The word courage can be tough to quantify. The synonyms for courage are words like bravery, pluck, and resolution, but somehow, they feel “less than” when compared with courage.
It is exceedingly rare to talk to someone who truly is courageous and even rarer to encounter someone who exhibits multiple definitions of the word courage. You can be courageous in your job, courageous in your personal life, or courageous in your heart.
Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland is someone who truly gives multiple meanings to the word courage with his job, in his life and heart.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was a professor of constitutional law at American University for more than 25 years before he decided to enter politics.
That’s when his courage was demonstrated to us. When he first ran for the Maryland state legislature in 2006, he campaigned on his support for marriage equality – a cause that was not popular at the time. Later, as a Maryland state senator, he led the Senate floor fight for marriage equality both in 2011 and in 2012, when it finally passed the state legislature and was signed into law by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Since that time, he has been public about his recent battle with cancer. He bravely took on Donald Trump as the lead impeachment manager after the January 6, 2021, insurrection, and amid death threats and vitriol, he served as an esteemed member of the January 6th Select Committee.
In his heart, he carries the pain of the tragic loss of his son, Tommy, who died by suicide in December of 2020, only a month before he took on the role of impeachment manager. Despite all the agony that came with that, he has been resilient in opening up about his son’s death in the hopes of relieving some of the stigma around suicide. His book Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy is a gripping account of how Raskin persevered after Tommy’s loss and a must-read for anyone who has been jolted by a loved one’s suicide.
In December of 2022, Raskin took another personal hit when he announced that he had been diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a serious but curable form of cancer, and that he would undergo four months of treatment. He had his last round of chemotherapy three weeks ago.
“I feel great,” he said during a recent conversation that touched on all aspects of his courage. “I had a CT scan this week that came back great, and my doctor has deemed me cancer free. It’s truly given me a new lease on life. After my last round of chemo a few weeks ago, I feel much better and am getting back to normal.”
Part of that is diving back into the thick of his constant battle to help save democracy. Since he was a member of the January 6 committee, I wanted to know if he bit the bullet and watched Trump’s CNN town hall last week, and if he thought the continued lies about January 6 are working against the Republicans' attempts to reach moderates and independents.
“I did see it, and I completely agree with you,” he emphasized. “That was exactly my reaction that he’s just further alienating moderates in the Republican Party and independent voters. What horrified me more was the crowd. It was like a Nuremberg rally. What it tells me is that his appeal runs very deep but only with a certain segment of the Republican Party and with a certain group of people. He has a stranglehold over the MAGA base, but that’s it.”
“During the impeachment hearings in the Senate, I told Republican senators to vote for impeachment, not only as a way to save the republic and the Constitution but to do it for their own good and for their party, and in the process, help save the Republican Party; however, they didn’t do it, and by not doing so, they have crippled their party," he continued. "Now I think the Republican Party is at a point of no return. Most moderates have abandoned the party, and you have groups like the Lincoln Project, which are full of former party members. It's far away from the party of Lincoln.”
Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to talk to Raskin candidly about the issue. The issue of suicide can be very painful to discuss, particularly for someone like Raskin, who lost a child. I opened up to Raskin and told him about my own experiences with suicide, how lucky I felt to be alive, and how I’ve written about my struggles.
I also thanked him for speaking out, and why he personally felt the need to go public with something so utterly heartbreaking. “First of all, God bless you, and it sounds like you are in good shape. You sound good. And that makes me happy,” he began. “Tommy left us a letter that said, 'Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.'
“The note demonstrated what he cared about most, those less fortunate, and so it’s been terribly painful for us, particularly since Tommy struggled with mental health issues, and we didn’t pick up on the clues. We want to honor his life by showing our love for one another and helping to shine a light on mental health struggles and what people are going through.
“We resolved to talk about it. It’s wrenchingly difficult, but it’s not helping anyone battling depression if we choose not to talk about it. I say sometimes that not talking about it is akin to not talking to teenagers about sex. Silence endows the whole subject, and that is a power that it should not have. We have to put it out on the table.”
I told Raskin that when people find out about my attempts, they often don’t have any idea how to respond, and that when I told one person about what happened to me, they said that I should be ashamed of myself.
“I’m so sorry you had to hear that," he said. "I’ve not heard something like that before, but I’m sure some people feel that way, and perhaps because depression and suicide are still shrouded in stigma and shame. It’s really important for people to be enlightened to the fact that mental health issues are rooted in neurochemical conditions. It’s a disease, and a serious one.”
In that vein, I wanted to know what Raskin says to people who ask him for advice on the best way to cope. “Well, I suppose everyone has their own way of coping with the situation," he said. "It’s important to talk to people and hear from people like you about their personal journeys. Some people are meditative and closed about it. I never make judgments about how people respond. Everybody has their own way.”
We talked about the alarming rate of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth — much greater than that of their straight peers — and how all these anti-LGBTQ+ bill being passed in red states, particularly those aimed at queer youth, are just compounding the problem. “It’s absolutely making things work on the mental health of these youth," Raskin said. "These discriminatory laws are the hallmark of an authoritarian government and a fascist movement that attacks LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities. It obviously has a profound effect on the security and emotional well-being of those affected. And it worsens the problem for those who are already suffering, and it just makes it so much worse.”
What many of us admire most is how Raskin, despite the enormity of his pain, took on the role of impeachment manager after the January 6 insurrection after Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked him to do so. How was he able to do that?
“In some respects, I did not feel that I had a choice," he said. "In my book I wrote about how Tommy’s death took place in the context of the COVID nightmare, and that was an important ingredient that kept my son’s depression in darkness. COVID also helped set the stage for the January 6 insurrectionists and the violence unleashed against us. I suppose the experience was a journey, and a terrible crisis and emergency that went from personal to political. I just felt compelled to act to defend my family and country.”
I told Raskin that during my meeting with Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, she called the Republicans passing anti-LGBTQ+ bills “losers” several times. Since he is close with Speaker Pelosi, I asked him to say a few words about her.
“Well, first, she is right. They are losers. I feel like she is a continuing gift to the republic and the American people. Her work ethic is sensational. When she was speaker, I saw her working every hour of every single day into the wee hours of the night, and she’d be right back at 6 a.m. in the morning starting again. She is a stalwart for American democracy. She loves people and children; she’s committed to the future generation. She is also deeply religious. Now, having said all that, I’m so happy that since she stepped down, she has been amazingly relaxed. I’m happy to see her hanging out and talking to people in a better way that she didn’t have the luxury to do so before. Makes me happy to celebrate her a lot and the fact that she’s relieved of the burdens of power.”
Speaking of power, I asked Raskin when he was going to make us all happy and run for president someday. “History plays tricks on all of us,” he said with a laugh. “I never rule anything out. I love our country and want to continue to defend democratic institutions and values, which are still under attack today.”
Finally, did Raskin think that Tommy would be proud of him? “Well, I think it’s the other way around. I continue to be extremely proud of him. You know, I’m sure he’d be happy that I’m trying to defend the issues and values he believed in, championing human and animal rights. And he was such a strong advocate for peace. I just try to incorporate all his passion in everything I do.”
John Casey is a senior editor at The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.
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 TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678.