It’s almost impossible to not be mesmerized by Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, when she’s at the podium. Fluent in English, French, and Haitian Creole, Jean-Pierre is as swift with retorts as Rachel Maddow, but without the bracing sarcasm and obvious disdain often coming from commentators (unless you ask her about Ted Cruz).
She’s had a life of firsts under her belt (she’s the first Black, gay, Haitian American, and immigrant woman to ever serve as press secretary), but it certainly wasn’t a given. Born in the French Caribbean island of Martinique, Jean-Pierre grew up in Queens, N.Y. Her mother, a devout Catholic, worked as a home health care aide. And though he was an engineer by training, Jean-Pierre’s father became a taxi driver after coming to the U.S. To support their family, they worked seven days a week, often leaving Jean-Pierre to care for her younger siblings.
Jean-Pierre can thank the late Black Congresswoman Barbara Jordan for her foray into politics. Though she was a (closeted) gay woman with a very longtime companion (she and Nancy Earl were together for two decades), Jordan never spoke publicly of her sexuality. But she was a firebrand in politics, and her “substantive and authentic” keynote speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention caught Jean-Pierre’s attention.
Though her parents pushed her toward medicine, Jean-Pierre excelled once she chose a different path, earning a master of public affairs degree from Columbia University. She served as the senior adviser and spokeswoman for MoveOn.org, a lecturer at Columbia, a political analyst for NBC News, and then as Kamala Harris’s chief of staff during the presidential campaign before being appointed press secretary by President Biden.
There were bumps in the road. Jean-Pierre came out at 16, but her family simply refused to accept it. She shared those difficulties publicly this year, during the White House National Coming Out Day press briefing. Although it took many years, she said, they finally came around. “They saw that who I loved didn’t change who I was as a person,” she said. Jean-Pierre says her remarks were meant to offer young people a counter-narrative to the continual waves of “anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country.”
Her commitment to authenticity has always been an element of her ability to inspire others to rally for change. Critics described her 2019 memoir — Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work, and the Promise of America — as “part memoir, part call to arms.” Unlike Jordan, Jean-Pierre is forthright about the family she has built (she and her partner, CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, have a 7-year-old daughter, Soleil) and can still relay the heartbreak of her younger years. Hers is a story of triumph over tragedy.
The early rejection from her mother sent her back into the closet, sexual assault by a distant relative impacted her mental health, and there was a suicide attempt after failing her pre-med exams. All of it was swept under the rug. She wrote in her memoir, “To this day, no one in my family has ever talked to me about my suicide attempt.”
While she’s transparent about the past, it is clearly just that. The 48-year-old is now one of the most powerful women in America as the voice of President Joe Biden, his administration, and his agenda. Her mother is now proud of who her daughter has become, and she loves Jean-Pierre’s family and playing grandma to Soleil. But Jean-Pierre has no time for a victory lap.
Jean-Pierre posed for The Advocate’s cover outside her office at the White House an hour before Sir Elton John played on the South Lawn, receiving the National Humanities Medal for his HIV work in front of a who’s who of LGBTQ+ activists and allies. The event was to “celebrate the unifying and healing power of music, commend the life and work of Sir Elton John, and honor the everyday history-makers in the audience, including teachers, nurses, frontline workers, mental health advocates, students, LGBTQ+ advocates, and more.” It was just another day at the Biden White House when she spoke with us.
What has it meant to be the first Haitian American, the first Black, and first out queer person to be White House press secretary?
When you’re doing the day to day of the work sometimes it doesn’t hit you, what it means for everyone when they see me at the podium and the different communities that I represent. But more broadly speaking, it matters who represents the White House, and it matters who we give a voice to. … I hope I bring a perspective and a visibility — that more Americans can feel seen and realize that anything is possible. I always tell young people not just to dream but to dream bigger.
It says a lot about this president and the first lady ... their trust in me and what they have trusted me with: the opportunity to talk with American people about the important work that we are doing and the real challenges that we’re facing. So, meeting the moment but also understanding that I have the experience to do that job and I have the experience to be at that podium. I think it’s important to lift that up as well.
Biden is surrounded by LGBTQ+ people from Pete Buttigieg to Admiral Rachel Levine and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis. As part of this circle, what does it mean when you see anti-LGBTQ+ attacks every day?
We’re living in a time where there is a lot of divisiveness and there are a lot of attacks on our community, and it is disheartening to see. And I think that is why it’s so important as to who we have sitting in that Oval Office right now. It is so important that we have a President Biden, it’s so important that we have a Biden-Harris administration, two people who understand what it is like to protect our community, to uplift our community. If you think about President Biden, his record when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, it is a record that he’s proud of. He has always, always been very clear and very bold in his actions and his words and what he has said about protecting this community, protecting our young people, protecting the transgender community, the trans community that is constantly under attack.
That’s especially concerning right now.
If you think about the women of color who are trans and what they’re dealing with and how they are being killed and murdered across the country. To see what is happening in our schools, how our young people are being attacked and not allowed to be who they are. We have heard this president over and over again speak very loudly and clearly about how unjust that is and how he is going to do everything in his power to make sure that there is equality for all. And you see that in his policies. So for me, and I think I could speak for Secretary Buttigieg and my other colleagues [about] how personal this is for them but also how important … it is for us to be in these positions that we’re in, for people to see us in these positions. For folks to understand that because we’re in these positions, their voices will be heard. And people will have a visual in understanding of what we can do as a community.
You have long served to rally others, encouraging marginalized people, especially women, to get involved in politics or advocacy. What do we tell people who are afraid to do so?
I understand how scared people can be. I understand how dangerous their environment has become, especially for some leaders out there, for elected officials. You hear us talk about this a lot, that radical Republican officials in particular, at all levels of government, are fighting against the will of the American people. You think about access to reproductive care. You think about the right to marry who you want. You think about letting Medicare negotiate drug prices and making sure that the rich pay their fair share. The thing that I want folks to understand is that this president has your back. The vice president has your back. This administration has your back. We’re not going to hesitate to call out dangerous politics that we’re seeing right now and we’re not afraid to take action where we can. We can fight these injustices.
[But] we still have to lean in, you know? The fight didn’t stop on November 2020. It continues. This is a fight that our community has been fighting for decades, and we can name some of the heroes that we have watched in our community fight and die for — in many ways putting their whole self into this issue. The fight is not going to end today, it’s not going to end tomorrow, it’s not going to end in six months. It’s going to continue.
What of your work this year have you been proudest?
I am the most proud to be part of the most diverse administration in history. This president is delivering results for the American people. You just look at policy after policy after policy, they are historic, and they lean in on equity. They lean in on not leaving anybody behind. And we are tackling problems other administrations have only talked about: lowering prescription drug costs, investing in the fight against climate change, bringing student debt relief to millions and millions of people.
I want to continue to be visible. I will continue to be public. I will continue to call out the bad behaviors from radical Republicans. And I will say that this country is stronger when we’re united, and everyone has a seat at the table.
What do you think that reporters get wrong about President Biden?
I think that sometimes there’s a lot of cynicism out there, and it’s unfortunate. But I also do think that there are reporters out there who see exactly what the president is trying to do and exactly how he is who he is. If you have watched President Biden over his career, the 36 years in [the] Senate, if you watched him the last eight years of being a vice president, if you had just paid attention the last 19 months, he is who he says he is. The policies that he has laid out are policies he’s talked about for some time.
You think about the American Rescue Plan that got us back on track, that made sure that our economy turned back on and historic numbers, historic results. You think about the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, that is something again I had just mentioned, people, Republicans, and Democrat presidents have talked about doing for a long time, he has delivered on. You think about student loan debt relief I just mentioned. You think about fighting prescription drugs, Big Pharma, and delivering.
I think what our job is, is just to continue to talk about it. Our job is to continue to show how we are delivering for the American people. Our job is to speak directly to them. And that is what matters. If we can give people a little bit more of an opportunity, a little bit more of a way to get ahead, a little bit more of hope. And you hear the president talk about that all the time. That is what ultimately matters — what we deliver.
That’s an impact that’s going to last for generations.
The work that we have done is going to have an impact for generations. The work that we have done in the last 19 months, I mean, just look at COVID, for example. The work that this president has done getting more than 220 million people fully vaccinated, making sure that businesses are open again, making sure that schools are open again, making sure that it is more manageable. We know that we have the tests and the vaccines — and we have the treatments. [We’re also] making sure that we didn’t leave [behind] communities that are normally left behind, Black and brown communities, LBGTQ communities, poor communities … that we brought them along in getting those shots in arms and getting their lives in a place where things are not as disrupted as it was three years ago. And so that matters. That is because of the vision that this president had. And because we were able to do that, the economy is in a much better place than it would’ve been. We’re going to continue to do that work.
How are you able to stay so composed at the podium? Do you meditate and deep breathe, or scream into a pillow afterwards?
Somebody was asking me that recently as well. I just focus on the work at hand. And I don’t listen to the noise, I really don’t. A lot of it is just part of my personality, part of who I am, and the other thing too that I try to remember when I’m at the podium or when I’m in front of a camera doing TV is that I represent the president of the United States. I represent Joe Biden, and he is truly someone who has compassion, deep conviction. He did not have to run for president, he did not have to do this. He had a very long career in politics, and he did this because he believed that he had a vision, that he had a platform, a way to make people’s lives better. So I think about that. I think about who he is and that I am representing him. So that’s what you see at the podium. I try to be that extension of who he is. And that’s why I’m able to keep my composure. I’m able to be very straightforward with people and share all the work that [the administration is] doing in an honest way.
For you in your career, what’s been the biggest obstacle?
Oh, wow, that’s actually a really good question. What has been the biggest obstacle? I think that sometimes we could be our own worst enemies, you know? We could be the ones that get in our own way.
Oh, especially as women.
Especially as women. I always am trying to break through that obstacle, making sure that I’m not the one that is getting in my own way. We are our harshest critic, but because we are our harshest critic, it makes us the best at what we do. It makes us so much stronger, it makes us so much better. That is what I try to do; not to get in my own way. One message that I really want to send to young people out there is follow your passion, don’t let anybody get in the way of that. Believe in you. You are the best and the brightest, [the] best of our future and our job — my job I see it is just yes, I’ve broken a glass ceiling here or there, but my job is to set the groundwork so that the people behind me could go further than I have gone.
You mentioned earlier that we are a world of cynicism.
We can be very cynical sometimes.
One of the effects of that is many people tend to be like “politics, it’s all the same, it’ll never change.” What’s something you think will change in your lifetime?
I hope our work here will change that. You said something that reminded me of what people should expect. The work that we’re doing on the economy, the work that we’re doing on health care, the work that we’re doing on COVID, the work that we’re doing on creating manufacturing jobs here, the work that we’re doing for our veterans, making sure … men and women who’ve put their lives on the line get that expansive health care that they truly deserve. All of that that I’ve just laid out, and the infrastructure, the investment in our infrastructure. That will have a lasting effect even when ... when this is all over, right? That will speak to the work that this administration has done. That will speak to how historic and how impactful the policies that the Biden and Harris administration has done. It will change the lives of people, and I think that is going to speak for itself, to be quite honest.
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands November 1. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.