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Ritchie Torres, the only openly gay Black man in Congress, on how he fights GOP ‘bullying’ of LGBT+ people

The New York Democrat talks with Eric Garcia about how he deals with homophobes in Congress, his battle with depression and why getting rid of the filibuster is necessary for LGBT+ rights

Monday 26 June 2023 19:50 BST
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(Getty/iStock)

As one of the first openly gay Black members of Congress, Rep Ritchie Torres (D-NY) has a simple characterisation for recent Republican attacks on transgender rights.

“The right wing crusade against LGBTQ equality should be seen for what it is – as bullying, of LGBTQ youth, systematic bullying of trans youth in particular,” Mr Torres, a co-chairman of the Equality Caucus in the House of Representatives, said in a phone interview with The Independent.

In 2020, Mr Torres made history as one of the first two openly gay Black men to win a seat in Congress, along with former Rep Mondaire Jones (D-NY). Last Congress, the House passed the Equality Act, which would have prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill died in the Senate as it did not have the requisite 60 votes to overcome a filibuster even as it passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified same-sex and interracial marriage.

But in 2022, Republicans won the House of Representatives. In the months since, House Republicans passed legislation that would restrict transgender girls from participating in school sports in the gender with which they identify. Similarly, the GOP majority passed a “Parents Bill of Rights” that, among other aspects, require that parents know if a school employee or contractor changes “ a minor child’s gender markers, pronouns, or preferred name” or “allow a child to change the child’s sex-based accommodations, including locker rooms or bathrooms.”

A slew of states have also passed legislation to restrict gender-affirming care for minors such as puberty blockers. Former president Donald Trump has pledged repeatedly to restrict it and has said he would revoke “Biden policy promoting the chemical castration and sexual mutilation of our youth.”

“There are Republicans who are accusing members of the LGBTQ community of mutilating children and sexualizing children, or grooming children,” Mr Torres said. “So I would submit to you that the far right has never been more radicalized against the LGBTQ community than it is in our present moment.”

Earlier this year, after Sen John Fetterman (D-PA) checked into Walter Reed Medical Center for depression, Mr Torres disclosed how in 2010, he took time off from college to undergo treatment for depression.

“I was at the lowest point of my life because I found myself struggling with depression,” he said. “I had withdrawn from college. There were moments when I thought of taking my own life because I felt that the world around me had collapsed.”

Around that time, same-sex marriage largely remained illegal in many states. The Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 legislation signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, remained the law of the land. Barack Obama, the president at the time, and his vice president Joe Biden (who had voted for DOMA) both opposed same-sex marriage.

In the intervening years, the Democratic Party, Mr Biden included, has largely embraced supporting LGBT+ rights and almost every Democrat has opposed Republican efforts to restrict LGBT+ rights. Mr Torres called Mr Biden the most pro-LGBT+ equality president, citing how he mentioned the community in his State of the Union Address.

“He was the first president in history to meet with the LGBTQ members of Congress,” he said. “So I’m proud of the stand that the President has taken in favor of the LGBTQ community.”

He said that he hopes that young LGBTQ+ youth can take inspiration from his story and how he eventually became the youngest member of New York City Council. In 2020, he ran for an open congressional seat against Ruben Diaz, an anti-abortion and anti-LGBT+ rights Democrat. Mr Torres said that he hopes that his story can inspire young people.

At the same time, he said he is not oblivious to the challenges and said the community cannot declare “Mission Accomplished.”

“We have to not lull ourselves into a false sense of security,” he said. “We’re at a moment where we have no choice but to fight back. Because they are under siege to an extent that we have not seen before in decades.”

In recent months, conservatives have lashed out at companies like Target for having Pride displays and boycotted Bud Light for advertising transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Mr Torres said he sees historical parallels.

“The modern Republican Party is channeling the demonic spirit of Anita Bryant,” he said, referencing the singer who in the 1970s opposed gay rights. “And we have no choice but to fight back and resist and if we fight back we will win, definitely.”

Nowadays, Mr Torres sits in Congress where he regularly has to deal with members like Reps Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO) who oppose the rights of LGBT+ people and want to restrict their rights even more.

“As a gay man, I will go on the House floor and state unequivocally I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m not going anywhere,” Mr Torres said. “A wise person once said, if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re probably on the menu. And we in the LGBTQ community are sick and tired of being on the menu. And we insist on a seat at the table.”

Mr Torres said that the Equality Act remains the best avenue for LGBT+ equality. Mr Torres said that the next time Democrats win the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the legislation must be a top priority. But that alone won’t be enough: Mr Torres said that the Democrats must get rid of the filibuster, the threshold that requires 60 votes for legislation to pass in the Senate. Despite the fact Democrats had a majority in the last Congress, Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), the first openly bisexual Senator, both opposed getting rid of the barrier.

For Mr Torres, getting rid of the filibuster is a necessity.

“The abolition of the filibuster is the key that will unlock LGBTQ equality in America,” Mr Torres said.

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