The LGBTQ interview
November 2, 2021, New Jerseyans will head to the polls for the state’s gubernatorial election. Voters have the choice between incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, an LGBTQ ally endorsed by Garden State Equality, and former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican who has recently made anti-LGBTQ comments and doubled down on them. If re-elected, Governor Murphy would become the first Democrat in 44 years to win a second term.
Polls have consistently put Governor Murphy ahead of Ciattarelli by double digits. An August 18 Monmouth University poll found that Governor Murphy leads Ciattarelli by 52% to 36% among registered voters. When it comes to handling the pandemic- the most important issue for New Jersey voters—46% say they trust Murphy over Ciattarelli, while only 21% favor Ciattarelli, who has pledged to expand exemptions from public schools’ vaccine requirements—even for measles and mumps.
Under Governor Murphy, New Jersey has seen improvements to its economy. After he took office in 2018, Governor Murphy delivered on higher minimum wages and a tax on millionaires, among other progressive initiatives. “Now New Jersey is one of only seven states with an improving economy over the last three years, measured by employment, personal income, home prices, tax receipts, mortgage delinquencies and the equity of their companies,” wrote Matthew Winkler, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Bloomberg News, in a July 19 article. New Jersey voters seem to agree in a Monmouth University poll putting Governor Murphy well ahead of Ciattarelli for trust in economic decisions, 35% to 27%.
When you’re down in the polls, what do you do? Ciattarelli, at least, went low, taking a page from the old Republican playbook of fear-mongering about LGBTQ people, using it to rile his base. He specifically targeted New Jersey’s LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, a law that Governor Murphy signed in 2019 to recognize the historical achievements of LGBTQ Americans and to reduce bullying against LGBTQ students. During a June 26 visit of a gun range, Ciattarelli told supporters, “[If elected governor,] we’re not teaching sodomy in sixth grade. And we’re going to roll back the LGBTQ curriculum.” Ciattarelli, who voted against marriage equality in 2012, then told WYNC that his reference to sodomy- mentioned in conjunction with the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum—had “absolutely nothing to do with someone’s sexual orientation.” Yeah, sure.
With Ciattarelli’s discriminatory rhetoric looming in the background, I interviewed Governor Phil Murphy about his positions on LGBTQ issues.
Governor Murphy, I want to thank you personally for signing the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum into law. I was bullied miserably at Wayne Valley High School for being gay, and I know that had this law been in place, my experience and that of so many other LGBTQ New Jerseyans would not have been so traumatizing. With this curriculum, you’re going to increase acceptance and decrease suicide attempts by members of our community. How does it feel to know that you are literally saving teens’ lives?
Governor Phil Murphy: It’s a big deal. First of all, I’ll keep you in my prayers, Tom, because no one should have to go through what you went through. And yet you and I both know countless thousands have gone through what you had to, and some have taken their lives or tried to, or the trajectory of their life has been impacted permanently. So, believe me, it was an incredible moment to sign that legislation. I wish we, as a state, could have gotten to it a long time ago, but it’s better late than never.
This curriculum is going to do exactly what it’s intended to, which is tell the truth and nothing but the truth and make sure that we tell our complete history. I think it’s going to make a big impact on generations to come. There’s political noise from the guy running against me about this, which I think is completely unacceptable and uninformed. I just hope that, as a state, we get behind this with unanimity, and we go forward. But it’s a game-changer and you know that better than I do.
You also recently signed a bill that will have all middle school students learn civics, finally putting New Jersey in line with practically all other U.S. states. Do you believe the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and middle school civics both help New Jersey students become more accepting and better citizens?
PM: That’s a good question. I had not thought of it that way, but they are different pieces to a broader puzzle. We were among the first to teach LGBTQ+ history, but we were not among the first to teach civic education in middle school. I’m glad we’re finally getting there. Thanks to the First Lady and others, we’re going to be teaching climate change in our K-12 curriculum. We’re finally funding the Amistad Commission so that the true history of slavery and its impact on our country will be told and taught. So, it’s a series of different pieces to a broader puzzle, which is under the heading of let’s make sure we teach our kids everything, not most of what they need to know, but everything they need to know about our country.
To turn to another question involving education, Garden State Equality recently sounded the alarm on an attempt by anti-LGBTQ Republican lawmakers to ban trans youth from playing sports at all levels of educational institutions in New Jersey. Why do you think anti-LGBTQ politicians are fomenting hatred of trans youth, when they know full well that they will contribute to alienating these vulnerable students from health and wellness—and even turn back the clock on efforts to decrease LGBTQ teen suicide?
PM: It’s abhorrent, unacceptable. Particularly in the year 2021, we as a country, we as a state should know better.
I’m running for re-election, and when I talk about the “unfinished business” in the broader LGBTQ+ agenda and community—not to the exclusion of other “unfinished business”—I invariably talk about the trans community, and especially the trans community of color. We need to do a lot more work. You may have noticed the debate recently around the Harm Reduction Centers. Folks don’t understand that the trans community is disproportionately reliant on those Harm Reduction Centers.
Why do politicians attack? Again, it’s unacceptable, unforgivable, but they’re probably doing it for politics, and that makes it even worse. We have to get to a new and better place on everything we’re talking about, but especially with our trans communities.
I want to turn to COVID-19. Cases are again on the rise, as the Delta variant spreads across our country, due in large part to vaccine hesitancy. Among LGBTQ people of color and trans people, vaccination rates are somewhat lagging because of a history of mistreatment and abuse within the healthcare system. How do we make progress and how do we increase trust?
PM: This is something I’ve spoken about with Garden State Equality and with other leadership in the LGBTQ+ community. I think it’s a combination of things. It’s using my bully pulpit to make sure folks know what the facts are and to push against some of the myths out there. I think we have to acknowledge this challenging history, as you rightfully point out, as it relates to healthcare, as it relates to government in the LGBTQ communities. Communities of color, who were in our country’s history essentially used as guinea pigs for vaccine development in the past, are rightfully skeptical. The trans community, based on the way they’ve been treated by the government and in healthcare in too many cases, are rightfully skeptical. So telling folks the truth, I think using role models to speak to the community, to get role models to get vaccinated visibly to show that they were able to do it with no harm to them.
I think it’s a number of different ways we have to get at it, and there needs to be persistence. We have to accept the fact that this skepticism will not be solved overnight. We have to stay at it. That’s why we’re knocking on doors in 33 communities, literally going door to door because you need persistence with this. Those are some of the areas we’ve been focused on, and it’s making a difference, but we still have work to do.
When former President Trump was threatening the immigrant community, including LGBTQ immigrants, you came to their defense. In 2019, you signed a law, which just went into effect in May, that gives New Jerseyans without documents the ability to get a driver’s license. While LGBTQ immigrants benefit greatly from this show of humanity, they also have very specific needs, and many of them are suffering. I’ve personally heard the experiences of LGBTQ construction workers without documents. They get up before 5:00 am, and all throughout the day their colleagues bully and threaten them, while their boss either says nothing or joins in on this anti-LGBTQ bullying. Often these LGBTQ people are so afraid of being deported back to a country where they could be killed for being who they are that they don’t report this discrimination. They grit their teeth and bear it. When they return home late at night, they often have to deal with a family that also holds anti-LGBTQ views, only to repeat the same suffering the next day. What can we do to help them, these most vulnerable of immigrants?
PM: That’s a great question, Tom. Again, I don’t think there’s any one thing we can do. We are able to find $40 million in federal money to direct toward previously excluded communities, and that would include the LGBTQ+ members in the newly arrived immigrant community. That’s a step in the right direction. I hope we can do more over the next couple of years. I think we have to constantly remind folks in the community that we will never cross wires between immigration status and criminal justice. So, if somebody is here, and they’re not registered, but they are law-abiding, that has to be respected. We are not going to cross wires. If they are not law-abiding, we will take action. I think we have to keep repeating that so that folks in the community can get confidence that they are able to launch a complaint in terms of their treatment. I also think we need to plead with employers to treat everyone in their employment with dignity and respect. You have to get at that from both sides—both give confidence to the individual and give tough love to the management, that they’ve got to do better and uphold high standards of dignity and respect for everybody regardless of who they love and regardless of their status.
I just have two more questions. You’ve mentioned your opponent, Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli, who recently made anti-LGBTQ comments. How do you distinguish yourself from him, and what can LGBTQ New Jerseyans expect from four more years with you as our governor?
PM: I’ll state briefly that what he said was unacceptable. He used words that he knows are third-rail words to ignite people. Completely unacceptable, and I just pray—and I mean that- that he has a change of heart because he’s on the wrong side of history.
I am, on the other hand, incredibly proud of the relationship that we’ve built with the LGBTQ+ community. I’m proud of a lot of the progress we’ve made, and I also acknowledge part of the reason I’m running for reelection is we have more work to do. Your good questions highlighted a number of those areas, and I would particularly underscore the trans community, which is particularly discriminated against. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we have more work to do.
And we also not only need to do that work, but we can’t ever let that work become undone, and that’s what would happen if I’m not reelected.
Speaking of which, if LGBTQ New Jerseyans want to support your campaign, what is the best way to get involved?
PM: The website is Murphy4NJ.com. That’s the best place to go.
This interview has been very lightly edited for clarity and cohesion.