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Out former staffers reflect on working for Vice President Kamala Harris

Tim Silard and Ike Irby spoke to the Blade before the VP’s interview

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Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo credit: The White House/Lawrence Jackson)

The Washington Blade spoke last week with two gay men who have worked for vice president Kamala Harris and provided insight into her work advancing LGBTQ+ rights and her lifelong close ties to the queer community.

These conversations preceded the exclusive interview with Harris published on the Blade Tuesday.

Tim Silard, president of the Rosenberg Foundation, which provides grants to promote racial and economic justice in California, worked for Harris when she served as the District Attorney of San Francisco.

Ike Irby, a scientist who now leads his eponymously named communications firm, served as special assistant to the president and deputy domestic policy advisor and chief climate advisor to the vice president until January 2024, having previously worked in Harris’s U.S. Senate office.

Harris has sincere, deep ties to the LGBTQ community

“She’s had close working relationships with and advisors from the [LGBTQ] community, and in particular, one of her main campaign people the first time she ran [for district attorney] was Jim Rivaldo, who was a legend in San Francisco and part of Harvey Milk’s inner circle,” Silard said.

Irby, and Harris herself, also told the Blade about her work with Rivaldo, who through his role electing Milk, California’s first openly gay public servant, helped show the country it was possible for queer people to hold elected office.

“From the get go, she both hired — and, I think, maybe just as significantly, promoted into the top ranks of the office — a number of LGBTQ people,” Silard said. Harris “was intentional about not only hiring more people of color into the office, but also women and LGBTQ people,” he noted.

When he joined her Senate office, Irby remembers, “it was actually such a shock to like, finally, be in a work environment where it’s not just like there was another queer person, it was like there was a whole family, a brigade of queer people in this office.”

“Law enforcement as an institution tends to be dominated by straight white men,” Silard said. So, “promoting LGBTQ people into [positions] as managers of units and into the top executive staff, I think is a very important element to culture change within an office and to ensuring that the voices of the community are heard within the office.”

“Kamala, just by the virtue of who she is and what she believes, and her deep relationships across many communities, brought a very different perspective,” he explained. “And that was true across so many things, communities of color, women, LGBTQ folks — I think it was just natural for her, and, you know, she became a prosecutor to represent the underdog, right, to represent people who are victimized.”

In her personal life, too, Silard said, the vice president has “always had deep relationships and close friendships” with LGBTQ+ people who “were really part of her immediate, extended family, coming to Thanksgiving dinner and whatnot.”

“In the time period where the vice president was was growing up and learning the foundation of who she was going to be, both as a child in the Bay Area, but then also right after she graduated undergrad and moved to law school over there and then became a D.A., both those time periods were such a moment of the queer liberation movement,” Irby said.

This time was also a period in which LGBTQ rights intersected with “women’s rights and Black equality,” he noted, “all of these fights, together, and the way the vice president really addresses and thinks about these issues is that intersectionality.”

“Both because of her relationships, and going back to hiring and promoting a lot of LGBTQ people, all of the things that she did and that we did, that I mentioned, and there were others, all came from and were developed in direct conversation and coordination with leaders from our community,” Silard said.

Taking action, and understanding problems as intersectional

In her first term as district attorney, which was also her first elected position, Harris was sure to appoint LGBTQ+ staff to the Victim Services Division, Silard said.

“Our office provided victim services whether there was an actual prosecution or not,” he said. “If there was a police report, then the victim advocates could do a lot of practical things, like accessing victim support funds and funds for therapy, changing your locks, other kinds of practical ways to keep you safe, as well as emotional support.”

Silard added, “That was the first in California — I don’t know about, possibly, the nation — but where there was a whole team of victim advocates who were from our community.”

As a result, he said, more LGBTQ people came forward to report crimes. Having “vertical prosecution units” with “lawyers and paralegals and others who not only are from the community, but they are experts, they have lower caseloads, they pay more attention,” he said, tends to yield “more successful prosecutions, and you can define that in a whole number of different ways.”

Irby and Silard both highlighted Harris’s work combatting use of the “gay panic defense” and “trans panic defense,” arguments in the courtroom that endeavor to mitigate acts of violence against LGBTQ+ victims.

“She brought a focus to LGBTQ hate crimes, and in particular, transphobic crimes,” said Silard, who noted, “it hadn’t been that long since [the murder of] Matthew Shepard and then, I think, more recently for us in the Bay Area, Gwen Araujo’s murder.”

“We did a whole conference, for law enforcement, on the trans and gay panic defenses,” he said, recalling, “we had these sheriffs from Texas and Florida and people in cowboy hats; we had people from all over the country come from prosecutors’ offices and law enforcement,” many of whom had never met a trans person and now were listening to full panels of trans speakers.

“It really was impactful for those law enforcement people to be hearing directly from trans people about what their lives are like, the oppression and violence that they and people in their community were suffering all the time,” Silard said.

Irby pointed to the fact that Harris “gathered other district attorneys from around the country to do a training so that she could share that information, so that it wasn’t just her impacting [the issue] there in San Francisco.”

Silard said the notion that she “somehow she did these things because she thought it would get her more votes” is ridiculous, as if bringing in law enforcement officials from Florida to work on this issue could have carried some electoral advantage for her.

“It’s classic Kamala to say, ‘okay, what are we going to do about it?'” when confronted with a problem, he said. So, with respect to the gay and trans panic defenses, she set about figuring out ‘”how do we educate people in law enforcement to confront it?’ and ‘how can we craft a law and do it in such a way that still protects the rights of defendants?'”

Irby remembered how Harris, as a new senator, saw and took the chance to help broaden access to pre-exposure prophylaxis, a medication regimen that substantially lessens the chances of transmitting HIV through sex.

“There’s a lot of people who have been senators for a very long time, and there are not a lot of open policy lanes for a new person to come in and try to make sure that they are making their mark on specific issues,” he said. “But on LGBTQ issues in particular, the Vice President found that opportunity by her bill to help people access PrEP.”

Harris, he recalled, said, “‘hey, this is important. We need to de-stigmatize this. This is about healthcare for LGBTQ people. This is about their ability to to be to be safe, to be healthy and live their fullest lives.'”

“As a former prosecutor, she understands the power of the courts, certainly,” Irby told the Blade. Going back to her time as a prosecutor and later as California’s Attorney General, he noted, Harris “refused to uphold Prop 8 in the courts and saw the power of that as making sure that she was fighting for that expansion and not the restriction” of rights through the judiciary, whose role she has always understood as a means of strengthening and broadening freedoms and protections.

“I am so proud of her, and I was so proud to be part of so many things that she did early on and proud of what she’s continuing to do,” Silard said.

“It’s one thing for a politician to talk about an issue, to orate about it very nicely,” Irby said. “It’s another thing to show up in those spaces; it’s another thing to surround yourself and demonstrate that you have credibility,” as she has done and continues to do.

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Politics

EXCLUSIVE: Biden-Harris campaign debuts ads targeting LGBTQ voters

Ads to begin running Tuesday

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Pride month ad (Photo courtesy of the Biden-Harris 2024 campaign)

The Biden-Harris 2024 campaign will debut new ads on Tuesday targeting LGBTQ voters in battleground states for Pride Month ahead of November’s election.

“These ads will be featured across national and battleground LGBTQ+ media outlets, and will run throughout the month,” the campaign explained in a press release.

The aim is to “uplift” Biden’s record as “the most pro-LGBTQ+ president in history” while also highlighting “Donald Trump’s history of attacking their rights and his plans to go further.”

One ad that was previewed exclusively by the Washington Blade reads, “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fighting for the LGBTQ community!” with a photo of the president and vice president.

Another, formatted for social media, features a photo of Pride flags atop a quote from the “PBS NewsHour”: “On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has been outlining what he plans to do if elected in November. That includes rolling back the rights of millions of LGBTQ+ people. It’s part of a wider playbook to undo many civil rights advances for minority groups.”

“This Pride is an important time to remember the progress we’ve made for our community under President Biden, and the stakes of this election for LGBTQ+ Americans as Trump proudly runs to strip us of our rights,” said Biden-Harris 2024 Spokesperson Kevin Munoz, who is gay.

“From threatening IVF treatments to threatening LGBTQ+ marriages, Trump’s Project 2025 agenda would rip away our rights, and sow needless hate and division for Trump’s political gain,” he said. “LGBTQ+ Americans deserve to hear from us about these stakes, and this buy shows we will continue to show up and make our case to them in this election.”

The ad blitz on Tuesday comes after the campaign’s announcement of a paid media and organizing push for Pride month, which includes sizable investments in courting LGBTQ voters in battleground states.

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Congress

Equality Caucus, White House condemn anti-LGBTQ riders in spending bill

Biden has promised a veto

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U.S. Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Congressional Equality Caucus on Wednesday condemned House Republicans’ passage of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies (“MilCon”) Appropriations Act, 2025, with anti-LGBTQ riders attached.

“Once again, Republicans are attacking the transgender and broader LGBTQI+ community with riders that both harm our LGBTQI+ veterans and undermine our military readiness by discouraging LGBTQI+ people from enlisting,” said caucus chair U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

“We strongly condemn this bill and its cruel attacks that target those who have served our nation in uniform,” the congressman said. “Our members remain committed to defending the LGBTQI+ community throughout the Fiscal Year 2025 appropriations process and beyond.”

The White House said on Monday that President Joe Biden would veto the House version of the MilCon bill, with opposition stemming in part from the anti-LGBTQ riders along with anti-abortion riders, which would reverse the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ policy of covering abortions in cases of rape or incest. These provisions will almost certainly not be included in the Senate version of the appropriations package.

Also on Monday, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued a statement outlining the Biden-Harris administration’s position on the bill, writing: “H.R. 8580 includes numerous, partisan policy provisions with devastating consequences, including harming access to reproductive healthcare, threatening the health and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex Americans, endangering marriage equality, hindering critical climate change initiatives, and preventing the administration from promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Two of the four anti-LGBTQ riders would prohibit the use of appropriated funds for “surgical procedures or hormone therapies for the purposes of gender affirming care” and the implementation, administration, application, or enforcement of three executive orders by Biden containing LGBTQ-inclusive diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives:

A third would prohibit the flying of Pride flags over VA facilities and national cemeteries while a fourth would create a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ people under the pretext of religious liberty.

For instance, the caucus writes, “it prohibits the federal government from reducing or terminating a federal contract or grant with an organization that discriminates against LGBTQI+ people if the organization justifies their discrimination based on the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.”

Likewise, the rider “prohibits the federal government from reducing or terminating the employment of an employee who discriminates against LGBQI+ people if the employee justifies their discrimination based on the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.”

This means a benefits counselor could, without being penalized, refuse to process applications and changes for a veteran’s same-sex spouse, the caucus notes.

On X, the caucus pledged to defeat the anti-LGBTQ riders, noting “we were able to ensure these harmful riders were not included in last year’s final MilCon-VA bill.”

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Politics

BLADE EXCLUSIVE: Vice President Kamala Harris details what’s at stake in November

‘When we fight for our rights, we see progress — and we win’

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Vice President Kamala Harris (Washington Blade photo by Jono Madison/Jono Photography)

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with the Washington Blade by phone on Monday for an exclusive interview in which she outlined the stakes of November’s election for LGBTQ communities and all Americans who are now facing “a profound, unapologetic, and intentional movement to restrict rights.”

The conversation comes at the outset of the Biden-Harris campaign’s roll-out of an aggressive organizing and paid media push for Pride month, which will feature appearances at more than 200 events in June as part of an effort to mobilize LGBTQ and “equality voters” in key battleground states.

Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents in a 2022 poll by the Human Rights Campaign said they consider LGBTQ equality a “make or break” issue, and queer Americans, who comprise a larger share of the electorate than ever before, are considered critical for the president and vice president’s reelection effort.

Harris stressed that these constituents are not monolithic. “What is important to me,” she said, “is that I am in the community where those voters may be, in addition to every other community where I’m listening to their priorities and needs and then being responsive to that.”

America’s first woman, first Black, and first South Asian vice president, Harris, 59, has broken barriers throughout her career in public service, beginning with her election as San Francisco district attorney in 2003, and then as California attorney general in 2010 and U.S. senator for California in 2016.

Harris has also been credited with playing a major role in the establishment and expansion of rights and protections for LGBTQ communities at the local, state, and federal levels over the past two decades.

Along with the election, she addressed subjects ranging from the need to protect queer spaces to her relationships with LGBTQ staff over the years and the trajectory of the queer and civil rights movements in America.

Later this week, the Blade will publish interviews with two gay men who served as longtime advisers to Harris and shared reflections on their work with her on initiatives including climate policy and criminal justice reform.

Preventing hate violence

Last June, the Biden-Harris administration established an interagency LGBTQ+ Community Safety Partnership to confront the spike in hate crimes and bias-motivated violence against the community. (The White House introduced new CSP resources on Friday.)

Nearly a year later, the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a joint public service announcement about the risk of terrorism at Pride events and venues this month — and Harris told the Blade she is “very concerned” by the agencies’ warning.

This is familiar terrain for the vice president, who in September was tapped to lead the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention and who noted that she was responsible for compiling and publishing hate crimes reports and for prosecuting “hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community” when running the country’s second largest department of justice and serving as district attorney.

Bias-motivated crime targeting queer people “is not a new phenomenon, sadly, but it is growing,” she said, “I think in large part because of the powerful voices that are fanning the flames of hate. It is outrageous.”

“What it does is it creates fear in the community, not to mention the possibility of real and serious harm, including crimes of violence,” she said.

Harris highlighted that issues of safety are among the major priorities for LGBTQ communities and equality voters, pointing to the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the November 2022 Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, crimes that she said the country must never forget.

“Gun violence,” when “being used because of hate” can “destroy the lives of so many innocent people,” she said, adding, “we know that for so many in the LGBTQ community, those clubs are the only place that a lot of people can go in certain communities to just have joy and [to] feel safe having joy, and now those places have been targeted.”

Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo credit: The White House/Lawrence Jackson)

Marriage, LGBTQ families, and the movement to restrict rights

In 2004, when 61 percent of Americans opposed the legal recognition of same-sex marriages (per Gallup), then-district attorney Harris officiated some of the first weddings between gay and lesbian couples in defiance of state and federal regulations.

Later, as attorney general, she refused to defend Proposition 8 and petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to repeal the ballot measure, which had amended the state’s constitution to recognize only opposite-sex unions between one man and one woman.

Of the roughly two-dozen Democrats who led major presidential campaigns in 2020, Harris boasted the earliest explicit on-record support for marriage equality — by a long shot. However, even though virtually every elected Democrat and the majority of the American people have since come around on the issue, today the vice president is deeply troubled by the observation that “for the first time, we are seeing a profound, unapologetic, and intentional movement to restrict rights.”

At the nexus of these threats to the rights of LGBTQ Americans and other communities, Harris said, is Donald Trump and his right-wing extremist allies.

“Look at what he has done with the United States Supreme Court and the justices that he chose,” she said, “including the Trump-selected justices, who ruled last year that small businesses can discriminate against LGBTQ people” in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

“And listen, I do believe that if reelected, he would appoint more conservative judges — and you see where this is heading.”

Shortly after Trump sent three right-wing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, its conservative supermajority overturned Roe v. Wade (1973), revoking constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place for nearly 50 years.

With that decision, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), “the highest court in our land took a fundamental freedom from the people of America, especially the women of America,” Harris stressed. “Understand what that means in terms of how that weakens our country for everyone. America has always prided itself on the fact that our strength and the growth of our strength is based on an expansion of rights.”

She noted Clarence Thomas’s issuance of a concurring opinion in Dobbs in which he expressed interest in revisiting other precedent-setting cases like Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which established the right to marriage equality nationwide. (In response, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats led passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified into federal law many of the legal rights held by married same-sex and interracial couples.)

Meanwhile, conservative jurists across the country, many appointed by Trump, have taken aim at other freedoms including access to contraception, medication abortion, and in-vitro fertilization, which has been met with pushback from the Biden-Harris administration via regulatory action and litigation.

Harris pointed out that “the hypocrisy abounds” provided that “on the one hand, you’re saying that we’re going to prevent you from ending an unwanted pregnancy” and “on the other hand, we’re going to prevent you from starting a family.”

“We know that for LGBTQ couples, IVF is one of the most critical and essential ways that they can start the family they dream to have,” the vice president said. “And the idea that access to IVF would be at stake, at risk, much less denied, means to deny loving couples,” same-sex and opposite-sex alike, “the ability to start a family.”

More broadly, she added, “let’s just think about the various civil rights movements that the community has been involved with, and where the rights of LGBTQ people have been at stake, including the successful movement that we had for the freedom of people to love who they love openly and with pride and to have that love recognized by law if they want to marry and choose to marry.”

“Freedom, the concept of freedom, has always been an undergird of the movement for LGBTQ equality and rights,” Harris said.

The need to stay vigilant and engaged

Across the board, Harris said, “the range of [issues] we’ve already discussed are priority, right? So everything from the fear of violence and hate, what we need to do to continue to be vigilant to protect the gains we’ve already made around equality, but [also] ensure that we also fight against those who are trying to erode the progress that we have achieved here, on LGBTQ rights, specifically.”

Harris noted that there are “a variety of other issues that include, for example, discrimination in housing. I’m doing a lot of work on that in affordable housing, but in speaking of discrimination in housing, we know that part of the history of the discrimination against members of LGBTQ community includes that issue.”

There is also a need to shore up protections for teachers and students, she said, “especially when we look at a state like Florida that has a ‘don’t say gay’ law, and what that means for LGBTQ teachers in one of the most populous states in the country.”

The past few years have seen a deluge of anti-LGBTQ laws proposed (and passed, in many cases) by conservative state legislatures across the country, Harris noted. The ACLU is tracking 515 so far in 2024. Disproportionately, these bills target the rights of trans and gender expansive Americans, especially youth.

The vice president pointed to Iowa’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in April. Opponents and LGBTQ advocates argue the law’s primary aim is to provide a pretext and legal cover for discrimination against queer Iowans.

Harris also noted the prevalence of book bans, a substantial percentage of which target titles with LGBTQ characters and themes. (Last June, the White House appointed a coordinator at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to provide training for schools on “how book bans that target specific communities and create a hostile school environment may violate federal civil rights laws.”)

The vice president emphasized, “You look at the election cycle, and yes, it’s about Trump,” but there are also “anti-LGBTQ extremists running in down-ballot [races] across the country,” including North Carolina gubernatorial candidate and current Lieutenant Gov. Mark Robinson (R) “who refers to LGBTQ people as filth.” The White House issued a statement calling his June 2021 remarks “repugnant and offensive.”

Emphasizing the contrast to win in November

“Joe Biden and I are very proud to be the most pro-LGBTQ administration in history,” Harris said, “and I think that on the other side of this equation in November, you’ve probably got one of the most anti-LGBTQ administrations in modern history.”

“I am an eternal optimist and I’m also a realist,” she said. “When we fight for our rights, we see progress — and we win. We have to be vigilant, though. We have to see what’s possible and then fight to get there, like passing the Equality Act,” legislation championed by the Biden-Harris administration that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in areas from housing and employment to lending and education.

“We’ve got to participate to get the Equality Act and things like that passed,” Harris said, adding, “I’m also clear-eyed” about “what’s happening on the other side of the ledger” which means taking “seriously that these extremists are making their intentions clear, and we should take them at their word.”

Along with her experience growing up in the Bay Area, “which, proudly, was on the front lines of the gay liberation movement,” Harris said her perspective and approach have been influenced to a significant extent by LGBTQ leaders she has worked with over the years, including her first campaign manager, Jim Rivaldo, who had previously advised Harvey Milk in the history-making 1977 election in which he became the first openly gay man to hold public office in California.

“I grew up in politics believing in the coalition,” Harris said, “that no one should be made to fight alone. We all stand together in the fight for freedom and equality and civil rights, and so let’s balance out how we think about all of this stuff. We know what we stand for, so we know what to fight for, and therefore we will win.”

Harris puts LGBTQ people in positions of power

The Biden-Harris administration has appointed LGBTQ leaders throughout the federal government in record-breaking numbers, with high-profile examples including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, and Adm. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Likewise, many of the top deputies serving in the office of the vice president are LGBTQ — as were a number of Harris’s closest and highest-ranking advisers from the time she was district attorney through her tenure as U.S. senator.

“Every elected position I have had involves making decisions that will impact, invariably, hundreds of thousands to over hundreds of millions of people,” she said, and “I feel very strongly that decision-making” should “reflect the communities we are serving.”

“I want to have input and perspective from a diverse group of people who will have a diverse set of life experiences and perspectives that will help inform a good decision on my part,” Harris said.

On May 22, the Blade was invited to attend a meeting in which the vice president addressed members of her staff in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building ahead of Pride month.

“Increasingly,” Harris said, “it takes on a different meaning depending on what’s happening in the world, and while we’ve seen so much progress, we’ve also seen a decline.”

“There are a lot of people who are in pain, or afraid, who are being attacked or fear being attacked in many ways that might be physical,” or otherwise by “forces that are trying to demean and trying to separate people and create divisions,” she said.

At the same time, Harris emphasized, “we have great power, those of us who work in this place, to remind people that we stand with them. You all heard me say many times, I strongly believe no one should remain silent.”

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “And there’s so much that’s been part of the movement for LGBTQ+ rights that has been about an acknowledgment of the strength of the coalition.”

The vice president recalled how she had to fight to display the Pride flag outside her Senate office. “I had to fight, well, you know the story,” she said, gesturing to some members of her staff, “and I was just like, ‘I’m doing it,'” adding, “I did it, of course.”

“I’m very proud of every one of you, OK?” Harris said. “Thank you for being a leader in so many ways.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and staff (Photo credit: The White House/Lawrence Jackson)
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