Joe Biden made history Tuesday by selecting Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as the first woman of color as a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, and a rising political star who has demonstrated a commitment to the LGBTQ community.
Harris is a relative newcomer to Washington, but her record on LGBTQ rights extends back to her tenure as a district attorney for San Francisco and California attorney general as well as her work during her first term as a U.S. senator. That’s made her a favorite among LGBTQ people, many of whom still wear “For the People” shirts from her presidential campaign.
“I grew up in a community and a culture where everyone was accepted for who they were, so there wasn’t a moment where it was like, ‘OK, now let’s let this person in,’” Harris told the Los Angeles Blade in 2019. “Everyone was a part of everything. It was about community. It was about coalition building. It was about equality, inclusion.”
Rick Chavez Zbur, executive director of the LGBTQ group Equality California, congratulated Harris in a statement for being the pick, calling his home state senator “an exceptional choice.”
“Throughout her career, Sen. Harris has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to civil rights and social justice for all LGBTQ+ people,” Zbur said. “As vice president, we are confident she will continue Vice President Biden’s tradition of using the office to champion and advance full, lived LGBTQ+ equality — and equality for the diverse communities to which LGBTQ+ people belong.”
The crown jewel of Harris in terms of her LGBTQ record is her decision as California attorney general not to defend Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage enacted at the ballot in 2008.
“I declined to defend Proposition 8 because it violates the Constitution,” Harris said in a statement in 2013. “The Supreme Court has described marriage as a fundamental right 14 times since 1888. The time has come for this right to be afforded to every citizen.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court restored marriage equality to California in 2013, Harris officiated the wedding of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier of Berkeley, Calif., the first same-sex marriage performed in California after the landmark decision.
Additionally, Harris instructed clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples with “no exceptions” despite complaints from officials in more conservative parts of the state.
In 2015, Harris declined to certify a measure that obtained enough signatures to get on the state ballot to institute the death penalty for homosexual acts, which became known as the “Kill the Gays” initiative, bucking her requirements as California attorney general.
Before that time, as district attorney for San Francisco, Harris worked with the California Legislature to pass legislation barring the use of gay or transgender panic defense in court. As a result, California in 2014 became the first state to ban the plea.
Since becoming a U.S. senator in 2016, Harris has taken major steps to lead efforts on LGBTQ rights, including the introduction of pro-LGBTQ legislation in addition to drawing attention to the anti-LGBTQ policies of the Trump administration.
After the Trump administration affirmed it wouldn’t allow people to identify themselves as LGBTQ in the 2020 U.S. Census, Harris introduced legislation that would require the Census Bureau to include questions on the Census, as well as the American Community Survey, asking respondents whether they’re LGBTQ.
When a transgender immigrant from Honduras, Roxsana Hernandez, died from AIDS complications after being held in immigration detention, Harris and other senators demanded answers. An autopsy concluded Hernandez wasn’t physically abused before her death.
Harris and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) had called on U.S. Attorney General William Barr to revoke a 2017 Trump administration order declining to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in cases of anti-transgender discrimination in the workforce. That request was renewed after the Supreme Court determined in June anti-LGBTQ discrimination is unlawful under Title VII, but the memo still hasn’t been rescinded.
Among other Senate Democrats, Harris is among the co-sponsors of the Equality Act, comprehensive legislation that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination as a form of sex discrimination.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said based on Harris’ record, Biden made “nothing short of an exceptional choice” for his running mate.
“Throughout her groundbreaking career, Sen. Harris has been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community, standing with us when many, even sometimes those within her own party, did not,” Davis said. “As a presidential candidate, Harris spoke with deep understanding of and empathy for the issues our community faces. It’s clear the Biden-Harris ticket marks our nation’s most pro-equality ticket in history.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) praised Harris in an interview with the Blade on Tuesday.
“I’m delighted that my home state Sen. Kamala Harris will be the next vice president of our country,” Takano said. “She comes to this opportunity well qualified, well prepared and I definitely look forward to campaigning for the Biden-Harris ticket. I think it’s a winning ticket and it’s a ticket about the future.”
As a 2020 presidential candidate, Harris was among the contenders for the Democratic nomination who unveiled a comprehensive plan for LGBTQ Americans. Among other things, Harris promised to create a White House advocate for LGBTQ affairs.
Harris, however, faced criticism when she said Pete Buttigieg was “a bit naive” for bringing up the struggle of being a gay American when asked about diversity issues, even though he explicitly said “there’s no equating the two experiences.” LGBTQ and Black activists were split over whether Harris was right to denounce Buttigieg.
But Harris has faced criticism from progressives who say her career has been too aligned with support for the police at a time when law enforcement and police brutality are under heavy scrutiny. Harris fought to keep a non-violent prisoner locked up in state prison, openly defying a 2011 Supreme Court decision ordering the state to reduce overcrowding, according to a report in The American Independent.
Critics of Harris in terms of LGBTQ rights point to legal filings she signed in 2015 as California attorney general defending the state prison system in refusing to grant transgender surgery to inmates. Among them was Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, who was formerly incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., for second-degree murder.
“Norsworthy has been treated for gender dysphoria for over 20 years, and there is no indication that her condition has somehow worsened to the point where she must obtain sex-reassignment surgery now rather than waiting until this case produces a final judgment on the merits,” says one brief signed by Harris.
Harris was able to secure a change that led to Norsworthy being able to obtain the procedure upon parole, the first in the United States, outlining a procedure for inmates to obtain gender reassignment surgery.
But according to information the Blade obtained last year in a public records request, few transgender inmates were able to obtain the procedure under the new policy.
As of 2019, only seven prisoners ever got the male-to-female procedure out of 130 who asked, and 10 out of the 51 inmates who requested female-to-male gender reassignment surgery obtained it. The California prison system has updated its policy on transgender inmates, but it hasn’t yet made changes specific to gender reassignment surgery.
Jillian Weiss, a New York-based transgender advocate who has been critical of Harris’ handling of trans inmate cases, said via email to the Blade she believes the vice presidential candidate “has moved beyond her previously limited understanding of transgender rights.”
“The entire country is learning about the importance of trans rights,” Weiss said. “I am certain that she will be a leader who actively supports increased rights for trans people. I am doubly certain that she and Joe Biden will be head and shoulders better for trans people than the actively transphobic administration we now have.”
“I disagree with her on some of her past and current positions,” Weiss said. “My yardstick for political support is not perfection. I am voting for her and for Joe Biden so that the suffering our community now endures can be alleviated.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.