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On issues from the curriculum taught in schools to trans Americans’ access to healthcare, Democrats should focus their messaging on how their opponents’ policy proposals would threaten personal freedoms, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) told the Washington Blade.

The Democratic Party’s tendency to get into the minutiae “doesn’t always serve us well,” as it is generally more effective to relay broader ideas about “this fundamental American concept of freedom” that elected Republicans are working to undermine, Balint said during an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade from her office on Tuesday.

“We don’t like being told what to do as Americans,” she said, adding that the message resonates regardless of whether folks identify as liberals or conservatives, or whether they live in rural or urban areas: “We don’t want to be told what we can and can’t learn about; what we can and can’t talk about.”

Government intrusion and overreach into otherwise private matters concerning healthcare and education has been a hallmark of policies enacted by GOP leaders like Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presumptive but still undeclared candidate for the 2024 presidential race.

Examples have included banning books with LGBTQ characters and themes, last month’s rejection of an advanced African-American studies course, and the Florida Board of Medicine’s adoption of a policy threatening the licenses of medical providers who administer guideline-directed interventions for trans and gender nonconforming youth.

In a video shared on Rumble last month, former president and declared 2024 Republican candidate Donald Trump pledged to weaponize the federal government against trans Americans if elected, such as by terminating the Medicare and Medicaid eligibility of hospitals and facilities that perform gender affirming care for minor patients.

“Ideas around equity and justice are things that we go to as Democrats,” Balint said. “But those aren’t necessarily the words that folks who identify as independents or Republicans use for the same kinds of ideas.”

The congresswoman said it is more effective to frame these debates as matters of “freedom and fairness as opposed to justice or equity or equality,” which is why she will “continue to say, ‘do you want more government intrusion?’”

So, with the presidential primaries looming, it will be important for Democrats to use this paradigm to discuss Republicans like DeSantis interfering with their healthcare, “picking on queer and trans kids and people who support them,” or targeting teachers who are living and working in their communities, Balint said.

The congresswoman, herself a former history teacher, noted that educators are among those figures who are “holding civic society together.”

Fighting extremism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry in Congress

Balint, who made history as Vermont’s first LGBTQ U.S. representative, said Democratic leaders including members of Congress must “be much more open about who we are.”

“If my colleagues across the aisle took a few minutes to talk to families who are raising trans kids right now,” Balint said, “they would understand…that their rhetoric is increasing levels of anxiety, and depression, and disconnection – and that’s not the role of a public official.”

The efficacy of this strategy is underscored by the fact that anti-trans policies are based on lies. “Nothing about the rhetoric around trans Americans is based in reality,” Balint said. “It’s not based in the facts or the experiences of young people in this country.”

“When I talk about my life as a queer person, as a queer parent, as someone who is very open about my own mental health struggles, that gives other people permission to feel like they have a sense of place – in government, in their communities,” Balint said.

LGBTQ staffers on Capitol Hill have thanked Balint for speaking so openly about her identity, she told the Blade.

She said engaging in these discussions on personal terms can also be an effective way of reaching colleagues who, because they “have never had to deal with these issues,” have “learning curves.”

For example, Balint said, during the new Congress’s Jan. 7 swearing-in ceremony, she gently but firmly corrected another member for assuming her spouse in attendance was a man. After their exchange, the congressman found Balint again to apologize, promising that he will be sure never to repeat the mistake.

Balint hedged that other interactions have gone less smoothly. She said one of her main takeaways since arriving in Washington as a newly elected first-term member has been “the extent to which there are extremists within [the GOP],” which “is deeply disturbing to me as an American and certainly as somebody who’s a member of the LGBTQ community.”

Last week, House Republicans introduced a bill that would designate as America’s “national gun” the AR-15 style firearms used in deadly mass shootings, including the 2016 massacre at the former gay Orlando nightclub Pulse. Embattled gay GOP Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which Balint characterized as “a political stunt” and an example of the kind of extreme rhetoric that makes violence more likely.  

The congresswoman said moves like this messaging bill take “our focus away from helping people,” adding that helping people is “why I ran for office – to make life better, to alleviate suffering,” not to use rhetoric and talking points “to raise money.”

Given the high rate of suicide in Vermont, Balint said her work in Congress, including for the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, will be focused on matters like probing the relationships between gun violence, gun policy, and suicide, including among vulnerable populations like “people within the LGBTQ community who don’t feel like they have the support” they need.

A co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Balint has been appointed to serve on the powerful House Budget and Oversight & Accountability Committees.

Priorities for Balint will include the Equality Act, a landmark bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in areas from employment and housing to jury service. A leading champion of the legislation, gay Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), announced plans to retire in May, so Balint said she was talking with him last night “about how we make sure that work continues.”

“We have to continue to fight these battles and these issues, regardless of whether we think they’re going to be able to pass this session,” she said, “because we have to queue it up for when [Democrats] are back in the majority.”

Other focus areas, she said, will be addressing the interrelated and ongoing housing and mental health crises in this country, as well as reproductive justice.

From 2015 to her swearing-in last month, Balint served as a Vermont state senator, including as majority leader and president pro-tempore. Unlike the U.S. House, Balint said, the Vermont Legislature “is pretty high functioning” with “a strong ability to work across the aisle.”

However challenging the calcified and polarized politics of Washington are by comparison, Balint noted there are moderate Republicans in the House. “We know because they were reaching out to members on our side saying, ‘we are not approving of what our leadership is doing around abortion issues.’”

For House Democrats, “it will be impossible for us in this moment to do anything” without the support of a few GOP members, which is a challenge because there are so few moderates in the party as a result of primary challenges from the far-right, Balint said.  

“I’m not going to be a conflict entrepreneur”

Particularly in recent years and especially among Republicans, members of Congress have become bomb-throwers – prone to making outlandish and extreme statements, instigating and engaging in online spats with political opponents, and dehumanizing others.

Far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) has accused elected Democrats of “grooming” children for sexual abuse, compared COVID-19 mask mandates to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and, before her election to Congress, supported calls to assassinate Democratic Party leaders.

Despite – or perhaps in some ways because – of this record, Greene is widely considered a rising star within her party, becoming a top ally of newly elected Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and, according to data from Open Secrets, raising more money during the 2022 election cycle than any other House Republican member except for McCarthy, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.), Dan Crenshaw (Texas), and Jim Jordan (Ohio).

In this environment, amid the ceaseless attacks against them, Balint acknowledged the difficulty for LGBTQ people and their allies to refrain from responding in kind. At the same time, she said, “I’m not somebody who’s going to continue to keep a fight going for the sake of the fight.”

From “how I post [on social media] to the way I deliver my floor speeches [in the House],” Balint said, “it is this signal even to people within my own party, that I’m not going to be a conflict entrepreneur.”

Disagreements are bound to happen, and confrontation can be productive, the congresswoman said, but one must find the right approach and be mindful of the broader context.

Balint remains optimistic in the face of these challenges. She told the Blade she never imagined she would be able to marry the woman she loves, or raise two children, or be elected to serve as Vermont’s first openly LGBTQ member of Congress.

Nor, Balint said, did the framers envision “the child of an immigrant, a working class mom, a queer person,” would have the privilege of serving in this role. But “now that I’m here, I’m going to make the most of it, and I’m going to fight on behalf of all of our freedoms.”

This content was originally published here.