Luanne Peterpaul is a “force to be reckoned with”

Luann Peterpaul
Luann Peterpaul

Luanne Peterpaul’s historic win in the New Jersey State Legislature is only one chapter of her life’s many histories of becoming. Her story starts in Newark.

When asked about what it meant to be the first openly gay woman elected to the New Jersey Legislature, Peterpaul spoke about the people she met on the campaign trail. She recalls one November evening, when a firefighter approached her. He told her that even though he did not live in her district, every weekend he drove hours up from South Jersey to volunteer for her campaign. He said he did it for his son. Peterpaul recalled him saying that he wanted “to make sure that she was elected” so that his son — who had come out to him earlier in the year — “had support.”

“When people, individuals, come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying things like: ‘My two kids can go to school tomorrow with their heads held high’….That’s why it’s important, right?” Peterpaul said.

Moreover, Peterpaul secured about 28 percent of the vote on Nov. 7, 2024 with Democrat Margie Donlon, a physician and deputy mayor of Ocean Township, unseating Republicans Kim Eulner and Marilyn Piperno. Sen. Vin Gopal (11th District) also won re-election for a third term with 60 percent of the vote.

Gopal said that Peterpaul is a “force to be reckoned with.”

“I was honored to stand alongside her as we ran to represent the people of LD 11 with Dr. Margie Donlon,” Gopal told Out In Jersey. “Luanne was steadfast in her desire to help the people of the 11th District and ensure that they will always be put first. I’m looking forward to serving with her over her next two years and beyond as an assemblywoman.”

Nevertheless, Peterpaul’s historic win in the New Jersey State Legislature is only one chapter of her life’s many pasts. The assemblywoman’s story starts in Newark, where she was born to Anne M. and Frank J. Peterpaul.

Luanne Peterpaul’s Beginning

When Peterpaul was born, her father was able to attend law school as a result of the GI bill while working as a salesman. Her mother was a teacher, who helped support Frank and the family while he was studying. After Frank achieved his law degree, the family moved from a one-bedroom apartment to a single-family home for a short time before settling in the Garden State’s Livingston suburbs. Peterpaul was raised like most girls of her generation, “to be a housewife or a teacher.” Yet, the assemblywoman went to the local Livingston High School and eventually graduated from Duquesne University before attending Seton Hall University School of Law from 1980 to 1983. She defied the gender expectations set before her.

“I didn’t realize I was gay until I was in my 20s,” said Peterpaul. “Then, I fully came out, probably in my late 20s after I graduated law school.”

She recalls that it was a time period where “you still had to be careful because you could be fired from your job just for being gay.”

It wasn’t until 1992 that New Jersey would become one of a handful of states to protect individuals based on sexual orientation.

At the time, there weren’t needed protections in place for LGBTQ people. It wasn’t until 1992 that New Jersey would become one of a handful of states to protect individuals based on sexual orientation. Additionally, it wasn’t until 2006 that the Law Against Discrimination was amended to include “gender identity or expression,” according to the New Jersey State Library.

For Peterpaul, discrimination found her closer to home than she’d hoped. However, her experience would inform many of her decisions that would embolden New Jersey’s LGBTQ equality movement, and tighten her familial relationships into a new generation.

“My coming-out story was not an easy one. My parents were not very happy. It really was a rocky road in the beginning. And then over time — as people get to know one who is gay — things evolved and they accepted me,” Peterpaul said. “And I hate using that word ‘accept.’”

The assemblywoman thinks her 40-year relationship with her wife, Robin Kampf, a documentary filmmaker, helped ease her parents into embracing LGBTQ equality into the family. At this moment, Peterpaul remembers a turning point in her relationship with her mother.

“And my relationship with Robin — in fact, at one point when we were marching in Trenton for marriage equality, my mother was standing right next to me even though she’s a Republican,” Peterpaul said with a small chuckle. “And so, that told a huge story about how things can evolve and people’s minds can change.”

The Lawyer Develops Her Purpose and Meets Garden State Equality

Between 2004 and 2005, Luanne Peterpaul was introduced to Garden State Equality, the years of the nonprofit’s founding. The LGBTQ organization called on her for help, which led to a more than decade-long relationship.

She spent 12 years on the board of the 501(c)(3) organization, and the last six years as the board chair of Garden State Equality’s Action Fund, which is the political, 501(c)(4) arm of the organization.

When she was on the board of Garden State Equality, she was formative in co-authoring the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights — which concerns bullying and intimidation in school settings — and fought hard for marriage equality in New Jersey.

She also remembers a young man who was on the verge of suicide when he spoke.

In the midst of it all, Peterpaul discusses a moment she’ll never forget. When LGBTQ people were testifying in defense of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, she worked with Steven Goldstein, the founder of Garden State Equality, to help people tell their stories.

“We had individuals come down and testify whether they [needed] permission from their parents, whether they were minors, or late teens… We even had people coming in their 30s and 40s, remembering what it felt like to be bullied and the scars that were left. So, it was the telling of real-life experiences that I think made the impression,” Peterpaul said.

She also remembers a young man who was on the verge of suicide when he spoke. “He testified and talked about going through that process and I remember this Republican senator coming down from where he was, approaching this young man, and hugging him, said, ‘I never realized the devastation,’” said the assemblywoman.

Peterpaul was a practicing attorney while working with Garden State Equality. At the time, she was focusing on labor and employment law. Previously, she had been an assistant prosecutor in Essex County, where she had also clerked for a criminal judge.

Finally, Peterpaul opened up her own practice with a friend who was also gay, and they began to market their firm to the gay community. “I think, at the time, that’s probably how most of us practiced,” Peterpaul said. Eventually, she merged her practice with her father’s.
Through her commitment to herself and her community, Peterpaul was able to change the way people close to her engaged with the fight for LGBTQ equality, but she didn’t do it without the help of friends, family, and community.

The Inspirations, Provincetown, and The Comic Best Friend

When discussing her inspirations Luanne Peterpaul chokes up. Her father passed away this past August, and she is still working through the grief as she speaks. Her father inspired her profession in life, while her mother offered her a vision to see herself beyond limiting gender normatives. “In the midst of the campaign, [my father] was just so supportive,” remembers Peterpaul. “I would go and visit mom and dad, and I’d walk in the door and he’d go, ‘So what’s the issue now?’”

With this said, Peterpaul may have had a disconnect from her parents while growing up and coming out, but as the assemblywoman matured into her career, she was able to build a bridge with her parents that informed the community they’d build in each other’s lives.

“My mother, she was the first in her family to go to college. She earned a full scholarship in math at Montclair Teachers’ College, and was taking care of us kids,” Peterpaul said.

When Peterpaul and her siblings were grown, Peterpaul’s mother applied to law school and got in. “But she didn’t go,” Peterpaul said, “because she just wanted to say to my father: ‘See, I could do the same things you did!’ She’s a character. Anyway, she was a strong female presence in my life.”

Judy Gold, the comedian and writer, has been a close friend and ally to Peterpaul for many years.

But Anne Peterpaul wasn’t the only strong female presence in her life. Judy Gold, the comedian and writer, has been a close friend and ally to Peterpaul for many years. She told Out In Jersey that the assemblywoman had woven her own path as a “very outspoken and intelligent lesbian in this very heteronormative Italian family. She was fearless.” Gold speaks with ardor and respect for her friend.

She remembers first meeting Peterpaul 27 years after the “first” WNBA game at MSG. Gold remembers seeing her former partner talking to Peterpaul and Kampf at the afterparty hosted by Rosie O’Donnell, so she walked over.

“They’re from New Jersey, and I grew up in New Jersey,” Gold said. “Then we find out that we both own homes in Provincetown (Massachusetts), so they gave us their Provincetown number.” In the summer of 1996, Gold and her then-partner took the number off the fridge and gave their new acquaintances a call. “That was it,” said Gold. “It was instant friendship.” Gold called Provincetown “the greatest place on Earth,” and also alluded to it as a portal for LGBTQ people to let their hair down without needing to defend against resistance. With Gold by her side, Peterpaul had expanded her family.

It wasn’t long before Gold and Peterpaul stood on the front lines together. The friends started going to marches locally and in other cities, including Washington D.C.. They also organized and worked together with Garden State Equality. “We were pretty active,” said Gold. “[Advocacy] was something that really bonded us.” Ultimately, the comedian was not surprised when Peterpaul ran for office. “She had talked multiple times, for many years, about running for office,” said Gold.

That was just a matter of time. One, for the state to catch up to Peterpaul, and two, for out LGBTQ people to have a fair chance at public office.

No matter the time, Gold has been by Peterpaul’s side. She was there to weigh the pros and cons of running for office, and the potential effects on her family. In the end, Peterpaul decided to seize the moment. The odds, at first, seemed against Peterpaul in other ways. To Gold the “acrimonious and horrible” political landscape delayed the assemblywoman’s run.

New Jersey State Senator Vin Gopal, Assemblywoman Margie Donlon, and Luanne Peterpaul
New Jersey State Senator Vin Gopal, Assemblywoman Margie Donlon, and Luanne Peterpaul

“She called me and said: ‘What should I do?’” Gold remembers. “Look, I’m a comic. I raised a family being a stand-up comedian. I never knew where my next dollar was coming from — still! I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do what I loved,” Gold shared to contextualize what she told Peterpaul over the phone that day. “I said, ‘Well, how are you gonna feel in five to ten years when you have this opportunity, and you didn’t take it?” the comedian recalls saying. “I wasn’t surprised [she won] as much as I was relieved,” Gold said. “She was qualified. She did the work.”

Peterpaul didn’t look back after that.

The Now and The Future

Peterpaul says there is a lot to do now that she is in office. But she still has the same focus now as she did throughout her years as an employment and labor lawyer, and as a LGBTQ activist. “Here’s what I learned from anti-bullying work. This applies whether it’s in school or in the workplace: When individuals feel safe, individuals feel that they’re being respected,” said Peterpaul.

In the present, anti-bullying in public schools often looks like fighting against “parental rights” advocates. “Parents have always had the right to be involved in their children’s schooling,” the assemblywoman said. “When we submitted the anti-bullying bill, we had hearings, and we invited parents, we invited the PTA in, and it was rare when parents actually showed up unless their child was being bullied, but parents have always had that right.”

Now, the assemblywoman can act through legislation. She can also inspire budding LGBTQ generations that can witness how fighting for change often creates change. Some of those new generations are in Peterpaul’s family too.

“My niece came out a couple of years ago, which was amazing, and Robin’s niece came out about a decade ago, and seeing them feel so much safer,” said Peterpaul, “it just brings a smile to my face.” The assemblywoman says that she will advocate in “new ways, and surely some familiar” too. “Sen. Vin Gopal has this great template,” said the assemblywoman. “It’s about reaching across the aisle and having the dialogue. We may not always agree on things, but at least we can have a dialogue and a foundation to move forward. And that, I think, is really one of the key things that needs to be done.”

Lana Leonard
Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.