On a Friday morning in August when most D.C. workers are either away on vacation or coming into work in casual attire, Ben Panico is dressed for business in a dark suit over a crisp white shirt.
Two months earlier, Panico started work in his year-long fellowship at the LGBT Equality Caucus as an appointee of the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute’s Victory Congressional Fellow program, which is funded by the David Bohnett Foundation. The 22-year-old has the distinction of being the only openly transgender staffer to serve in the U.S. House.
In an interview with the Washington Blade at the offices at the Leadership Institute, Panico said his new job consists of supporting the seven openly LGB members of the House — who are also the co-chairs of the LGBT Equality Caucus — in advancing legislation.
“In the fellowship, I am scheduling briefings and writing letters to help engage the staff on any number of issues that are important for the LGBT and the trans community,” Panico said.
Panico said the issue of anti-transgender discrimination is part of his work that’s personally important to him because it persists despite recent LGBT progress.
“I’ve met a lot of trans folks who’ve faced discrimination in a lot of areas,” Panico said. “And I think that there are a lot of ways that the caucus is doing a great job addressing those problems and working on what legislation the seven co-chairs are interested in moving forward.”
Panico declined to identify any specific legislative vehicle that he thinks would best address anti-transgender discrimination, maintaining his job is to support the path by which the seven openly LGB members choose to move forward.
But Panico acknowledged the significance of being the only known openly transgender staffer in the U.S. House.
“Being in this position allows me to utilize my experiences and the experiences that I’ve heard from other trans folks to help move legislation forward and improve the community as a whole,” Panico said.
Although Panico has been working with the LGBT Equality Caucus since June, the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute just announced his work and status as the only openly transgender person in the U.S. House on Thursday. Steven Thai, a Leadership Institute spokesperson, said the announcement was postponed until August recess because the caucus has been focused on legislation.
Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Victory Institute, said Panico’s distinction of being the only openly transgender person in the U.S. House offers Congress a unique perspective.
“Ben Panico brings a wealth of experiences to this position, and as Capitol Hill’s only openly transgender staff member, he brings a much needed voice to the table,” Wolfe said. “I am confident Ben will be able to gain immense experience and assist in advancing an equality agenda in Congress.”
The distinction of being the only openly transgender staffer in the U.S. House was previously held by Diego Sanchez, who worked for former Rep. Barney Frank before his retirement. Now, Sanchez serves as national policy director for PFLAG.
Sources familiar with Capitol Hill say it’s uncertain whether another openly transgender staffer now works for the U.S. Senate.
Originally from Connecticut, Panico graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied English Literature and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. While in college, Panico took part in LGBT activism, serving as director of operations for the Diverse Sexuality & Gender Alliance, lobbying university administrators for an LGBT resource center and leading the development of a Safe Zone training program.
“I know that the trans community faces a lot of discrimination, a lot of problems of inequality right now, and I feel very passionate about helping address those problems and improve the lives of trans people in the future,” Panico said.
Prior to his current job, he was an intern on Capitol Hill who during his junior year of college worked for Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a supporter of LGBT rights who has called on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to stop defending the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
But Panico is keeping much of his personal life private, declining to comment, for example, on when he transitioned. Panico also declined to say whether he has personally experienced anti-transgender discrimination, but said he would argue “all trans people have experienced discrimination in some form or another.”
In addition to his work in the LGBT Equality Caucus, Panico is participating in other groups that advance LGBT causes. He’s a member of the LGBT Congressional Association, the affinity group for LGBT staffers on Capitol Hill.
Mitchell Rivard, vice president of the LGBT Congressional Staff Association, said Panico’s work on Capitol Hill is helping to advance transgender visibility.
“Currently being the only openly transgender staffer on Capitol Hill, Ben is breaking down barriers and will be a visible and vocal advocate for equality in Congress,” Rivard said. “Having previously interned in Congressman Dan Kildee’s office, he brings valuable experience to his new job and we are thrilled to have him join the LGBT Congressional Staff Association.”
Although Panico acknowledges discrimination against LGBT people remains a persistent problem, he envisions a world in the not-too-distant future where that will come to an end.
“I think it’s tough to say a specific time, but I would say in the coming years, I see a lot of change happening, legislation moving forward,” Panico said. “Hopefully, in five to 10 years, I feel like the LGBT community is really going to have a lot more support from the next generation of folks coming up.”