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John Fetterman, Senator-elect, on LGBTQ+ Rights & the Next Congress

John Fetterman

In an exclusive, Fetterman talks about his campaign against Dr. Oz, his ongoing support for LGBTQ+ equality, fighting for workers' rights, and making another most stylish list.

The last time I spoke with Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor, now the state's senator-elect and perhaps the highest-profile one in the U.S., he was busy fighting Pennsylvania's Republican state legislators over the Pride flag that hung outside of his office in the state capitol building.

As I wrote in January of 2021, the Republicans in the state legislature, who seem to be offended at the sight of rainbow flags, surreptitiously stuck a provision inside a budget bill that banned the unauthorized flying of flags on the capitol grounds. It was a direct swipe at Fetterman's LGBTQ+ flags, which were being hung to encourage support for adding a state constitutional amendment that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"It's unbelievable that they actually passed a law to bar me from [flying his flags], so if they want to send the antigay flag police to take them down, then go ahead. They came earlier this year and took them down, and I put them right back up," he said.

But what made Fetterman angry, and the reason he kept putting his Pride flag up after Republicans would take it down, was the state legislature's refusal to outlaw discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. When I asked him why they're so against our community, Fetterman let out a deep, frustrated sigh. "I don't know. I really don't know. It just doesn't make any sense."

Since that time, Fetterman's star has risen, and in a big win for Democrats, he easily disposed of Pennsylvania's Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Trump-endorsed flunky Dr. Mehmet Oz. Their race was unquestionably the most watched contest in the country, mainly due to Oz's celebrity status, but also because of Fetterman's uniqueness as a candidate and a stroke he suffered right before the state's democratic primary.

As he recovered, as he had done prior to his run for the Senate, Fetterman masterfully used social media to go after each and every flaw and misstep that Oz displayed on the campaign trail. Crudites, anyone? Or, as Fetterman more appropriately called them, "veggie trays."

But more importantly, Fetterman showed bravery on the campaign trail. While recovering from his stroke, he returned to barnstorming the state, while Oz and his team made fun of -- and light of -- Fetterman's health.

Fetterman, despite the judgment of many around him, boldly took on Oz in a debate. And while his performance suffered as a result of repercussions from his stroke, which he continues to heal from, many admired Fetterman's courage and fortitude.

The senator-elect and I both hail from western Pennsylvania. We are avid Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins fans, and we both love Pittsburgh's famous Primanti Bros. sandwiches. When given the opportunity to choose his favorite from the state's two NFL teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Philadelphia Eagles, Fetterman quickly responded the Steelers. This is unlike most politicians who run for statewide office and vacillate and hem and haw as to the advantages of liking both teams.

The other thing that Fetterman does not waffle about is his support for LGBTQ+ equality and rights. He is an unabashed ally, and he plans to take his push for a state equality bill to the federal level when he's sworn in as Pennsylvania's new U.S. senator in January.

What follows is an edited version of our Q&A.

The Advocate: Mr. Senator-elect! Congratulations on the amazing win! Have you gotten used to being called senator-elect?
John Fetterman: Thank you. I'm deeply humbled and honored by the trust that Pennsylvanians have put in me to fight for them in the Senate. I don't think I'll ever get used to the title. Both now and when I was lieutenant governor, I still prefer just John.

Well, we do have that in common...
Yes, we do, John!

How are you feeling? Every day is a step forward?
I'm feeling great. Right now, I am working on building out my Senate office and getting ready to hit the ground running come January when I am sworn in.

As for my health, I'm still working through my auditory processing issues -- the last lingering effect of the stroke. But even that is getting better.

You inspired millions of people with disabilities and those recovering from serious illness by debating Oz. How do you feel about your aspirational performance?
I was never under any illusions that I was unique when it came to recovering from a health challenge. And I'll be honest, I knew the debate would be tough. I was only a few months out from having a major stroke and was debating a person who has spent decades on TV. But I knew the people of Pennsylvania were with me. At all my rallies I would ask who in the audience had experienced a serious health challenge, then I'd ask if their parents have, or -- God forbid -- their children. By the end, almost every person in their room has their hand raised. The only difference between me and millions of people recovering from illness is that I had to go through it very publicly.

What are the three top initiatives you'd like to dive into in your first 100 days in office?
It's no secret that our country is facing a number of challenges, and there are so many issues I'd love to dive right into. But right now I am excited about working to tackle income inequality and economic injustices, raise wages and benefits for working families, reform the criminal justice system, and protect the union way of life. Additionally, I will fight to put more power directly into the hands of workers, protect their rights, keep jobs here in America, and dramatically expand union membership across this country.

You have been passionate about getting an Equality Act passed in Pennsylvania, and when we talked the last time, it was about your insistence on keeping the rainbow flag hanging outside your office. Now that marriage equality will be signed into law this week, do you feel that a national Equality Act is next, and will you help lead the charge?
I remember the last time we talked about my flags. I was proud to fly Pride flags from my balcony at the state capitol in Harrisburg, because they are more than just pieces of cloth. They're a signal to the state and the whole country that we are still fighting for LGBTQ+ communities receiving full protection under law.

I certainly hope that a federal Equality Act is next, because it's long past time for us to pass this bill and explicitly guarantee that LGBTQ+ Americans are protected from discrimination. I'll fight for equal protection under the law always when I'm in D.C.

Your amazing wife has been critical in helping you lobby on behalf of LGBTQ+ issues and your campaign. Just explain how much she means to you.
The honest truth is that my wife's support has been critical in helping me throughout everything. She is a wonderful partner, mother, and advocate for the causes she believes in, including equality for the LGBTQ+ community.

Gisele, of course, shares my conviction that the LGBTQ+ community deserves full and equal protection under the law, and she has been a leader in the fight. I'm eternally grateful for her partnership on this issue,and in all things.

When Oz conceded, what did he say to you? Did he call? Who was the first person in the senate who congratulated you? The president?
Dr. Oz called me on Wednesday morning after the election, and graciously conceded and congratulated me on my victory. I of course spoke with Sen. Gary Peters, who did an incredible job leading the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] this cycle; Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania's own and one of my top mentors; and yes, President Biden. The day after the election was a busy day of calls and looking ahead.

What committees are you hoping to land on?
I'm excited to get to work on legislation to benefit working people across Pennsylvania but am waiting for the official processes to play out on committee assignments. I would be interested in working on committees that allow me to fight for working people and forgotten communities.

Should Biden run again?
That's the president's decision, and I'll support whatever he chooses. If he does decide to run again, I would strongly support him.

The New York Times just named you one of the most stylish people of 2022, so congratulations on that! Suit and tie are mandatory on the Senate floor, at least they were when I worked there. Will you comply? How about a dress code in your office?
Of course I'll wear a suit when I need to, but there's no rule that says I have to wear one all the time. Contrary to popular belief, I have always owned and worn a suit, which I was required to wear when I presided over the Pennsylvania State Senate in my official role as lieutenant governor. Now I just have to decide if I want to go buy a second and maybe a third. And I'm flattered about making the Times list, but as we discussed the last time we spoke about my making the GQ style list previously, I don't take it this seriously. Remember I told you that my wife always gives me a hard time about how I dress, and I always ask her, "Are you an American fashion taste god?" Now I guess I can add the Times to that conversation.

Finally, thanks for not waffling in your passion for the Steelers. Will they rebound?
I'm keeping the faith, like you and everyone else.

And the last time we talked, you offered to take me for a Primanti Bros. sandwich next time I was in Pittsburgh. That would be a great way to ingratiate yourself with your 99 colleagues on the first day by making sure they all had one. What do you think?
I think you're on to something...

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.