The Democratic National Convention has a record number of LGBTQ+ delegates this year, from a wide variety of backgrounds — and some even have personal stories to share about what may be the nation’s next first family.
Deja Lynn Alvarez of Pennsylvania is one of the 635 LGBTQ+ delegates (up from 600 in 2016) and 30 transgender and gender-nonconforming delegates (up from 24 in 2016) at the convention this year. A trans Latina and public health professional in Philadelphia (where she ran for City Council last year, the first trans woman to do so), she recalls encountering a member of the Biden family when her life wasn’t so good.
Alvarez, who grew up in Delaware, attempted suicide while in her teens. Afterward, she received in-patient counseling and alternative education at the Rockford Center in Newark, Del., where one of her teachers was … Jill Biden.
At the time, Alvarez wasn’t aware that the teacher was married to U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, now the Democratic presidential nominee. She simply knew Jill Biden as an empathetic, compassionate educator who went above and beyond the call of duty, checking in on Alvarez after class, among other things. “She helped me through that time period in the Rockford Center,” the delegate says.
This is Alvarez’s first time as a delegate, and she’s been pledged to Joe Biden during the entire campaign (delegates pledged to candidates who leave the race can switch their support to another). “I absolutely believe in Biden,” she says.
She initially had some doubts about his vice-presidential choice, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. She says Harris enabled the overpolicing of Black and brown people in her career as a prosecutor and state attorney general, and she was put off by Harris’s support of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation when it denied gender-confirmation surgery to a prisoner (Harris has said she was bound to do so as attorney general because the state agency was her client but she worked behind the scenes to get the policy changed). But Harris has won her over now.
“I believe that she’s come a long way, owned up to some mistakes she’s made,” Alvarez says. She’s found the speeches by Harris, Michelle Obama, and Jill Biden to be the best of the convention so far.
This is a different kind of convention due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with participants meeting and speaking on online platforms from a variety of locations rather than gathering in a convention hall. “I love being around people,” Alvarez says. “I take on people’s energy, so I’m missing that.” But hearing the convention speeches, she says, has reenergized her and renewed the hope that’s been absent during the past few years.
Earl Fowlkes, the gay man who chairs the Democratic National Committee’s LGBTQ Caucus, has found unexpected advantages in the virtual convention format. For one thing, it has allowed more people to participate, he says. There were 6,300 people in the online LGBTQ Caucus meeting Tuesday, whereas the maximum attendance at a session for the caucus in 2016 was 1,000, he says.
He wasn’t sure what to expect from the format, he notes, but he’s found it’s kept him as busy as an in-person convention. “My whole afternoons have been filled,” says Fowlkes, who in addition to his party duties is CEO of the Center for Black Equity in Washington, D.C.
For Sean Meloy, a gay man who’s an alternate delegate from Pennsylvania, the virtual convention has been “a big change on two counts” from his experience four years ago. Meloy, who’s now senior political director at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, was on staff at the Democratic National Committee when hacked DNC emails were leaked on the eve of the 2016 convention. “This one has been a lot more peaceful, by comparison,” he says.
While Alvarez, Fowlkes, and Meloy have had a variety of experiences, they express similar enthusiasm for the party platform and the Biden-Harris ticket. “The platform that has been pushed forward is the most inclusive in our country’s history,” says Meloy, who is also an incoming member of the DNC, the first from his state’s LGBTQ+ population to have that distinction.
Fowlkes adds, “For the LGBTQ community, I don’t think we could ask for anything more than what we’re getting.” He predicts Biden and Harris “will hit the ground running” in their first hundred days in office.
While Biden and Harris, like many other Democrats, are strong LGBTQ+ allies, the delegates point out that the platform didn’t become that inclusive just because of the professional politicians — activists like themselves have made their voices heard. “We had to make sure it’s a platform we deserve, and it’s long overdue,” Alvarez says, also noting, “I feel like it’s more important than ever to make sure the most marginalized are represented.”