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John Fetterman on House Republican 'Dopes,' Pride Flags, and Mental Health

John Fetterman on House Republican 'Dopes,' Pride Flags, and Mental Health

John Fetterman
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty

In a wide-ranging conversation, the Pennsylvania senator talks Pride flags, House Republican "dopes," the importance of mental health, Mitch McConnell, and his devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In January 2021, I wrote about then-Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s battle with state Republicans over a Pride flag he flew outside his state capitol office. Fetterman said he’d take the flag down when Pennsylvania passed an equality bill (it has failed to do so.).

The Republicans seethed about that flag hanging at the state capitol, so much so that in the previous December, they passed a budget bill with a line slipped in the legislation that said only state and U.S. flags could fly from the building.

Fetterman ignored that, so the Republicans came along and removed it. He put it back up. They took it down again. He put it back up. And again. Bottom line, Fetterman won that battle.

At the time he told me, "I'm ashamed of my state, and I'm so sad because the LGBTQ+ community deserves those protections under the law, no more, no less than anyone else. This idea that you're not embracing the right side of this law is just so wrong. It should have always been this way, and the fact that it hasn't and they have the opportunity to correct that and they rejected that as recently as this week, and it's really awful. It's vile and has no place in Pennsylvania or anywhere in the United States."

With all the crimes around Pride flags, including the death of California business owner Laura Ann Carleton, who was shot and killed last month after a dispute over the Pride flag she’d displayed outside her shop, I decided to reach out to Fetterman, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year. I also wanted to get an update about his health, including his mental health, as he's dealt with a stroke and depression; his time in the Senate; and his thoughts on the Senate’s biggest story, the status of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

When he popped up on Zoom, the first thing I noticed was how terrific he looked. While the senator relies on a transcription on the other side, his answers were on the mark and thoughtful. There’s no doubt he is one of our strongest allies in Congress.

We began by reminiscing about his run-in with Pennsylvania Republicans and how their attitudes toward the Pride flag undoubtedly feed into the hate that exists, for some, around people flying them. The first thing he said was he has a Pride flag hanging in his Senate office.

“I'll never understand it. I really, I really won’t. And I truly don't know why anybody would like to demean or mock or to hurt the community. It just doesn't make any sense to me,” he said with a hint of anger. “And why would they care if someone wants to fly that flag? Or if someone is selling rainbow-colored merchandise, like what happened with Target. Why do they care about that? And the thing is, if you're not willing to embrace the community wholly, then at the very least, don't go around being hurtful and doing hurtful things. That’s just human decency.”

I told Fetterman that when I met with House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi recently, she said that the Republicans were losers who only supported losing issues like targeting the LGBTQ+ community. Did he agree with that? “Of course, it’s a loser, and I’m serious. Look, all I can tell you is that I have always, always been there. I'm proud to say that 10 years ago last month, I officiated one of the first gay marriages in Pennsylvania. And I'm so proud that I did that, even when it was illegal. In fact, the Republican governor at the time [Tom Corbett] even threatened to have me arrested. And I kept on officiating, doing around two dozen of them. And then every single one of them became legal, finally. That was a great day when that happened.”

Fetterman made news Thursday when he dared Republicans in the House to try to impeach President Biden, using the same descriptor that Pelosi did, saying, "If you can find the votes, go ahead, because you're going to. lose. It's a loser." He also said that an impeachment attempt was nothing more than a "big circle jerk on the fringe right." "I take it you don't think it's a good idea for Republicans to try and impeach the president," I joked. "What a bunch of dopes," he retorted.

As we all know by now, Fetterman has had some health issues, most recently taking some time away from the Senate to work on improving his mental health. I asked him how he was feeling. “I'm doing really fantastic, truly,” he said without missing a beat. “I'm grateful to have the opportunity to represent Pennsylvania, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to receive the kind of treatment that I received. I needed to deal with my mental health and depression. I knew I had to get on top of that."

I explained to Fetterman my own battles with mental health, and how, like him, I had to step away from my career for a time — in 2015 to deal with severe depression — and how, like him, I’ve been open with it and have written about it. “I admire you for that, and while it can be hard to talk about it, you can really choose, if you want to pay that forward, and to have that conversation with whomever would like to hear it," he responded. "I’ve spoken to so many constituents and to my colleagues. If anyone asks me about it, I talk about it and tell them you don't need to suffer for the rest of your life with something like that. That you need to treat it.”

“Look, I was a skeptic at first, and thought nothing like that would ever happen to me, but as I’m sure you’ll agree, it can happen to you. So that’s really why I'm trying to be an advocate for mental health.”

I told Fetterman that I’m sure he’s aware that September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and that I have been open about my own experience with attempting suicide. “Oh, my goodness, I'm so sorry to hear that,” he said with a sigh. “I have acknowledged that I contemplated it too at a time. I lost two friends to suicide. And that's just another part of my conversation about the battle with mental health. Originally, I wasn't discussing my own contemplation with it because I didn't want to shock my children. But I realized that my real responsibility is to have that conversation. In its entirety, because people do get to that point. And you know, you have to do whatever it is you can to make sure that no one hurts themselves like that.”

I let Fetterman know that I had a very meaningful conversation with Rep. Jamie Raskin about his son’s suicide and how much I appreciated his openness. With that, Fetterman leaned back in his chair, grabbed a book at the end of his desk, and showed it to me. It was Raskin’s book, Unthinkable. “It’s funny you should mention him," Fetterman said. "He was in my office just yesterday, and we were quite literally talking about all those things. And I'm always grateful to be able to meet inspired people like him. And I said this to him, and it's the truth, he's a better and stronger person than I am. Because if I lost my son, I could not have overcome like he did. I truly couldn’t. And so, I am in awe of his determination.”

Was he happy in the Senate? “Yes, I’m so happy and lucky to represent Pennsylvania and honored to have this platform to speak up on behalf of issues like mental health and for your community. I want to be clear that it's not like there's just a lot of glamour or anything like that here. It's not like that at all. I still work on my health every day and just don’t want anyone thinking that there is some kind of magic here," he said with a laugh.

Does he miss Pennsylvania? “I would say the one really unfortunate thing about the job is that I miss my family and my children. I have three young children. And, you know, becoming a U.S. senator, you see less of the people that you love dearly in your life. And that's really sobering. And I’ll be the first to admit that's a struggle.”

Fetterman said at night he goes back to his apartment, and he feels that loneliness. “I might go get a salad or a burger for dinner, and go back to my apartment by myself, and end up thinking about them and missing them. And FaceTime is nice, but it's not the same. You need the real thing, so I look forward to going back and seeing them. I’ll do that after this call, and I’m happy that my flight is scheduled to be on time.”

The latest news in the Senate is all about McConnell and if he’s up to the task of leading the Republican caucus in the chamber. I asked Fetterman if he had anything to say about McConnell.

“One thing I learned, I will never knock anyone because they're elderly or anything like that. I’m not going to kick people when they're down, so there needs to be some dignity with McConnell. You might be against a lot of his policies or his politics, but he isn't looking to burn down the Senate. I don't want to say anything negative, personally, or attack any members of the Senate. We really need to maintain a higher level of decorum than there is in the House, for example.”

Finally, will Biden take Pennsylvania next year, and since we both hail from Pittsburgh and we both love our Steelers, what did he think their chances were this year, as football season begins this week? “Joe Biden beat Trump last time, and he's gonna win the state again regardless of who the Republican candidate is. You cannot become president unless you win Pennsylvania.”

“Now to the Steelers. Every year there's always the talk that it'll be this year they will go to the Super Bowl.’ I’ll always be rooting for them. You know what a special thing it is to have a life-long devotion to the Steelers. Now, if I’m going to complain about something, I still don’t like the name of the stadium. I’ll keep calling it Heinz Stadium.

John Casey is a senior editor at The Advocate.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 is for people of all ages and identities. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at or text START to 678678.

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