OutPower

From Runway to Representation – Jennifer Zhang

OUT ON THE HILL is the official blog of the Victory Congressional Interns. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of LGBTQ Victory Institute. Learn more about the internship at victoryinstitute.org/vci

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I came to Washington, D.C. on an 8-seater plane with a malfunctioning door.

On our first takeoff attempt, the pilot repeatedly slammed the cabin door to try to get an airtight seal. The light on the dashboard said it wasn’t working. We disembarked and spent half an hour in the terminal waiting for the flight crew to run diagnostics. They fixed it and managed to convince the now 6 of us to get back on. Two hours and a jovial amount of turbulence later, we landed without issue.

Having tenuous transit options is one small consequence of living in a 10,000-person town deep in dairy country on the precipice of the Canadian border. There are many other consequences, too. Only a few years ago, I would have struggled to imagine myself in Washington, D.C. interning for a member of Congress or contributing to anything of such prominence. I would have struggled even more to imagine myself living as an openly queer Asian American woman. Thanks to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, I’m now doing both, having landed here in the closing days of AAPI Heritage Month and jumping into Pride month next.

During our initial orientation days, we spoke with current LGBTQ+ congressional staffers, former Victory Congressional Interns, and Mayor Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston and President & CEO of the Victory Fund & Institute. Upbeat reflections on how far our community has come were interspersed with the conviction that progress is difficult to win, hard to keep, and only accumulates from a thousand small milestones that do not independently seem that impressive. Paraphrasing Mayor Parker, electing one openly transgender individual to a state legislature may not change the final vote on bills that further marginalize transgender people, but it changes the dynamics and conversations that happen afterward, forcing the lawmakers who passed it to regularly confront the people they assert do not deserve the dignity of being treated so. These conversations are timelier than ever as states and counties across the country roll back reproductive rights and increasingly stigmatize transgender and queer individuals only a year after the Supreme Court granted us the right of non-discrimination in employment.

Earlier this week, I began my internship virtually in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office. Immediately after staff introductions, we dived into a statement of the office’s values: creating big structural change, upending oppressive hierarchies, and promoting racial, economic, and gender justice. While I have yet to step foot in the office, our discussion of the shared principles that drew us to Capitol Hill reaffirmed my belief in the power of conscientious and committed people to advancing tangible change. While processing constituent mail, I have seen how the Senator’s unwavering belief in certain values—protecting consumers, advancing reproductive justice, and including historically marginalized communities in the political process—invites both deep admiration and virulent scorn. The latter is only the symptom of taking a stand and your ability to deal with it is greater the more genuinely you believe in your stance.

I do not yet know how the next two months will play out and what it will be like to work in Congress during such turbulent times. In many ways, my chaotic but still enjoyable flight to Washington, D.C. set the stage for what may be an unpredictable but memorable summer, and an already life-changing experience.

Representation fixes the door controlling who enters policy spaces, helping ensure that the people closest to the pain—and who have firsthand knowledge of it—are closest to the power. The Victory Congressional Internship cohort is a small but mighty crew, full of deeply kind, genuine, and dedicated individuals who I am proud to hold in community and excited to get to know further. Above all else, I am happy to be Out on the Hill, and ready to embrace all the struggle and joy it may bring.