Editor’s note: This story is excerpted from our special U.S. election newsletter, Rainbow Votes 2020. To get this content delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe now.
It’s official: Democratic leader Joe Biden has chosen U.S. Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential pick. Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, will be the first Black woman and the first person of South Asian descent on a presidential ticket after she accepts the nomination at next week’s Democratic National Convention. The 55-year-old is just the third woman to ever contend for the vice presidency—after Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008, both of whom ultimately lost their campaigns.
Here’s everything you need to know about Harris so far.
Her political background
A former prosecutor, Harris has distinguished herself as a junior Senator with tough and thorough questioning of Attorney General William Barr, in a 2019 hearing on whether President Donald Trump had ordered him to investigate political opponents, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual misconduct by three women in 2018. And as a 2020 presidential contender, she boasted one of the defining moments of the Democratic debates by questioning her now-running mate’s previous opposition to mandatory busing in the 1970s, which was intended to further desegregation efforts in education. Harris started school in Berkeley, California during the second year of its busing program, which she said helped students like her access a quality education.
Where she stands on LGBTQ2 issues
On LGBTQ2 rights, Harris has been praised for her longtime support of queer and trans communities, dating back to her days as the District Attorney of San Francisco—a role she served for seven years. She personally performed same-sex marriages during the Bay City’s short-lived attempt to legalize marriage equality in 2004, which resulted in 4,000 couples tying the knot before the California Supreme Court intervened to halt the unions. Marriage equality wouldn’t become fully legal in the state of California until 2013, after a federal court invalidated the infamous 2008 ballot initiative Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. (After she was elected California Attorney General in 2011, Harris was a key player in lobbying the courts to overturn Prop 8.)
Although former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is now the governor of California, has largely been credited with the early push to allow same-sex couples to marry, Harris’ role in that effort is significant. Of the 2020 presidential candidates, she was among the first to come out in support of the freedom to marry—five years before Bernie Sanders and seven years before Elizabeth Warren.
As the San Francisco District Attorney, Harris established a unit to investigate LGBTQ2 hate crimes. She would continue that work as California Attorney General, in 2014, by pushing the state to adopt a law banning the LGBTQ2 “panic” defence—a legal strategy in which a defendant attempts to lobby for lesser charges in cases where a queer or trans person is murdered by claiming the victim’s identity provoked the killing. California ultimately became the first state in the U.S. to ban the “panic” defence, and similar laws have since been adopted in 10 other states.
Harris also released one of the most comprehensive plans for LGBTQ2 equality among Democratic hopefuls before dropping out of the 2020 race last December. In October 2019, she outlined a wide-ranging agenda that would restore many of the rights and protections rolled back by the Trump administration—including a pledge to reverse the ban on trans people serving openly in the military, adding questions to the U.S. Census asking about LGBTQ2 identities and opposing laws that allow people of faith to deny services to LGBTQ2 individuals. She also voiced support for banning conversion therapy on a national level, expanding access to HIV-prevention medications like PrEP, strengthening the pathway to asylum for LGBTQ2 refugees and passing of Equality Act, a law that would ensure equal protections for LGBTQ2 people in employment, housing, health care, education and other areas.
Many of those proposals were a staple of similar plans released by Warren and Sanders. But here’s where Harris stood out: If elected to the White House, she pledged to create a chief advocate for LGBTQ2 affairs and to start a fellowship program to “build a new generation of transgender leaders.” It remains to be seen whether Biden, who was among the last 2020 candidates to release a comprehensive platform for LGBTQ2 rights, will adopt these latter proposals.
And notably, Harris has named a Black lesbian, Karine Jean-Pierre, as her chief of staff.
What critics are saying
LGBTQ2 activists, however, have been fiercely critical of other aspects of Harris’ record on equality. As the California Attorney General, she represented the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in its decision to deny gender-affirming care to two trans inmates. When asked about that blemish on her record by the LGBTQ2 news outlet Washington Blade, Harris said last year that she takes “full responsibility” for the actions of her office. That said, she claimed that refusing hormones and surgery to transgender people in prison isn’t a policy she personally supports.
“I had a host of clients that I was obligated to defend and represent and I couldn’t fire my clients, and there are unfortunately situations that occurred where my clients took positions that were contrary to my beliefs,” she said during a news conference held at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, a historically Black college.
While Harris’ aforementioned platform did not mention gender-affirming care for incarcerated trans people—or even whether she supports housing them in accordance with their gender identity—she pledged to reduce LGBTQ2 incarceration in the White House.
Meanwhile, Harris has also faced backlash to her vote for FOSTA/SESTA, a bill passed in 2018 that intended to fight online sex trafficking but has served to curtail digital resources for sex workers. The passage of that legislation, which was also supported by fellow 2020 hopefuls like Warren and Sanders, shut down websites like Backpage and Cityvibe that allowed sex workers to safely screen clients. Even prior to her time in the U.S. Senate, Harris joined other state attorneys general in 2013 to lobby Congress to criminalize third-party websites which facilitate the sale of sex.
Following criticism of her support for FOSTA/SESTA, Harris was one of just four Democratic presidential candidates to come out in favour of decriminalizing sex work. There remains, however, room to grow on that front: Harris favors a model which would target those who purchase sex rather than individuals who engage in sex work, leading to a system in which sex workers could still be targeted by police.
Although aspects of Harris’ record leave something to be desired, it stands in sharp contrast to the current occupant of the White House. Since he assumed the presidency in January 2017, Donald Trump is responsible for 167 attacks on the LGBTQ2 community, according to the nonprofit GLAAD. His administration has rolled back Obama-era guidance advising teachers to treat trans students in accordance with their gender identity, expelled trans people from the military and erased protections for trans people seeking healthcare. More recently, Trump’s Department of Justice has refused to enforce the Supreme Court’s historic LGBTQ2 employment discrimination ruling after arguing in court that it should be legal to fire someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
After Harris’ nomination was announced on Tuesday, Trump has attacked her as “nasty” and referred to her as a “mad woman.” He is currently trailing Biden in national polls by an average of 7.5 points, according to the trusted polling aggregator RealClearPolitics, and the vast majority of those surveys were conducted before Harris was named to the Democratic ticket. Early polls indicate her history-making nomination is earning high approval marks from voters.