California's Top Trans Official Is Out, Proud, and Loud

JP Petrucione

Thanks to JP Petrucione and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, there’s just been a huge leap in transgender visibility.

Newsom, sworn in as governor in January, last week appointed Petrucione as his director of digital media, making Petrucione the highest-ranking openly trans official in California history.

“The weight of it and the importance of it has only just sunk in,” Petrucione tells The Advocate.

As director of digital media, he’ll work with the rest of Newsom’s communications team to get the message out about what the governor is doing — and wants to do — for the state. Petrucione will focus on social media and other applications of technology. While his job encompasses publicizing all the governor’s policy priorities, Petrucione will make sure that LGBTQ issues get their fair share of attention, he says.

Petrucione is certainly tech-savvy, but he didn’t start his career in technology. When he entered the digital world as a consultant in San Francisco in the late 2000s, he’d spent 12 years working in state, local, and national politics. When Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, Petrucione was his deputy communications director from 2004 to 2007; he’d also worked on Newsom’s mayoral campaign in 2003. Now, coming off a two-year stint as global digital director for public policy at Airbnb, he says Newsom is the only person who could lure him back to politics.

“It’s really rewarding to be back to work for Gavin Newsom,” Petrucione says.

Newsom’s approach to the LGBTQ community is one reason Petrucione holds the governor in such high esteem. “I was there when he made gay marriage possible,” Petrucione recalls, referring to the time in 2004 when Newsom declared that San Francisco would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Longtime activists and partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the first of about 4,000 couples to wed.

Courts eventually halted the marriages and then voided them, but Newsom had taken a stand at a time when President George H.W. Bush was pushing a federal constitutional amendment to assure that no city or state could ever recognize same-sex marriage. There was backlash from Newsom’s party, the Democrats, with some blaming him for making marriage equality too much of an issue and calling this a key factor in Bush winning reelection over Democratic challenger John Kerry that year. But a majority of Americans and a majority of Supreme Court justices embraced marriage equality in the ensuing years, showing Newsom was on the right side of history.

“He’s not afraid to make unpopular decisions,” Petrucione says.

Hiring a highly qualified, experienced professional who happens to be transgender won’t be unpopular in California, but there are still many factions in the country working against trans equality, with Donald Trump and his administration trying to kick trans people out of the military and even deny their very existence. Petrucione recognizes that this makes visibility crucial.

“At this time it’s important to be out, proud, and loud,” he says. In his new position, he says, he’ll be vocal about the issues that particularly affect trans people, such as homelessness and lack of safety.

Petrucione, now 45, has been out in one way or another through most of his career, but he’s had internal struggles. Assigned female at birth, he came out as gay at age 27, but it took him another 10 years to accept his identity as a transgender man. It was easier to come out as gay, he recalls, as that’s better understood than being trans. And even having been born and raised by a liberal family in San Francisco and growing up next door to a gay couple, he had some fears about his family’s reaction. They responded with unqualified acceptance, however.

“I connect very strongly with my female self,” he says today. “But coming out as transgender meant my external and internal selves could match.”

“Being transgender isn’t always visible, but it’s who I am,” he adds. He starts his new job very much aware that visibility matters. “Being the first of anything is an important first step. … As the out transgender person in the room, I’ll make sure to shine a light.”

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