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Growing the Margins: Celebrating Newly Elected Diversity in the US Congress

By Raiyah Butt

Illustration by @omgvote

The 2020 US election has been a true testament to the year altogether: complete chaos. We waited 5 days for the result, which saw Biden ever so slowly climb to victory over Trump. We all fretted with anxiety because it was such a close call. We’ll hold back on the broader social commentary of this past week for the moment. Not only because there is simply a great deal to unpack there, but also because in the fallout of Trump 2016-2020, there may not be enough place to put all of our political baggage. So we’ll take a minute and let the room clear a bit first.

To a lot of people, Biden was a good option only because he wasn’t Trump, and just because we all let out a huge collective sigh at the result, doesn’t mean that the next four years are going to be easy. Not for minorities, the working class, the most vulnerable in the ongoing pandemic, and those all around the world who are heavily affected by America’s policies. America, buckle up, you’ve still got work to do.

But within the week-long anxiety, the “stop the count” vs “keep the count” protests and hearing “too close to call” a hundred times, something worth celebrating emerged. The Houses of Congress saw the most diverse group of candidates win seats this year. The Squad were all re-elected. As were the so-called “Samosa Caucus”, a group of four Indian legislators: Ami Bera, Premila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi. Now, we’ve had the representation debate before, on Kamala Harris and female Supreme Court Justices.

We’ve said that belonging to a minority group doesn’t necessarily mean that one will advocate for their rights and interests. We also think that people shouldn’t necessarily be defined by their biological makeup or identity group, there’s more to a person than that. But we’re not here to have that discussion today.

Today, we’re here to celebrate people who are through the door that was previously closed to them.

Mauree Turner (Democrat), Oklahoma’s House 88th District

The 27-year old Black, queer progressive is making history as the first non-binary state lawmaker in the U.S, and the first Muslim in Oklahoma’s state house. Before running for office, Turner was a community organiser and activist, and representing their community will continue to be central to Turner’s work as a state legislator. They tweeted: “I didn’t need a legislative seat to care for and work in my community. Community organisers rarely need seats to provide for our neighbours, friends, and family, but our nation is changing and should serve all of our people.”

They call themselves a “vessel” for visibility and representation for the queer and Muslim communities, and the intersection between both of those minority groups. Turner is already a huge inspiration not just to those groups, but to any young person who has typically been excluded from the political arena.

Stephanie Byers (Democrat), Kansas’ State Senate 86th District

Taylor Small (Democrat), Vermont’s House Chittenden 6-7 District

Sarah McBride (Democrat), Delaware’s State Senate 1st District

Byers is not only the first transgender representative in the Kansas state legislature but also the first transgender person of colour as a member of the Native American Chickasaw Nation. She’s worked for thirty years as a teacher, and was named GLSEN National Educator of the Year, and was the Communications Director of Wichita Pride.

Small is the first transgender person elected to Vermont’s state legislature, at 26 years old. She worked as the Director of the Health and Wellness programme at Pride Centre of Vermont and ran on a progressive platform. She has a drag persona, Nikki Champagne, and along with her partner Emoji Nightmare, provides Drag Queen Story Hours across the state to promote local libraries, youth literacies and creating safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ community members.

McBride is the first transgender person on the state senate. She was a trainee in former President Obama’s White House and has worked as the press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. She’s now the nation’s highest-ranking transgender official.

She tweeted: “We did it. I hope tonight shows an LGBTQ kid that our democracy is big enough for them, too.”

These strides are made more significant specifically in the wake of the past four years. Trump made many efforts to erode transgender rights, such as banning transgender people from serving in the military, rescinding protections that allow transgender people to use bathrooms based on their chosen identity, and restricting transgender access to discrimination in homeless shelters. Having transgender people in office is as important as ever. And the most important thing is that Small, Byers and McBride not only represent their community but fight for them.

Ritchie Torres (Democrat), New York’s House 15th District

Mondaire Jones (Democrat), New York’s House 17th District

Torres will be the first Afro-Latino gay member of the US Congress, winning an overwhelming 88.2% of the vote. He hopes he can “represent the possibility of a poor kid, a kid of colour, and an LGBTQ kid from a place like the Bronx, can overcome the odds and become a member of the United States Congress.” Mondaire Jones joins Torres, representing New York’s 17th District, and is happy that the 244-year history of the United States is finally seeing openly gay, Black members of Congress.

Deb Haaland (Democrat), New Mexico’s House 1st District

Yvette Herrell (Republican), New Mexico’s House 2nd District

Teresa Leger Fernandez (Democrat), New Mexico’s House 3rd District

New Mexico has made history as the first state to elect all women of colour to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe and had previously made history in 2018 as the first Native American woman elected to Congress. Herrell is a member of the Cherokee nation, and Fernandez is Latina. Whilst Herrell has had the endorsement of some senior level Republicans, including Trump himself, it is hoped that having women of colour representing New Mexico will push for greater consideration of indigenous communities within policy. Haaland has already been an advocate for her community, pushing for protection of tribal sovereignty and commitments to earth-friendly business practices.

Cori Bush (Democrat), Missouri's House 1st District

Bush is another history maker, as the first Black woman elected in Missouri. She won with 79% of the vote, after a Democratic primary defeat of incumbent Representative William Clay, son of previous representative William Clay Senior, who together had represented the District for 50 years. She is a grassroots champion, as a nurse and a prominent Black Lives Matter organiser since the Ferguson uprisings in 2014. Her progressive platform, which includes Medicare-For-All and the Green New Deal, will no doubt centre the Black community in remedying the heavy injustices we’ve seen throughout the year.

She tweeted, “To all the counted outs, the forgotten abouts, the marginalised, and the pushes asides. We came together to end a 52-year family dynasty, That’s how we build the political revolution.”

Iman Jodeh (Democrat), Colorado's House 41st District

Jodeh is the first Muslim legislator in Colorado's history and is a Palestinian-American. She has talked about how from a young age, visiting her homeland and seeing the devastation of war, violence and oppression has influenced her, and how she takes pride in her family’s “five-decade struggle”. She’s been praised for her work particularly in the Muslim community, advocating for interfaith dialogue and Muslim inclusion in Colorado, and was the first female spokesperson for the largest mosque in the Rocky Mountain region.

She is one of a handful of newly elected Muslim legislators making firsts in their states, joined by Madinah Wilson-Anton in Delaware, Samba Baldeh in Wisconsin and Christopher Benjamin in Florida.

Torrey Harris (Democrat), elected to Tennessee’s House 90th District

Eddie Mannis (Republican), elected to Tennessee’s House 18th District

Harris, an openly bisexual Black man, and Mannis, who is an openly gay Republican, both made history as the first LGBTQ+ lawmakers in Texas. Harris is also the youngest lawmaker in Nashville at age 29, taking over from the incumbent John Deberry who represented the district for 26 years, and was notoriously anti-LGBTQ. He’s been a long-time community leader, involved in numerous social justice groups such as the NAACP and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Mannis prevailed in the 18th District after winning a Republican primary that was riddled with homophobic attacks. Both candidates send the message that LGBTQ candidates can succeed in a deep red state whilst being their true and authentic selves.

Phew, what a list, right?

And that’s not all, there are plenty more, not just to the Houses of Congress but in local branches as well. For that's something to hold on to, that despite all the challenges this election has thrown at us, here, we have something which can be celebrated.

The people we’ve mentioned cut across the intersections between race, gender, sexuality and class, embodying different types of struggles and stories. They deserve celebration not simply because they fit into neat boxes of identity politics, but because for the most part, they’re active community members who work with and for those that they represent. Diversity within politics, and therefore greater chances for the marginalised to have their voices heard, is ever-increasing, as long as we keep pushing for it. As always, we remind ourselves that elections are not the be-all and end-all of change, it’s not where change primarily happens because, well, it only comes around every so often. Pushing for change and progressing society in a better, more inclusive direction which puts the needs of the community it serves first, is an ongoing process. We hope that the newly elected lawmakers serve within that, and we can count their small wins whilst we sit and wait to see what the next four years bring.


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