricting abortion access. At least 20 states have enacted legislation restricting access to gender-affirming care.

Additionally, by passing laws targeted at drag queens performing in public, transgender Americans’ access to bathroom facilities, the removal of books by and about LGBTQ+ people, and the general erasure of queer and trans experiences from American society, conservatives are pushing LGBTQ+ people back into the closet.

“You look in Florida, [the] ‘don’t say gay’ bill and what this has meant for LGBTQ teachers who are now afraid,” Harris says.

Known as the Parental Rights in Education law, the “don’t say gay” measure signed by Florida’s Republican governor and declared 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis limits teachers’ ability to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity, from kindergarten through high school graduation, and even at some public universities in the state.

Teachers who identify as queer or trans have struggled to display photos of their families because of the rules governing discussions about sexual orientation.

photo by Mike NelsonWest Point Academy officials greet Vice President Harris upon her arrival

photo by Mike NelsonVice President Harris gave a historic commencement speech at New York’s U.S. Military Academy in May

photo by Mike NelsonWest Point’s Class of 2023 celebrates

DeSantis, ironically, is removing Floridians’ access to necessary gender-affirming health care, taking away parental rights to make decisions about their children’s medical care.

Having surrounded herself with LGBTQ+ people on her staff for more than 20 years and in her circle of friends, Harris says it pained her to watch people she knew attend weddings at a time when those were out of reach for LGBTQ+ couples. As San Francisco’s district attorney in 2004, Harris officiated some of the country’s first same-sex marriages.

Nearly two decades later, she can’t believe teachers in this country are now in a position of choosing the closet over job security.

“I’m looking at some 20-something-year-old teacher in Florida who has dedicated [themselves] to one of the most noble professions, which is teaching our children their God-given capacity,” she says. “And that teacher who is in a loving relationship or marriage is afraid to put up a photograph of their family for fear that if the student in their classroom asks, ‘Who is that?’ [that] it will raise a conversation about a same-sex relationship, and they could lose their job. Outrageous!”

Republicans may have miscalculated how Americans feel about LGBTQ+ rights, though.

More than 71 percent of Americans now support marriage equality, according to a 2021 Gallup poll, up from 42 percent in 2004 and 58 percent in 2015 when the Supreme Court legalized marriage rights for all couples.

According to Harris, performing some of the first same-sex marriages in the U.S. was one of the most joyous experiences of her life. As California’s attorney general, she refused to defend Proposition 8, a voter-approved initiative reversing marriage equality, before it was struck down by the courts; Harris once again performed weddings at San Francisco City Hall in 2013, officiating the first wedding for two of the plaintiffs in the case, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier.

“It was an extraordinary sight,” Harris says. “People of every race, every color, every size, every configuration with balloons and stuffed animals and just pure joy wrapped around a whole city block and beyond. I’ve said before [that] I think there’s probably some law of physics that says that when you have so many people in one space experiencing pure joy, it just changes the whole energy.”

photo by Lawrence Jackson for the White House Vice President Kamala Harris drops by a Transgender Day of Visibility roundtable with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and transgender individuals and their families, Thursday, March 31, 2022, in the Diplomatic Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House

photo by Jen RosensteinVice President Harris chats with Kelly Sawyer Patricof (left) and Norah Weinstein (center), co-CEOs of Baby2Baby, which provides diapers, formula, clothing, and basic necessities to children and mothers living in poverty

Sadly, that joy a decade ago feels distant. As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to make abortion services accessible to people who require them post-Roe, it’s also taking executive actions and using the courts to protect trans people.

In late April, the Justice Department filed a complaint challenging Tennessee Senate Bill 1, which denies vital medical care to youth based solely on their identities. The government asserts that S.B. 1 violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by banning medically necessary care for transgender minors.

Harris says that in the face of these challenges and as part of the struggle, “We just have to make sure that this moment is motivating people to act and not motivating people to be afraid.”

Even so, Americans seeking abortions are becoming refugees in their own country as they flee red states for blue states. In a similar vein, parents of trans kids and LGBTQ+ families are escaping Republican-led states because they are afraid to remain in places where they’re treated as second-class citizens.

The story of Elle, a 17-year-old transgender teen from Oklahoma, is one example. She and her father, Charles, told The Advocate that the family is relocating because Elle’s safety is becoming increasingly precarious. In addition to her access to life-saving care being threatened, she was recently verbally accosted while shopping at Target when a man called her a “freak” and “groomer.”

Harris bristles at the cruelty of the right. Her embrace of activism stems from her parents’ involvement in the civil rights movement in the Bay Area, and she was raised to welcome people rather than push them away.

“The strength of that movement, just like the movement for marriage, was about coalition building,” Harris notes.

photo by Jen Rosensteinphoto by Jen RosensteinWNBA player Brittney Griner and wife Cherelle speak with Vice President Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff before Griner's first game back after being released by Russian authoritites last December

photo by Jen RosensteinBrittney Grinner mentally prepares for her first game back after returning to the U.S.

photo by Jen RosensteinVice President Harris joined the Los Angeles Sparks huddle in the locker room at Arena in Los Angeles; she wished the team well in its first game of the season against the Phoenix Mercury

It is essential for American citizens to stay vigilant without despair in the spirit of Coretta Scott King, who recognized that gains made in the past are not permanent, Harris says.

Marriage rights were enshrined in federal law last winter as a result of this kind of vigilance.

President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law in December. In celebration of the codification of marriage protections into federal law, hundreds of LGBTQ+ people and allies gathered on the South Lawn of the White House.

As Stier, Perry, and their children watched, Biden presented the only pen with which he signed the legislation to Harris. Presidents traditionally present ceremonial pens to leaders whose contributions to legislation they want to honor and acknowledge.

Harris, who kept the pen, says the gesture moved her deeply.

“I didn’t expect it,” she says. “[I] had no idea he was going to do that. I was so touched!”

The significance of that moment is not lost on her, and she hopes that the American people consider its importance.

“It could evoke a conversation that reminds us of just the last 20 years in this movement and the importance of allyship, the importance of understanding that this is about all of us,” Harris says.

“Nobody should be made to fight alone. And our president has been in front of this issue for so long also. So to be with him on the stage where there’s a mutual recognition of what this means in terms of our mutual commitment to this issue, that also meant a lot.”

Harris jokes that she “famously love[s] Venn diagrams” and asked her team to show her data on the states attacking LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, and voting rights.

“You would not be surprised to know there’s a significant overlap,” Harris says. “The opportunity this obvious crisis presents is the opportunity for coalition building…helping people to see the similarities between them and the need to stand together, the need to speak loud and clear, that no one should be made to fight alone. I feel very strongly about that. And so the intersection on the issue of reproductive care and trans care, and the ability of families to be able to have care for their children and their families is really, again, an intersection around attacks that are on an identity.”

She adds, “When you look at what is at play right now and who is being attacked and on what grounds to be made to feel alone and, most importantly, to be made to be fearful, this is what, pardon my language, what pisses me off more than anything.”

photo by Jen RosensteinTennis legend Billie Jean King (right) and wife Ilana Kloss sit courtside at Arena in Los Angeles for Brittney Griner’s first WNBA game back since being released from Russian captivity

photo by Jen Rosensteinphoto by Jen RosensteinVice President Harris was greeted with rapturous applause while making a surprise appearance on the basketball court at Arena in May

As signs of fascism and white power movements increase, Harris proudly cites the work of her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, fighting anti-Semitism.

“You see the increase in racism, the increase in white supremacy, the increase of just the misogynist kind of rhetoric,” she says. “A lot of it is really about attacking people for who they are and simply want to be.”

Those who are against LGBTQ+ people should answer one question, she says.

“What is it to you?” she asks. “It takes nothing from you to let people be. … What distresses me about this moment is also that we are certainly at a place where supposed so-called leaders have defined their strength based on this chest-beating approach that is about knocking people down. But from my perspective, I will tell you the true measure of strength is not based on who you knock down. It’s based on who you lift up.”

Harris also feels strongly on the right wing’s self-declared war on “woke.”

“The other thing that is perverse about this moment is that these same so-called leaders would suggest and infer that it’s a sign of weakness to have empathy when in fact, one of the attributes of a real leader is someone who has empathy, who has a level of interest and concern and care for their fellow human being; who understands and takes an interest in the time to understand what might be their suffering. What might be their needs? What is their right to dignity?”

She continues, “What this should be is a wake-up call to all of us. Let’s band together and stand up for the rights and the dignity of each other.”

Photography by Mike Nelson and Jen Rosenstein. Additional images courtesy of the White House.

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