When Rep. Sharice Davids was elected to Congress in 2018, she became one of just two (along with former Rep. Deb Haaland, now Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland) Native American women to ever serve in the House of Representatives. Last year, Rep. Yvette Herrell from New Mexico brought that number to three. It's something to celebrate, as well as a bittersweet reminder of how slow progress often is.
Rep. Davids is also one of just nine LGBTQ+ members of the House of Representatives, all of whom are Democrats.
On this week's episode of LGBTQ&A, Davids speaks about advocating for her LGBTQ+ and Native American communities in Congress, the viability of the Equality Act, keeping her romantic relationships private, and her new children's book, Sharice's Big Voice, which is out now.
Jeffrey Masters: As one of four Native Americans in Congress, you have that label attached to your name, but growing up how much was it a part of your identity?
Rep. Sharice Davids: It's interesting to think about that and try to parse that out, because it's a piece of me that's always there. There's a story I share about coming home one day when I was very little and saying, "Mommy, what am I?" And she says, "Well, why are you asking that?" "Because other people are asking me, and I don't know what to tell them."
I think there's probably a lot of kids who get asked, "What are you?," and it doesn't feel very good. But I do remember my mom saying, "Well, you're Ho-Chunk, and you should tell them you're Native American. Your tribe is Ho-Chunk. Our people are from Wisconsin." When you're growing up, you're just absorbing these things, and it's who you are, so it's hard to know, because it's the only experience I've ever had.
JM: You represent the Third District in Kansas, but since there are so few Native Americans in Congress, do you also feel like it’s your job to speak up for all Native people in the U.S.?
SD: I would never say that I speak for all Native people or even my tribe.
JM: I'm wondering if you don't have that choice since you're often the only one in the room.
SD: Yeah, I think I can bring things up on behalf of other people, but I'm just really careful about the concept of speaking for other people, even talking about it in that way. Like any group, Native people are not a monolith. I think it's helpful to constantly remind people of that and make sure that folks know that I might be an expert on my lived experience or certain parts of legislation or policy.
Especially in my role as a member of Congress, I have to spend most of my time listening to other people who are talking about the issues and concerns that they have. So, I'm doing that for sure, for the Third District. And when it comes to tribal issues, tribal communities, I can ask questions that other people might not even think of because of my experience.
JM: Do you have an example of when that's happened recently?
SD: It’s interesting because I'm Native, but I'm also an attorney who has practiced law with tribes. I've worked on some of the very big issues that we have to deal with. Now that I'm dealing with as a member of Congress, there's been quite a few times where I've looked at a piece of legislation and the intention is there. It's a really good intention like, "Oh, we want to make sure that tribes are included in this." Because it's a very complex area, there'll be plenty of times where I'm like, "Oh, let's set up a meeting with that member, who's introducing this piece of legislation,” whether it's related to voting rights or during the pandemic, tribes and Indian country have been hit pretty hard.
The paycheck protection program was intended to be for all small businesses who fit into some specific categories, but certainly tribal organizations should have been included in that. The law was written that way, but the SBA and the Treasury Department put out regulations basically saying tribal organizations aren't eligible. So, I basically led an effort —it was bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats in the House and in the Senate — and we were able to get the SBA and the Treasury Department to change the guidelines, and so tribal organizations could access that program.
JM: For legislation that you introduce or co-sponsor, how much thought or effort do you give on making sure it can pass in the Senate?
SD: The most effective thing I think I can do as a member of the House is work through and try to pick up support for policies that I think are going to be really effective, whether it's for the Third District or for tribal communities or for the country, is to really focus on my colleagues in the House, because there's a lot of us. Just the process to get things through a committee, to the House floor, it can be a long process.
JM: To use a specific example, the Equality Act has now passed in two different terms in the House, but has stalled in the Senate. It's functioning as like a lovely signal to the country of our priorities, but is that all it’s going to be?
SD: I completely agree. It can't just be a sentiment that we're putting out there. I think it's promising that when we pass things out of the House, if they have bipartisan support, it makes it feel more promising for the prospects in the Senate. And the Equality Act passed with bipartisan support, which I was very glad to see.
JM: Are you calling senators to make sure it gets to the floor? Or is it now just on its own?
SD: I mean, definitely there are conversations and that happens. And the House has the Equality Caucus. Actually, we had an Equality Caucus meeting this morning. We meet at 8:15 in the morning.
JM: Is that only the LGBTQ+ members of Congress or is it also allies?
SD: Oh, this was the co-chairs. It's where we get a chance to talk about things like working with David Cicilline, who for multiple sessions of Congress has really led the charge on getting the Equality Act passed and building up support and that sort of thing.
That's the time when we get the chance to talk about, if we've had conversations with anybody on the Senate side, what the leadership of the House is doing, where bills are at, either in committee or the timing for coming to the floor.
JM: Is there anything to be optimistic about in the next month with the Equality Act?
SD: That I can't say for certain, with the infrastructure conversations and…I think there's a lot of conversations going on about what's going to happen on the Senate side. And actually, that could probably be an evergreen statement.
JM: With 435 members of Congress, I've always wondered how much contact or face time do you have with the President.
SD: I have to say I'm not really sure at this point, because we just had a changeover in administration. I've had the chance to go to the White House twice. And one of those meetings was with the President and the Vice President and Secretary Buttigieg. But I don't know. I'll have to get back to you.
JM: Are you able to contact the White House and ask for a one-on-one with the President or would that need to go through Nancy Pelosi?
SD: I mean, I could definitely reach out and say, "I'd like to have a one-on-one with the President, please." I mean, I don't know if it's going to happen.
JM: Secretary Buttigieg is the Secretary of Transportation. You are on the House Committee on Transportation. Why do gay people like transportation so much?
SD: I hadn't really thought about that. Angie [Craig] and I, she's on Energy and Commerce now, but we sat next to each other on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I wonder if it has to do with maybe problem solving, like getting to the root of an issue or something like that. Because I feel like you spend a lot of time, maybe when you're young, trying to figure out, "How do I solve them?"
JM: I was thinking that queer people feel like they need to prove something in politics. It's easy to say like, "Yeah, I'm gay, but I fixed your bridge. I filled your potholes.” We can point to these concrete things in people’s lives so they don’t think our queerness is a disadvantage.
SD: Oh. I don't know. I feel like for me, it feels like...One, I'm pretty nerdy. So, that's part of it for me. But it could be kind of a "See, I can be helpful" or something.
JM: You were sworn in with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Does everyone in Congress look at her ability to command attention on Twitter and social media and say, "I want to do that too."
SD: I think social media can be a very important thing. I am not, personally…I don't spend really any time on there. Here's what I think about the social media stuff, now that I'm in Congress because I think I had different thoughts on it before I got here. The amazing thing about Congress is each one of us shows up with our own expertise area, our own thoughts, desires, motivations, and skillsets. It's like having 435 small businesses or entrepreneurs figuring out like, "OK, what am I going to do with this two years that I for sure have."
And I'm in a situation where I flipped a seat. I beat a four-term Republican incumbent in Kansas. And so, I tend to spend most of my time focused on constituent services.
JM: Not having your name publicly attached to certain bills, is that helpful in getting them passed?
SD: It's just my personality. I'm kind of nerdy. I'm fine giving speeches and doing the public facing stuff. But the place I really thrive and the place I most enjoy myself is hearings and parsing through policy and that sort of thing.
I don't know about the intentionality of kind of "flying under the radar", but I do think there's something to the fact that, whether we're talking about when I was doing MMA or working on community and economic development stuff, I just kind of show up and I'm like, "What needs to be done?" And I just start digging in in that way. I'm not as much of an "out in front" kind of person.
JM: You write about watching the campaign results come in for your first election with your partner. That’s the first time I’ve seen you publicly acknowledge being in a relationship. Has it been important to you to keep that private?
SD: I try to be really cognizant of the fact that there's a lot of people who, for one reason or another, because of the community they're in, their family situation, there are all these different outside pressures and then internal pressures that we have for one reason or another.
I never want to shy away from acknowledging who I am, being authentic as much as I can be. It's an important thing to be able to say, as a now public figure, which feels very strange, "Yes, I'm out. I'm not ashamed of any part of who I am." I think that can be really important. I also try to be cognizant of getting to be a regular human. And so, it was an intentional thing to make sure that...specifically on this, make sure that people know that I'm not going to shy away from who I am.
Maybe it's a lesson in boundaries. But I think that it's mostly the fact that I know so many people spend a lot of their life not feeling seen. I'm not immune to that. None of us are immune to that. And it can be because of being part of the LGBTQ+ community, it can be as a woman or as a Native person, there are a lot of different reasons why we might not feel seen or heard. Being able to just acknowledge things helps reduce that level of invisibility that we might feel.
Sharice's Big Voice by Rep. Sharice Davids is available now.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Niecy Nash, and Roxane Gay. Episodes are released every Tuesday.