La’Tasha D. Mayes is ready for Harrisburg

La'Tasha Mayes

In January 2023, La’Tasha D. Mayes, who is running unopposed for Pennsylvania’s 24th state house district, will join only a handful of openly LGBTQ elected officials in Harrisburg. She’ll also become the first out lesbian to serve in the General Assembly. Mayes grew up in West Philadelphia and went to college in Pittsburgh, where she has lived since. In 2004 she co-founded New Voices for Reproductive Justice, an organization “dedicated to the health and well-being of Black women, femmes, girls and gender-expansive folx,” and she helped form the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission in 2009.

Mayes spoke with PGN ahead of November’s general election.

You’re a native of West Philly. Were you as politically minded growing up as you are now?

That’s a good question. When I think about the youth of today, I wouldn’t say I was as politically inclined growing up, but I did have a consciousness and an awareness of injustice. And that I attribute 100% to my mother. She passed away almost five years ago now. She was a union member in Unite Here Local 634 in Philadelphia. When I did become more active, people would ask “where’d you get this desire to fight?” and I fully attribute that to my mother’s example, not only of organizing but also service to community and service to marginalized folks. She was a food service worker at various schools around the city. 

I became more politicized when I got to college. My first rally was the Million Women’s March in 1997 in Philadelphia. My mother took me to that. And I don’t think I understood how formative that was for me until years later. I’ve been running for elected office since around seventh grade. I ran for class president and student government board in high school; I think I ran for treasurer. I ran for student government board in college at Pitt. And I’ve always just been interested in leadership. All those things have driven me to this point where I am today.

Speaking of leadership, what leaders in the LGBTQ community inspire you, either from today or throughout history?

I’ll say my LGBT political hero is Barbara Jordan, she was the first black woman elected to the state legislature in Texas. And while she was not an out lesbian, she made history in so many ways. And I know that if she could have lived her truth then, she would have been even more powerful than she was. And I really loved her example among others, other writers, other thought leaders. Angela Davis is a political and organizing inspiration who also identifies as queer. But my political inpiration and LGBTQ hero would be Barbara Jordan, for sure. And I wish she had lived a longer life and had a greater platform. She was definitely, like so many of our foremothers and ancestors, ahead of her time.

Barbara Jordan is an inspiration not just to the LGBT community, but also the disability rights community as well.

Absolutely, absolutely. I always think about what it was like for her to become a ‘first’ at that time. And you know, unfortunately, we still are having ‘firsts,’ but I also see it as the opportunity to make sure, as our Vice President Harris says, that we are not the last. We may be the first but we won’t be the last. And because of Barbara Jordan, she won’t be the last lesbian to represent constituents in a state capitol. And so she definitely inspires that in me. 

Someone who didn’t identify as queer, but is also a significant political inspiration to me is Shirley Chisholm. And I’m happy that 50 years after her historic run for president in 1972, and being the first black woman in Congress, that she still has influence and that in both of their legacies they blaze the path, they blaze the trail, so that it’s possible for me to become the first out lesbian in the legislature and just be my full self as well. I can show up, I can walk up the steps into the state capitol, and also on to the House floor, and be exactly who I am. And I don’t think they had the opportunity to do that. And so they created a way for me to be myself and represent not only LGBTQ people across Pennsylvania, but all marginalized people.

You’re a leader in the LGBTQ community, not just in Pittsburgh but statewide. We have strong LGBTQ communities in the cities, but there isn’t a lot of representation in other parts of the state, despite having LGBTQ people who live there. How do you think leaders like yourself in the bigger cities can help people in those communities in other parts of the state?

I think it’s about mapping where we are, especially in a way where people feel free to do so. We know that LGBTQ+ folks live everywhere in the state, whether they can live out loud or not. But how can we connect our communities? And for me, when the voters of house district 24 elect me, I’m coming in to not only be a symbolic representation but also to be a fierce fighter for justice, for queer and trans liberation. So I think there’s a lot of ways that, as a person who is a part of the community, I can help to not only bring information and resources but to help continue building community not just in the larger urban cores, but all around the Commonwealth. So that’s what I intend to do, whether it’s providing leadership to the LGBT caucus or the Governor’s Commission; those are things that are already in place where I see a natural opportunity for us to not only advance policy but to change culture as well. I see my place in that to be one of very few voices who can speak from our lived experience. And I think that’s game changing when you’re trying to create policy and legislation. 

I think we have the opportunity to really move the legislation that has become so stagnant around the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. To me, if we can’t do that, if we can’t say the LGBTQ+ folks are human beings deserving of civil and legal and human rights protections, then I don’t think I can hold my head high as a legislator, and I don’t think any of us can without passing that legislation which is critical for people’s everyday life… I want to not only do that with my colleagues in the General Assembly, but I want to do that with organizations, advocates, and political institutions on the ground in and around Pennsylvania as well. Because it’s not going to get done if we only focus on the urban cores and urban centers of the state. We have to get in the middle. We have to do that. And I’m looking forward to that. 

I’ve seen my future colleague Rep. Kenyatta in all parts of Pennsylvania. So how do we build on the connections he’s making, for us to connect with LGBTQ communities? There are young people and people of color who are queer and trans and non binary who need to see us in real life and on the ground and in person. And to the extent that I can do that, amidst all the things we will have to do and all the things we’ll be faced with, I do look forward to that opportunity to continue putting our demands our concerns, our issues, our policy, and our legislation at the forefront of a collective Democratic agenda, but what truly should be a bipartisan agenda.

We know what Republicans are doing in terms of really terrorizing trans youth who simply want to play sports, as well as excluding young people, young LGBTQ folks from curriculum in schools and excluding them in comprehensive sex education curriculum. Each district can choose what they want to teach, and oftentimes that is teaching young queer, trans and non binary youth that they are not enough. 

Speaking of this growing Republican-led attack, what do our Democratic leaders need to do differently in 2022 than they did before Trump and before the reversal of Roe v. Wade? What do they need to do differently to combat that growing threat?

For me, I’m an organizer by background. And if you don’t have your base of support not just to elect you, but to fight these battles with you, I think that’s where we lose. It’s where we lose all the progressive change we’ve worked so hard for over these last few decades, whether it’s to protect Roe or to have access to health care through the Affordable Care Act, the advances we made around environmental justice, some of the victories around workers rights. 

We have to have a stronger organizing base to go along with our electoral strategy as well. Because it’s one thing for people to vote, it’s another thing for people to put their lives and livelihood on the line to fight a growing threat that is only intensifying. It’s racism, misogyny, white supremacy, trans and homophobia, and so much more.

Yes, there are great and amazing organizations on the ground doing this type of advocacy work. I ran one for 18 years. The fight is in a different stratosphere and echelon when we’re talking about legislation and laws and policies versus when we are advocating for issue-based policy change. So for me, there has to be a nexus and intersectionality of both electoral and organizing strategy, as well as, of course, how we govern this commonwealth. Those things need to meet, and I I know that I have the background, leadership, expertise, lived experience, and reputation to be able to bring those things to the House of Representatives. And I think that is what has to change, because our opponents are formidable. They are unrelenting, and they will not stop unless we make them stop.

You have a strong background in reproductive justice, and you’ve mentioned that reproductive justice is intersectional, especially as it relates to LGBTQ rights and liberation. How do you think people can utilize that intersectionality to create change both for reproductive justice and also for LGBTQ rights?

They go hand in hand. They’re one in the same. The movement for Reproductive Justice was created by twelve Black women in Chicago in 1994; they were there for a conference. The framework for Reproductive Justice is transformative because it doesn’t say, “oh, we can only talk about abortion, we can only talk about gay marriage, we can only talk about the environment.” It says that this is intersectional, it is based on a human rights framework, and that we have to ensure that those who are most marginalized are at the center of the work that we do, the policy we create, and the organizing we do. Even the thought leadership has to be on those who are most marginalized. And so we know that, and I know for myself, that the reproductive reproductive justice movement is so powerful; it is the only thing that has preserved so many of our rights over the past 10 or 15 years. It really changed the trajectory of my life to have been a part of this movement.

We’ve seen the movement change. We’ve seen the language change, we’ve seen the strategies change, but what remains the same is that we all have the human right to control our bodies, our sexuality, our gender, our work, our reproduction, and the ability to form our families. So that’s the working definition that I’ve been using and that Voices of Reproductive Justice has been using for almost two decades. 

[During the pandemic] I helped to raise almost $500,000 because people needed stuff. They needed things in that moment. We couldn’t wait for justice in the time of COVID. We had to make sure people got their needs met as we fought for justice. And I think that’s the reproductive justice framework that allows us to be adaptable, always intersectional, and always using new and differing strategies. It’s not a stagnant movement at all. And so many queer and trans and non binary people have been on the reproductive justice movement journey for as long as I’ve been a part of it, and so many of the luminaries of the reproductive justice movement identify as LGBTQ+. That’s what also makes our movement not only just powerful but effective, because we have people from all backgrounds and walks of life in the leadership of our movements and our organizations. 

And now, the new frontier is that reproductive justice organizers, leaders, and activists have to be at the tables where decisions are being made about our bodies, our lives, and how we form our families. And so that is, to me, the next phase of our movement. It is more political, it is more partisan, it’s more electoral, and we’re specifically sending Black women to elected office in our state legislatures where we know the fate of so many of the things we hold dear. So that’s where I will be at, and I cannot wait to really be able to bring up a full body reproductive justice movement into my first term as a state legislator in a time where Roe v. Wade has been overturned. That’s an incredible journey for me.

I didn’t imagine, 20 years ago when I started doing this work, that it would bring me to this moment. It was this time that was made for me, this moment was made for someone like me, a tried and true reproductive justice leader, to step into this moment, this time where we need reproductive justice leadership to get us through this next phase, this episode of America. That’s how powerful the reproductive justice movement is. We have done things that were thought to be impossible. And we need a miraculous showing in Harrisburg in this next session.

You’ve said that being a leader is a marathon and not a sprint. And we see a lot of young people today becoming accustomed to getting things quickly. How do you reiterate, especially regarding the fight for equality and reproductive justice, that it’s a long game and not a sprint?

I think there are definitely instances where we can make demands and expect change immediately. I think that’s far less than the actual change that we want to see. And I think it becomes intergenerational, that is, intergenerational grappling with how to address a particular issue or how to win a certain policy or legislation. It is a long game, and at every point in our history, in our struggle for social change, nothing happened overnight, nothing happened quickly. We maybe were able to create these political moments that really captured the nation’s or the community’s or the world’s imagination. But true organizing is about the short, intermediate, and long term. And our victories are not always the big wins. Our victories may be that we took a significant step towards our ultimate goal. 

In a two year term, my goal is to do as much as I can. But you have to look at the conditions in which things can happen. And so you have to satisfy folks who have that need for immediate change by showing good progress where we can. So many people’s lives can be changed by a change in a regulation that the state may have, or change in a policy. 

In Allegheny County, back in the 2010s, pregnant inmates were being shackled during transport from the county jail to the hospital. This is something that still happens to this day in the Commonwealth, and that’s another interview. The sheriff is the person who has the power to change that. And so, with a series of meetings, they were like, “oh, yeah, we can not shackle pregnant inmates going to and from the hospital.” That’s an immediate change that you can bring, but some changes take a long time. And you spend a lot of it protecting the wins that you’ve had. I think that’s what would have to be impressed upon people.

Look at Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, opponents of abortion have done everything possible to bring the end of Roe v. Wade. Since before Roe v. Wade even became law, people have worked and struggled in opposition to us, to those of us who believe in abortion access. They did everything possible to erode the victory. 

When you win, it’s easy to get complacent. There will always be a divide with how energy is spent in terms of winning laws and changes in policy. I’m used to it. I’m 41; I’ve been an activist probably since I was like 19, and I’ve seen a lot of things change and I’ve seen a lot of things stay the same. So I think that just having a little bit longer vision with it helps me to be able to talk to those younger generations who want change now and those older generations who understand it takes time. I think and I know I’ll be a bridge between the two.

This interview has been edited for length.

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