Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
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“I had to sign a piece of paper that said I would not engage in homosexual behavior. And knew that obviously I could lose my scholarship if it was ever found out that I was gay. But still the opportunity to serve was something that I felt called to do and compelled to do and honored to do.” - Gina Ortiz Jones
This rerun in honor of Pride month features a conversation with Gina Ortiz Jones, Democratic candidate for Congress in Texas’s 23rd district, about the challenges of being a gay service member under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as well as her difficult race to represent her district.
Gina Ortiz Jones is an Air Force veteran, intelligence officer, and candidate for US Representative in Texas’s 23rd congressional district. Learn more on Gina's website and find her on Twitter at @GinaOrtizJones and on Facebook.
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Gina Ortiz Jones: I had to sign a piece of paper that said I would not engage in homosexual behavior. And knew that obviously I could lose my scholarship if it was ever found out that I was gay. But still the opportunity to serve was something that I felt called to do and compelled to do and honored to do.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
This weekend will mark the 51st anniversary of Stonewall, a series of protests at the famous gay bar in New York City. The bar had been raided by the city’s Public Morals Division many times and the police would arrest and beat up patrons simply for being gay. Accounts differ of what exactly kickstarted the protests on June 28th, 1969 - whether it was Marsha P. Johnson resisting arrest, the police beating up activist Storme DeLarverie, or Sylvia Rivera throwing an object. But the protestors grew to a crowd, which returned night after night for nearly a week.
Stonewall was not the beginning of the gay rights movement, but it did catapult it to a new level of public awareness. In the succeeding years, the anniversary of Stonewall marked Gay Freedom Marches and Pride Weeks across the country. Starting in 2009, President Obama officially declared the month of June as LGBT Pride month.
These days, Pride is often seen as a parade or a party, a celebration of the rights of the LGBTQ community. But it is also a reminder of how recent those rights are, of the long and brutal work it required from activists (many of them people of color), and of how much work there still is to be done.
Back in the fall, I spoke with Gina Ortiz Jones, Democratic candidate for Congress in Texas’s 23rd district about her service in the Air Force during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She talks about other things in this interview as well, but we decided to rerun the conversation in full because it’s an important reminder of how recent (and in fact, ongoing) the history of LGBTQ discrimination is as we celebrate Pride and the anniversary of Stonewall.
Now, here’s my conversation with Gina from last year:
Gina Ortiz Jones. It is great having you on the show. Welcome. How’s Texas?
GOJ: Hey, Ken, Texas is well, always is. I'm glad to be on the show and congrats on getting this off the ground.
KH: Yeah, you bet. Not to twist the knife, but does the number 1,150 ring any bells for you?
GOJ: So that one doesn't, you know, the number that rings a bell is 926. So that was the final-
KH: 926! So not even 1150?
GOJ: No, not even- 926, not a number I don't think about often. I mean, I've got a nice tattoo to remind me. I’m just teasing, I don't have a tattoo. But it is certainly- 926 is the best argument for 2020. So we look forward to winning this race.
KH: And 926, for context, was less than a-
KH: Less than a percent. Like a rounding error.
GOJ: Yeah, .4%. Yeah. Polling is an important piece of information to understand about this district. This district always suffers from bad polling. And unfortunately, we, I think like some other races, were affected by a poor New York Times poll that showed us kind of a couple weeks out with a double-digit deficit, but anyone that has watched this race in particular, it goes from San Antonio to El Paso, which oh by the way is larger than 30 states, right? 58,000 square miles, forty percent of the border with Mexico is in this district.
KH: How much?
GOJ: 40%. 40% of the U.S.-Mexico border is in Texas’s 23rd congressional district. So it's a majority-minority district and you know, if you don't get folks on the phone and asking them questions in Spanish, you might not get a good sample to really understand what's happening on the ground and unfortunately that’s just a consistent factor that affects polling in this district. So we knew it was close, but we look forward to being victorious in 2020
KH: And how are things shaping up? I know it's very early days, but you certainly cut your teeth in 2018 and should have won but second time around, are things looking good?
GOJ: Absolutely. I think, you know, we're very excited about the momentum. I just spent July 4th on in El Paso, which is on the other side of the district, 500-some-odd miles away and they're just as excited as last time. Everyone knows what's possible with good representation in this district and El Paso is getting a lot of attention obviously as of late. The Clint Detention Facility, there was a report obviously of the number of young children that are being held in these facilities in conditions that are unsanitary, they're not being fed properly, and clearly regardless of party, anybody would agree that these are conditions that are unsuitable for children and we should absolutely do everything we can to make sure that they're taken care of appropriately. And so it's just a constant reminder right, Ken, of what's at stake, certainly in this district, but for our country, to see that that's going on and unfortunately I'm running against somebody that is not doing all that he can to make sure that that situation is better.
KH: Why do you think it is, Gina, that the greatest anxiety about immigration, at least the kind that's uninformed and driven by fear and paranoia, is found as far away from the border as you can get. I mean there was this recent survey I think in Maine that listed immigration as a top issue, yet folks like you who are there in the trenches at the front lines of the problem- well, I think I'm answering the question for you. You see the facts and you realize- you see the human side of it. I want your insight there.
GOJ: Yeah, I mean I think you hit the nail on the head. I think it is a lack of you know familiarity and you know to the extent that folks live in a community that might be pretty homogeneous. And as you mentioned distance-wise is not up close and personal with with the communities that are actually most impacted by flawed immigration policies. You know, again, Texas 23 has 40% of the border with Mexico and so you can't go into any of these border communities and and talk to anybody and them not immediately reference the social, the cultural, the economic ties of the city on the other side, right? You can't talk about Del Rio without talking about Ciudad Acuña. You can't talk about Eagle Pass without talking about Piedras Negras. Presidio Ojinaga, El Paso Juarez. Those are sources of strength, again social, cultural, economic ties that really bind those two communities together and so for Texas, a large percentage of our imports and exports go to Mexico. Right, so we, you know, Texas- we don't talk about these things in silos because that's not how we live them, right? I mean, I was just in Del Rio, Texas a couple of weeks ago and I was celebrating their first Pride with them. Mayor Bruno down there made this happen and I was honored to be part of it and I took time to comm-
KH: Hang on a second. How did it go? How was it received? The first Pride day in-
GOJ: Yeah, yeah, it was great. It was wonderful. They had a wonderful showing at the amphitheater. So Del Rio, for context, is 3 miles from the border. They also host Laughlin Air Force Base, which trains the world's best pilots. I know you were a Navy pilot, but like, this is where they train the Air Force's Pilots. So they had their first one. And so, you know, there's a lot of- lots changing, you know, even within some of these communities which are normally thought of to be more conservative, and they might be as compared to other places, but change is happening and we're a stronger community and country for it. So Pride went well, yeah. I did though, before that, take time to also go to the migrant shelter. Now Del Rio is a small community and they are impacted by, you know, the heightened need for humanitarian relief efforts based on the influx of migrants. And so this is not something a community like Del Rio is really suited to deal with, given how how fast it happened and how many folks have been affected and so the community really rallied though, identified a facility, and now it's run mainly by volunteers, many faith leaders, and so families that have been released are staying there for a night or two before they come up to San Antonio and then figure out their plans after that. But again, this is something that the community has had to grapple with because there's just not a lot of federal resources. So by the way, I think it's important to highlight that though, right, because much of that was coming out of Hyde. A small community like Del Rio, they're paying for these humanitarian relief efforts at the expense of their schools and hospitals and streets, because there wasn't frankly a lot of forethought and planning into how to deal with this and so Del Rio and communities like Eagle Pass are making it work. At the same time though, right, you're also dealing with longer lines at the border. So you've got CBP officers that have been pulled from the ports of entry, which makes for longer lines at the border, which makes for less revenue for these cities and counties. What was once six lanes wide is now maybe down to two or three. So ironically, you've got heightened costs due to humanitarian relief efforts and less revenue as a result of these failed trade and immigration policies.
KH: As you talk about immigration from the perspective of someone who lives not just in a border state, but in a district that encompasses 40% of the southern border, I'm glad to hear you talk about the economics of that and the connections between cities that straddle the border. I would assume that another piece of it is the human connection. I mean, the reason that folks up in my part of the country or even farther afield, I'll invoke that Maine survey again- the reason that that fear is so manipulable is that there's a lack of empathy. I bet it's really tough to be a Texan in your district and not know an immigrant.
GOJ:I think that's right. You know, and I also have to approach this as a first-generation American myself. My mother came to this country over 40 years ago, graduated from the number one university in the Philippines, but wanted a chance at the American dream, so came to this country as a domestic helper. That was the opportunity that presented itself at the time and she jumped at it. And so I very much know from my own personal experiences, but you know, as you and I have served in other countries, we know just how special our country is and all the more reason to step up and make sure that those opportunities are there for the next generation of Americans. And so I always bring that to it as well, understanding just how special it is and really the responsibility to give back to a country that gave us so much.
KH: It's clear to me that your sense of service comes from some deep place. I mean, you joined the Air Force out of a sense of obligation, responsibility. I get the sense that that is what motivated you, because it informed decisions you made after that to serve in government, to run for Congress, which I want to get to in a second, but where did you draw that sense of service from? How did, I'm going to assume your mom, impart that to you?
GOJ: Absolutely. When I said that she jumped at the opportunity to come to this country even as a domestic helper, I mean that just shows you the remarkable promise that this country represents for so many and continues to. So when I, like many, saw the images of Oscar and Valeria, the young man and his daughter that were trying to cross the river, I know that frankly just by a stroke of luck right, that that is not my own story, right? There's so many people that take unimaginable risks for an opportunity to live the American dream, the opportunities that are only imaginable in our country, and I was reminded of that every single day growing up. You know, I have first cousins that are just as talented as me, work just as hard as me, but were not offered the same opportunities that I had, so their life trajectory is very different than my own. So, you know, being reminded of that every single day by my mom and my grandmother and, you know, my family, it was always clear that I was going to serve in some fashion. I was fortunate to be able to earn an ROTC scholarship, so the ability to get an education and know that I'd be able to serve my country afterwards was an opportunity that I jumped at.
KH: That said, you joined the US Air Force at a time in which you were prevented from publicly being yourself at risk of being kicked out of the Air Force. Your decision to serve required, as Pete Buttigieg said in a recent conversation, a “conflicting act of insincerity”.
GOJ: Hmm. Yeah, that's a really good way of phrasing it. Yeah, so I- I remember at Boston University where I did the ROTC program, I had to sign a piece of paper that said I would not engage in homosexual behavior. And knew that obviously I could lose my scholarship if it was ever found out that I was gay. But still the opportunity to serve was something that I felt called to do and compelled to do and honored to do, right, and so it's amazing, Ken, because you know, I obviously engage with young folks all throughout- you know, I'll ask people, do they know what Don't Ask, Don’t Tell is and it's just amazing that some people, they don't know, and the fact that that was a policy that was in place not too long ago is amazing to me. It's great, we've come so far, but within 20 years: the implementation of a policy, the repeal of a policy, and now again, the implementation of the trans ban. Right, that is a short amount of time for a lot of progress to take place and potentially repealed. To me, it's unimaginable that we would ask folks to make the ultimate sacrifice if needed, but not truly be themselves, right? And I think that actually affects good unit cohesion. I've said the cost of being part of the team was not being part of the team, right, because you can't necessarily talk about what you did over the weekend and who you did it with and- for fear of someone finding out that you were gay, right? It's just- when people have the courage to serve and are able to serve, that should really be the only thing that matters. The fact that somebody that did not have the courage themselves to serve would impede anyone's ability to do so is awful and speaks to the real change that we need.
KH: Is the overarching lesson you draw from that experience, with the caveat that given the specter of the transgender ban, this experience isn't yet over-
KH: Is the overarching lesson a positive one, that we can grow as a country, we can change, or are you left at all ashamed or feeling less than optimistic?
GOJ: You know, I by my nature though am very optimistic. Things can always be better. We're on the way to the more perfect union, right? So there might be some bumps along the way, but I think our country's promise is that if you're willing to work hard, the sky’s the limit and I think that applies whether you're talking about, you know, the LGBT community in the military, whether you're talking about our economy, whether you're talking about our criminal justice system. And we've got to make the case about what the cost is of not taking action and what’s possible for us as a country. I mean, I think you and I both know not only the effect of some of the domestic issues going on, but what that actually does to our credibility on the international stage and how that lack of credibility then ultimately affects our national security, right, when people don't believe what you say or people have questions about your intentions about why you're doing something, that affects our partners and our allies’ ability and willingness to trust our intentions and I can't think of anything more dangerous to our national security or to international security than that.
KH: Running as a progressive with your record and with your authority on so many issues important to progressives, do you still find yourself having to convince fellow Democrats, fellow progressives that America is worth fighting for?
GOJ: I don't have to make that argument. I think folks get it. I think what I spend time also talking about though is the cost, not only to our country, but to international security of not having strong American leadership. I think that is what's most missing from the conversation because not everyone has the experience of serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or on an international stage where, as you and I both know, nothing happens without American leadership, right, so for people to truly understand the cost of a world without American leadership, that's something that we have to understand. But then as I back it up, I mean we're only able to do that if we are credible actors in our own country. You know, it's hard to talk about what needs to be done over there, if you've got you know so many folks here going bankrupt due to medical bills or if you've got an education system that caters to the wealthy and doesn't make sure that public education is a public good, right? So I think as a way to shore up our credibility on certain issues, we've got to make sure that we're investing in the things that truly make us strong as a country. That's economic opportunity throughout, that's a strong public education system, and it's ensuring that we've got health care that is afforded everyone, regardless of how much they make.
I want to highlight just one more thing though about my experience under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I very much appreciate being able to talk about my experiences, but also show the parallels between many of the challenges that we're facing in the district and as a country. You know, between California and Texas, that's nearly half of this country's Dreamers, right? 45%, just about. And so that experience that I had in college and that fear that I lived in of losing my scholarship, my opportunity to get an education, my opportunity to serve my country, my opportunity to die for my country if need be. You know, I can't help but understand some of the parallels between that and that young Dreamer at the University of Texas at San Antonio or at Sul Ross State University, you know, young people that are doing everything that we've asked them to do, American in every sense of the word, but unfortunately live in fear that their status could change, all of those opportunities could be ripped away from them, because we don't have leaders that are willing to step up for them and do what needs to be done. So, you know, it's been an opportunity I think to highlight certainly the progress that remains to be made in the LGBT community, but how some of that discrimination, how some of that marginalization, you know those are first hand experiences that I carry with me and I think carry on and affect how I view other challenges as well.
KH: And surely a big driver behind your decision to run for Congress, to serve in a new way.
GOJ: Certainly. I think there's no higher calling than public service and, you know, I was working in the Executive Office of the President the night of the election and look, as a civil servant you serve at the pleasure, right, you serve agnostic of the administration-
KH: The night of the 2016 election, you were working for Obama when Trump was elected.
GOJ: That's right. And I was working at the office of the US Trade Representative and I was working on a portfolio - Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., so an interagency body that works to make sure that there are no national security implications as a result of foreign investments in the country. You know, a wonderful portfolio given my background and I very much enjoyed it and I wanted to make sure I could see what good I could do from within. But then, you know, I mean from the type of folks that were brought in, which we hear about constantly, and their conflicts of interest on all scales, to just a fundamentally different understanding of what it takes to secure our country economically, defense-wise, and how some of those steps might actually be counterproductive. Some of the institutions very quickly brought down any reference to the LGBT community and protections in that front and we've seen kind of a march to erase some of those hard-fought wins from my community. And so absolutely, I wanted to make sure that my community was well represented, my community in a number of ways, right? I grew up on the far west side of San Antonio. It's a community that would be the most affected by some of these short-sighted policies, health-wise, education-wise, economic opportunity that is not cognizant of where we're going as a country, but certainly where we are already as a country.
KH: Speaking with a fellow vet and knowing how you think about patriotism and the obligations of citizenship, I wonder what your thoughts are on when running for Congress becomes a responsibility. A lot of people bear the burden of serving in the military, a few less bear the burden of serving in an administration, a select few decide that running for office, running for Congress, is their patriotic obligation. How do you respond to that?
GOJ: You know, I would always get the question, you know, “this is your first run at public office.” And I said, yes, but I've dedicated my life to public service, right? I've got a record of giving back to my community and to my country and I would argue it's actually that mindset and that skill set that is most needed at this time. I think, you know, folks always have to ask themselves, “what can I do? Am I doing enough? How can I best serve, do I have the skill set to do that?” And when I stepped back and looked at my background and the needs of my community and my country, and said “yeah, I'm going to put my name on the ballot and make sure my community is well served.” That, you know, that that married up with the needs of the time and my background. You know, I was part of the intelligence cell that supported the Libya crisis, right, I mean, I ain't running for school board. Like, these are experiences from a national security standpoint that are absolutely necessary right now, but I also think some of my experiences, you know, raised by a single mother, having lived in subsidized housing at one point and then having been invested in with an ROTC scholarship to be able to go on and serve my country. These are the experiences of this district, these are the experiences of many in our country. And I felt it was my obligation to step up and serve, make sure those opportunities were there for folks just as talented, just as hungry as me, but needed a little bit of help just like I did.
KH: Well one might argue you are thereby overqualified to be a member of Congress. When you hear that phrase “the responsibilities of citizenship”, what does that evoke?
GOJ: I can't help but think about, you know, one of the Air Force's core values, right, which is service before self. Our American project only works when everyone is invested in its success, right, and that means helping one another, making sure that we've got leaders that reflect our values and thus policies that reflect our values and each of that then ensures that we remain the example for the world, because that promise that this country represented when my mother betted on herself and said “I'm going to go, I’m going to work my ass off, and I'm going to make sure that myself, my family, will live the best possible life”, like that's what folks are looking for in our country and it's only because generations have committed themselves to our ideals and to making sure that, you know, we are the country that best represents the promise of so many. But it does take each of us not sitting on the sidelines, right, especially now, asking the tough questions, making sure our representatives are going to vote in our interests and in the long-term interests of our country. We can't stand on the sidelines, we've got to make sure we're moving in the right direction. For me, that meant raising my hand, stepping up for office. I think for other folks it might not mean that, but under no circumstances is it OK for anybody to not be doing all that they can to make sure we get our country back on the right track.
KH: Well Gina, it's it's been great having you on the show and best of luck in your campaign to represent the Texas 23rd.
GOJ: Awesome. Thanks Ken, it was a pleasure.
KH: Thanks again to Gina Ortiz Jones for joining me. She is running for Congress in Texas’s 23rd district.
Today, Gina talked to me about the challenges of being a gay member of the Air Force under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We wanted to hear from you about a time when you felt two pieces of yourself were in direct conflict. Here’s what you said:
Haley: Hi, this is Haley and a time when two of my identities were in conflict was being a teacher and also being bisexual. And as someone who's come out to some friends and some family with mixed results, I had always considered being bisexual a part of me that's private and then internally something that's shameful and then being a teacher, especially a young teacher, I thought I need to keep a lot of my private life or my individual life separate to be a professional respected teacher. And in my first teaching job, a lot of the kids warmed up to me and wanted to get to know me, wanted to be close to me and I felt like I needed to keep a lot of barriers, a lot of walls to gain respect as a new teacher. In the second year of teaching, I cut my hair, which I knew personally was related to my sexuality and a lot of the students started to notice too. And one student came to me and showed me their college admissions essay, which had to do about them coming out as bisexual and when they showed me this essay, I felt immediately very uncomfortable. But then also I started crying because I realized that I saw myself through that kid's eyes. That they didn't care too much about my personal life, what they cared about is that their personal life in that classroom was being respected or being heard or being safe. Now I'm at a different school where there's a GSA and we can have Pride flags in our classroom and be very supportive, and so being a bisexual teacher is more about having a space where the kids can start to understand their own identities and hopefully create a place where their identities are less in conflict than what it was like when I was growing up.
KH: Thanks for listening to this rerun of Burn the Boats. We’ll see you back here next week for my conversation with Sarah Longwell.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.