Capital-Star Q&A: State Rep.-elect Jessica Benham; Pa.’s first out woman LGBTQ lawmaker

    State Rep.-elect Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny (Photo via The Central Voice)

    By Frank Pizzoli

    Democrat Jessica Benham won election last week to Allegheny County’s 36th House District. She will replace long-serving Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny, who is retiring at year’s end.

    Benham, who is bisexual and autistic, is the director of development and the co-founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy (PCAA), the only LGBTQ+ autistic-led advocacy group in the Pittsburgh area. Like many of her soon-to-be constituents, she lost her job and health care coverage because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    In addition to her work and academic career, Benham has served in leadership roles with Pittsburgh’s Zone 3 Public Safety Council since 2016. She’s an avid community volunteer, doing everything from greeting attendees at South Side Park’s Goat Fest to serving as co-captain of the East Slopes Block Watch. She has B.A. degrees in Political Science and Communication Studies from Bethel University, an M.A. in Communication from Minnesota State University, and an M.A. in Bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in the Southside Slopes with her husband, Karl, their two cats, Ravi and Neal, and their dog, Winston.

    Central Voice: First off, is it important for your constituents, including those who did not voted for you, to know that your focus as a member of the PA House is broad. Are you concerned about issues other than what might impact the LGBTQ community?

    Jessica Benham: Absolutely, I’m concerned in general about protecting and promoting the public health and supporting an economic recovery that prioritizes the needs of everyday Pennsylvanians. And my concern predates the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated existing problems. I also will focus on protecting the environment, decreasing gun violence and protecting workers’ rights with regard to collective bargaining. Although my areas of interest intersect with the LGBTQ community, these issues are human issues.

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    CV: Why are rights for individuals with disabilities is important to you?

    JB: They’re important because disabled individuals are often overlooked, underemployed or unemployed. And because we have pre-existing conditions, we often face uphill battles to access affordable health care. Regardless of disability, access to affordable healthcare is a necessity for everyone’s success.

    CV: Worker’s rights is another area on which you’re focused.

    JB: As a graduate worker at the University of Pittsburgh, I fought alongside my colleagues to unionize. Also related to workers’ rights, we need to establish a living wage in Pennsylvania. Everyone deserves to live, eat and play with dignity. We also need to fix a broken Unemployment Compensation system. We can do better.

    CV: What improvements are needed with regard to the LGBTQ+ population in the state?

    JB: Pennsylvania needs to prioritize the protection of LGBTQ+ civil rights. No one should not be hired, be demoted or fired because of who they love.

    CV: What closing message do you have for our readers?

    JB: There’s a lot of work we need to do in Pennsylvania. There remain too many marginalized voices. I will advocate and legislate based on my personal experiences as well as what my work life has taught me.

    Frank Pizzoli is the editor and publisher of the Central Voice, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared