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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

New White House Press Secretary Makes History

May 11, 2022 Philadelphia Gay News

Karine Jean-Pierre. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

Karine Jean-Pierre has been named the 35th White House press secretary and will become the first Black person and first openly LGBTQ person to hold the position.

Jean-Pierre assumes the position on May 13, the final day of outgoing WHPS Jen Psaki, who has held the position since the Inauguration of President Biden on January 20, 2021.

Jean-Pierre worked as a senior advisor to the Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign and has been White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary since January 20, 2021. She served as the chief of staff for Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris during the 2020 presidential campaign, becoming the first black woman and first lesbian to hold that position.

Jean-Pierre lives in Washington, D.C. with her partner, CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, and their young daughter, Soleil.

Jean-Pierre first made national news during the 2019 Democratic presidential primary campaign. On June 1, 2019, Jean-Pierre moderated a forum for the progressive public policy advocacy group and political action committee MoveOn, where she was chief public affairs officer. The Big Ideas Forum in San Francisco featured then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris. An animal-rights activist jumped onto the stage and rushed at Harris, grabbing her microphone.

Jean-Pierre leapt across the stage to come between Harris and the man. Video of the incident went viral and Jean-Pierre was alternately referred to as a ninja and as a superhero.

Jean-Pierre was born in Fort-de-France, Martinique. Her working-class Haitian parents emigrated to the U.S. when Jean-Pierre was five and she grew up in Queens, New York City. “Growing up in an immigrant household really defined me. It taught me to work hard,” she said of her family during an interview.

She obtained a BS from the New York Institute of Technology and an MPA from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Since 2014 Jean-Pierre has been a lecturer in international and public affairs.

Jean-Pierre began her career at the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics. Throughout her professional life, she has worked for the ACLU, as a political analyst for MSNBC and NBC, as chief public affairs officer for MoveOn.

In her post-graduate years, Jean-Pierre began active work in politics, first as director of legislative and budget affairs for New York City council member James F. Gennaro. In 2004, she was hired as the southeast regional political director for John Edwards’ presidential campaign.

Jean-Pierre worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as Southeast regional political director. In Obama’s first term she was the regional political director for the White House Office of Political Affairs. In 2011, Jean-Pierre served as National Deputy Battleground States Director for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, handling political engagement in key states including Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida.

In an interview regarding her work as an openly gay staffer in the Obama White House, Jean-Pierre said, “What’s been wonderful is that I was not the only — I was one of many. President Obama didn’t hire LGBT staffers, he hired experienced individuals who happen to be LGBT. Serving and working for President Obama where you can be openly gay has been an amazing honor. It felt incredible to be a part of an administration that prioritizes LGBT issues.”

In an NBC News interview in 2020 about her role as an out lesbian in the Biden-Harris campaign, Jean-Pierre said she “couldn’t be prouder” to be working with the two Democrats. She asserted that Biden and Harris would “continue the work that Joe Biden and Obama did by supporting LGBTQ rights and continuing to put forth policy that protects the [LGBTQ] community.”

Former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett called Jean-Pierre “a superstar” who “shares Biden’s values of equality, fairness and justice.”

“She will be able to communicate his agenda in an authentic way that I think will resonate importantly with African-American women, but also with the entire country,” Jarrett told the Washington Post in 2020.

Jean-Pierre first made news for the Biden administration when on May 26, 2021, she gave her first White House press briefing, becoming the first openly gay woman to do so. She was also the first Black woman to do so since Judy Smith, deputy press secretary under President George H.W. Bush, who became the first Black White House spokeswoman to hold a daily press briefing in 1991.

“It’s a real honor to be standing here today,” Jean-Pierre said at her first press briefing.

“I appreciate the historic nature. I really do. But I believe that… being behind this podium, being in this room, being in this building is not about one person. It’s about what we do on behalf of the American people.”

Jean-Pierre came out as a lesbian to her mother at 16 in what she described as “a harrowing experience” in her 2019 memoir, “Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work and the Promise of America.”

“I came out to my Mom when I was 16 years old,” Jean-Pierre wrote. “The revolted look on her face sent me running back into the proverbial closet and slamming the door shut. After that, my sexuality became a family secret and it would stay that way for years.”

In that memoir, Jean-Pierre wrote that progressive policies like Medicare for All, affordable higher education and affordable housing are central democratic issues, as is racial, gender and other civil rights issues. “We need to be both inclusive and multi-racial,” she wrote.

Jean-Pierre has also spoken about how her gender and sexuality affect her career in politics, which she refers to as a “boys’ club,” in her memoir.

Jean-Pierre’s political history is not without controversy. In 2020 she told the Washington Post that the Trump administration was bad for Black people, but also said, “I am so proud and excited as a Black woman watching how Black women have exerted their power … we had to say loud and clear this (the actions of the Trump administration) is not okay.”

In a clip that resurfaced in right wing media after her appointment was announced, on March 15, 2020, Jean-Pierre told MSNBC anchor Joy Reid that Fox News is racist. Jean-Pierre was discussing then-President Donald Trump and other Trump White House officials referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” and “Kung flu.”

“[Fox News] was racist before coronavirus, they are racist during the coronavirus, Fox News will be racist after the coronavirus,” she said.

“So there is nothing new here,” she continued. “I think the difference is they are all-in on being state TV for Donald Trump, and so they will continue to give misinformation… The danger is, so yes, you have Asian Americans right now whose lives are seriously in danger.”

In 2018 Jean-Pierre said, “I am everything that Donald Trump hates. I’m a Black woman. I’m gay. I am a mom. Both my parents were born in Haiti, and they came here for the American dream.”

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