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Rep. Mondaire Jones, one of the first Black openly gay members of Congress, has become the role model he’d never had

February 12, 2021

Having never seen a member of Congress just like him — Black and openly gay — Mondaire Jones drew on qualities that he admired from several sources as he summoned the inspiration and courage to run for the House of Representatives.

His role models were Black and White, straight and LGBTQ, male and female, politicians and entertainers. Their achievements and activism gave him the confidence to come out nearly a decade ago, and to run for Congress last year. He was elected to represent New York’s 17th Congressional District, serving Westchester and Rockland counties, and became one of the first openly gay Black members to serve in Congress. The other is Rep. Ritchie Torres (D), also from New York.

Jones, 33, grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs and relied on Section 8 housing and food stamps to make ends meet. He became active with the youth chapter of the NAACP while he was still in high school and graduated from Stanford University. He worked in the Justice Department during the Obama administration, then earned a law degree from Harvard University.

All the while he was building his impressive résumé, Jones wasn’t open about his sexuality. It was Frank Ocean’s album “Channel Orange,” released in 2012, in which the singer and songwriter opened up about being queer, that Jones said gave him the “confidence to not just come out around the same time to my friends and family, but years later to then run as an openly gay person for the United States Congress.”

We talked to Jones about making history and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How does it feel to be a historical figure, a first?

To grow up Black and gay is to not see yourself anywhere. That’s why representation matters — if I had seen an openly gay Black person in the halls of Congress when I was growing up, it would have been living proof that things really do get better. I’m so happy that I can help increase representation for LGBTQ+ people of all races, and I’m grateful to the people of Westchester and Rockland for sending a powerful message to LGBTQ+ people around the world that your community will accept you regardless of who you love. I’m always inspired to hear from members of the LGBTQ+ community who are excited that I’m living and running as my authentic self, and how that’s giving them the confidence to do the same.

To the LGBTQ+ people reading this who are struggling with coming out: You belong. You are loved. We will be here to support you, whenever you’re ready.

Where and in whom did you find inspiration to run for Congress, because there had been not been anybody who looked like you there before?

I certainly had Black role models, like Barack Obama, for example, who similarly defied conventional political wisdom and won a very difficult race and expanded people’s imagination of what is possible in the process. But of course, there had never been someone who was openly gay and Black in the United States Congress. And so I had to draw from people like Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk.

But perhaps surprising to many people, most of all, it was seeing sort of my life projected back at me through “Noah’s Arc,” which was the first time that I had seen openly gay Black men in authentic loving relationships. “Noah’s Arc” was a TV series on the Logo Network, written by Patrik-Ian Polk.

Who is your favorite historical figure and why?

My political role model is attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He made it his life’s work to desegregate our public institutions, and succeeded. His story is one of moral clarity and persistence: He set out his ambitious goal and spent nearly 20 years strategically, deliberately chipping away, culminating in the seminal Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

I owe my life to the success of Thurgood’s work. Thurgood himself was denied admission to University of Maryland Law School because of the color of his skin. But thanks to Thurgood, I did not suffer the same fate. I attended Spring Valley High School, an integrated public high school where I received a quality education, and went on to Stanford University and Harvard Law School. I hope to continue his legacy of fighting for racial justice.

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A lot of people focus on marriage equality as if it’s the be-all, end-all of the fight for LGBTQ rights, but what does full equality look like to you?

Full equality means equity and not just equal treatment under the law, through legislation like the Equality Act. We have to go beyond protecting people from discrimination to address the systemic injustices that are pervasive for members of the LGBTQ+ community. I’ll give you a few examples. LGBTQ+ people on average have $16,000 more in student debt, largely because their families are more likely to disown them and not provide the kind of familial financial support that other people receive. We also know that LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to become homeless as their heterosexual cisgender counterparts.

And so for me, full equality looks like forgiving student debt and implementing tuition-free public colleges and universities, while also ensuring that housing is treated as a human right in the richest nation on Earth.

And of course, that the inequities that I described are further compounded if you are Black and queer. We are more likely to live in poverty and face violence than our White counterparts. And indeed, experience discrimination in the form of racism even within the White LGBTQ+ community.

What did it feel like having your workplace violently attacked by U.S. citizens during your first week on the job?

On January 6th, I was in the House chamber — on the House floor seated with the Democratic leadership team of which I am a part — during what historically had been a routine election certification process.

Then, after some commotion, there was an abrupt announcement by security personnel that the Capitol had been breached by the mob outside, and that we would need to lock the doors to the House chamber from the inside. Minutes later, there was a very loud banging sound at one of the doors behind me from that mob of domestic terrorists that you all saw on TV. We were told to look under our seats and to pull out gas masks in case tear gas needed to be used. I’ve never used a gas mask before. We were also told to prepare to lie down on the ground in the event of gunfire. My life literally flashed before my eyes. Thankfully, with moments to spare, we were evacuated through tunnels to a more secure location.

I have said before that most people would quit their jobs if, on Day 4, they almost died while at work. But for me, the events of January 6th have only strengthened my resolve to have a government that works for the people, and that delivers for my constituents in Westchester and Rockland.

What are your top legislative priorities?

Right now, my top priority is covid-19 relief. We must crush the virus, deliver relief for working people and small businesses, and fully reopen our economy. But [President Biden’s] $1.9 trillion stimulus package should be the minimum floor — not the ceiling. We cannot afford to go small — the only fiscally and morally responsible option is to provide the financial relief that families need now. The $1,400 check is a good first step, but we need $2,000 monthly checks for the duration of the pandemic to really make a difference in the daily lives of working people in this country, especially in my district where the cost of living is so high.

The next, and most immediate priority, has to be fixing our broken democracy. The insurrection I lived through on January 6th started with the myth of voter fraud, which the GOP is using to lay the foundation for another decade of suppressing the votes of people of color, working people and young people.

To fix our democracy for the future, we must pass the For the People Act (or HR 1). The bill would end partisan gerrymandering, establish small-dollar public financing for congressional campaigns, and enact automatic voter registration. Together, these reforms will help ensure that the movement the insurrection represented can never again threaten our democracy.

I don’t want to sound like a HR person, but I did want to know what do you see yourself doing 10 years from now. Will you run for president one day?

I do not want to run for president one day. I want to continue serving the great people in Westchester and Rockland Counties. It is the honor of a lifetime to be in this role. It is a role that only in the past couple of years I imagined being possible for someone like me, because growing up poor, Black and gay, I never imagined that someone like me could run for Congress, let alone get elected. So, I am still focused on leading in this role.