Ritchie Torres is young, gay, Afro-Latino, and heading to Congress. After being sworn in January, he'll make history as one of the first LGBTQ+ people of color to serve in the United States Congress.
Torres, the youngest person to ever be elected to the New York City Council, defeated a fiercely anti-LGBTQ+ candidate in the primary for New York's 15th district. His victory in the heavily blue district all but assures that he will go on to win in the general election. A record number of LGBTQ+ candidates are running for office in 2020 (a full list can be viewed here) and as Torres says on the LGBTQ&A podcast this week, "You're about to have the gayest Congress in the history of the United States."
Torres also speaks on the podcast about growing up in poverty in the Bronx, his experience with depression, and why "everything is at stake" for LGBTQ+ people in this election.
On growing up in poverty in the Bronx, across the street from a Trump golf course:
"I spent almost all my life in poverty, raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on minimum wage, which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour. And I grew up in public housing, in conditions of mold and mildew, leaks and lead, without reliable heat and hot water in the winter.
And my life is something of a metaphor. I grew up in a public housing development right across the street from Trump Golf Course. So, as I saw the conditions in my own home get worse every day, the government had invested more than $100 million to construct the golf course in honor of Donald Trump. And I remember wondering to myself at the time, "What does it say that our society is willing to invest more in a gated, gilded golf course for Donald Trump than in the homes of Black and Brown low-income Americans?" And so that experience of inequality is what inspired me to become a housing organizer. And then eventually I took the leap of faith and ran for public office.
In 2013, I became the first openly LGBTQ elected official from the Bronx. But several years before then I was at the lowest point. I had dropped out of college. I was abusing substances. I was struggling with depression. I was struggling with a sexual identity crisis. I had lost my best friend to an opioid overdose. There were moments when I even thought of taking my own life. I felt as if the world around me had collapsed, and then seven years later, I became the youngest elected official in the largest city in America. And now I'm about to become a United States Congressman for the only home I've ever known, the Bronx. And so I often tell people, my story is the story of the Bronx. It's a story of struggle, but also one of overcoming."
On experience with depression:
"My openness about depression is rooted in my lived experience as an LGBTQ person. When you are openly LGBTQ, you have to go through the process of coming out. You have to go through a process of embracing who you are and sharing it with the world. And that process teaches you integrity. And that applies not only to your sexuality, but to every aspect of your life.
There's a sense in which acknowledging your struggle with depression or with any mental illness is analogous to coming out. It's accepting, indeed embracing, an essential element of who you are. And I feel no shame in admitting that I struggle with depression. I feel no shame in admitting that I take an antidepressant every day. That enables me to be a productive public servant who's risen to national politics.
And I feel as a public official, I have a moral obligation to break the shame and stigma and silence that too often surrounds mental health."
On accepting his sexuality:
"When you go through a process of coming out and when you learn to accept who you are, it makes you more secure in your own skin. It conditions you to embrace your individuality, embrace your integrity, to be true to yourself. I think that's the beauty, that's the gift of the LGBTQ experience, that we have to make a choice to be who we are. And that is a burden, but it's also a gift.
I mean, that's how it's played out for me, because I feel like when you've gone through the process of coming out and embracing who you are, you are a more authentic person."
On what happens if the Democrats don't take back the Senate:
"We are in trouble. Even with an FDR moment, we are in danger of facing a right-wing Supreme Court. And what good is a democratically-elected president and a democratically-elected Congress if the popular progressive priorities of the party can be overturned by the Supreme Court, by a right-wing oligarchy at the Supreme Court?
And so I feel strongly that we have to expand the Supreme Court. That we as Democrats have to be every bit as relentless and ruthless in building democratic power as the Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell, have been in building Republican power. Unilateral disarmament is a loser's game. The Supreme Court should be the supreme priority of the Democratic Party.
And the LGBTQ community in a sense has the most at stake, because if a right-wing Supreme Court, we interpret religious liberty as a license to discriminate, then that will have the effect of eviscerating all human rights protections for the LGBTQ community at every level of government, including The Equality Act because the constitution trumps everything else. So we have no choice but to ensure that Joe Biden becomes president and the Democrats win the Senate and we expand the Supreme Court so that we can protect our progressive agenda and protect the equality of the LGBTQ community. Everything is at stake."
On beating an anti-LGBTQ+ candidate in the primary:
"That is an overwhelming rejection of the status quo. That's an overwhelming rejection of the politics of hate and fear that Ruben Díaz, Sr. has embodied for most of his political career. For me, the triumph of an openly LGBTQ candidate over the leading homophobe in New York state politics is a powerful testament to how far we've come. And it's one thing to have an openly LGBTQ elected official from Chelsea or the village, it's something else to have it in the South Bronx, in a place where you might least expect it. That to me is a new kind of breakthrough in LGBTQ representation of politics."
LGBTQ&A is hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Episodes come out every Tuesday. Listen and subscribe.