Kamala Harris’ complicated record on LGBT+ rights as she becomes the first woman elected as vice president

Reiss Smith
·4-min read

Kamala Harris, the new vice president elect, has a strong track record of fighting for LGBT+ rights.

Kamala Harris will be the first woman – and the first Black woman – to serve as America’s vice president.

After the US election was called for Harris and president-elect Joe Biden, she also becomes the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the White House.

It’s an incredible victory for Harris, who struggled to gain traction during an unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and means the LGBT+ community will soon have two powerful allies in the White House.

Votes from LGBT women are 'secret sauce' Biden and Harris need to win
Kamala Harris at San Francisco Pride in 2019. (Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

During her bid for the presidential nomination, Harris said that she would pass the Equality Act on her first day in the White House. Biden has pledged it will be passed within the first 100 days.

She also vowed to end the epidemic of violence against trans women of colour, saying there must be “serious consequence and accountability”.

Speaking at an LGBT+ town hall in October, she referred back to her own experiences working with the trans community, and touched on the issue of intersectionality.

“When you compound race with being transgender you are doubly exposed, and if you are Latina or Latino and you are an undocumented immigrant, or you are in the system in any way.”

She stated: “There’s not a woman in her 20s who is not afraid of being raped,” explaining that the same is true for the trans community.

Kamala Harris’ record on LGBT+ rights.

As California’s attorney general, it would have been down to Harris to defend Proposition 8, the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, in court.

She declined, and later officiated the first same-sex wedding after the Supreme Court ruling which struck it down.

Also while in the role she blocked a “kill the gays” initiative that called for the legal execution of queer people, and helped eliminate the gay/trans panic defence.

Harris continued her advocacy as a US senator, signing friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that trans people should be allowed to use their bathroom of choice and co-sponsoring the Equality Act.

Trans rights.

A note of concern on Harris’ record is her 2015 decision to argue that two prisoners should not receive state-funded gender confirmation surgery.

However, during a September 2019 LGBTQ Presidential Forum she argued that she was merely carrying out her job at the time, acting on behalf of her client the California Department of Corrections.

Behind the scenes, she said, she worked with the Department to change its policy regarding trans inmates’ surgeries.

She added: “I commit to you that always in these systems there are going to be these things that these agencies do. And I will commit myself, as I always have, to dealing with it.”

Activist and Pose actor Angelica Ross, who hosted the September event, later commended Harris for holding herself accountable on trans rights.

“In this conversation and several following this one, I called Kamala in to talk about her record on trans people and sex workers and non violent offenders,” Ross recalled.

“She acknowledged her role in collaborating with the state that destroyed many Black lives and shared the moment she realised how she could use her position to change the system while still protecting us from violent offenders, especially those most vulnerable to domestic and intimate partner violence.

Racial justice and sex work.

As well as the concerns raised around Harris’ record on trans rights, some have also questioned her history regarding sex work and policing.

As attorney general Harris fought to close down a platform many sex workers used to vet potential clients. She was later one of many Democrats in the Senate to support SESTA/FOSTA, a pair of anti-sex-trafficking bills which sex workers have widely criticised, arguing that they prevent them from being able to do their work safely and independently.

Today, however, Harris supports decriminalisation of sex work. She says that her previous stance (she once called decriminalisation “completely ridiculous”) was a result of her wanting to criminalise pimps and clients, an explanation which has not assuaged everybody’s concerns.

On policing, Harris used to proudly refer to herself as a “top cop”, a label which now haunts her. She has been accused of standing by as Black people were murdered by police, rejecting pleas to intervene and investigate police shootings, refusing to reform parole programs and enforcing laws which sent a disproportionate number of Black people to prison.

Her position appears to have evolved in recent years however, and in June she spoke about “reimagining how we do public safety in America”. She also drafted the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act with Cory Booker, which seeks to combat racial bias in policing as well as police misconduct and the use of excessive force.