Kyrsten Sinema: The Senate’s bisexual contrarian
By Victoria A. Brownworth
Kyrsten Sinema made international news in 2018 when she became the first out bisexual elected to the Senate in U.S. history. Sinema was also the first woman to be elected to the Senate from Arizona and the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Arizona in 33 years.
Sinema is back in the news again—this time as a Blue Dog Democrat and sometime contrarian who, on April 9, MSNBC anchor Joy Reid called a leader of the “no progress caucus.” The woman who rose to prominence as a groundbreaking progressive has also been tagged “the Senate’s newest super villain” by The Nation’s D.C. correspondent and Arizonan, Aída Chávez.
When Sinema ascended to the Senate, she had spent years working for LGBTQ rights and other issues in Arizona and nationally. She fought for marriage equality back in 2006 as a 29-year-old member of the Arizona state legislature. Her innovative stances and her then-strong progressive politics drew many LGBTQ Arizonans and progressive allies to support her.
That support came from national sources as well, like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and The Victory Fund. For her part, Sinema worked with LGBTQ groups. For years, she participated in training and a leadership development program for The Victory Fund.
Winning the Senate seat came only after a bruising race against Republican Martha McSally, a former Air Force pilot a dozen years Sinema’s senior. The open seat had been vacated by Republican Jeff Flake, who declined to run for re-election. The vote was close enough that, like the 2020 presidential election, it took several days to count all the ballots.
Sinema herself was thrilled by her win, promising to be an independent voice for all Arizonans. That pledge has taken on new meaning in recent weeks as Sinema has become a lightning rod for what can go wrong in a 50-50 Senate where all Democrats need to toe the party line to pass Democratic reforms. Sinema has balked at her role in assuring that legislation passes. That contrarian stance has become her new—and unwelcome—signature.
In 2018, Sinema represented hope for historically marginalized people, and she knew it. In a tweet following the announcement, Sinema posted a photo of herself and the caption “Thank you, Arizona.”
She wrote, “As long as I’ve served Arizona, I’ve worked to help others see our common humanity & find common ground. That’s the same approach I’ll take to representing our great state in the Senate, where I’ll be an independent voice for all Arizonans. Thank you, Arizona. Let’s get to work.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly lesbian and LGBTQ person to be elected to the Senate welcomed Sinema. “Very happy to say I’m no longer the *only* openly LGBTQ U.S. Senator,” Baldwin wrote on Twitter as Sinema delivered her victory speech. “Congratulations to @kyrstensinema on a well-deserved victory. The upper chamber is lucky to have your steady leadership."
Sinema’s election was a big story in both the mainstream media and LGBTQ+ press. But in Arizona, the news highlighted that Sinema’s bisexuality was irrelevant—even as it was their headline. AZCentral wrote on Nov. 14, 2018, the day after the race was decided, “Now characterized by some as a standard-bearer for LGBTQ people, Sinema’s sexual orientation was barely mentioned during her hard-fought campaign against Republican Martha McSally for the seat.”
Reporter Yvonne Wingett Sanchez wrote, “That it wasn’t even an issue reflects Arizona’s long libertarian tradition emphasizing individual rights that stretches back at least to the Barry Goldwater era of politics.”
LGBTQ+ people responded to Sinema depending on their power positions. Neil Giuliano was the nation’s first directly elected, openly gay mayor. The former mayor of Tempe, now president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership, a business leadership organization, told reporters in 2018, “It’s not a front-and-center part of Kyrsten’s identity, although she lives with great authenticity—she always has.”
Giuliano said, “Here’s what we know about politics: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Giuliano added. “So it’s very important that she is at the table as a voice that comes from the LGBTQ community, openly, honestly and proudly. I think that’s tremendous.”
LGBTQ advocacy groups were deeply involved in Sinema’s election. The HRC, one of the largest LGBTQ advocacy groups, had been a strong supporter of flipping the Senate seat for Sinema.
The Victory Fund, a political action committee working to elect LGBTQ candidates, cited her ascension to the Senate as a “game changer.” Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston and the CEO of Victory Fund, told The Arizona Republic that Sinema’s win is the highest profile for Victory Fund. For years Sinema had actively worked with Victory Fund, engaging in training and in a leadership-development program, so her win came full-circle.
At Sinema’s election, Parker said, “The world is changing, but there are many states in the country where you can be fired simply for being LGBT. There’s a growing trend to try to allow sanctioned discrimination.”
Sinema entered the Senate surrounded by an aura of excitement that she would be that progressive LGBTQ+ “game changer” that was both wanted and needed. It wasn’t just people in leadership roles who had high expectations of Sinema. Arizona Democrats and LGBTQ+ voters felt the same. Melody Smith, who has worked on Democratic issues in Arizona for over two decades, had been following Sinema’s political rise for years. Herself an out lesbian, Smith watched Sinema take on the marriage equality fight in the Arizona legislature where Sinema served from 2005 to 2011 before running for Congress. “She was masterful," Smith said. “She came at the debate from a place where straight people could say—wow—I had no idea.”
However, Smith’s positive view of Sinema has tempered in recent years. She said, “The thing I will say to this day is that Kyrsten is likable and funny and always warm—she never forgets who you are.”
Smith, who has met Sinema at Democratic events in Phoenix over the years, told OUTvoices, “She genuinely likes and cares about people. Her whole history speaks to that concern. And I still believe she is determined to do the best by Arizonans. Which makes some of her current stances...confounding.”
Confounding is an apt description. Sinema was a long-time member of the Green Party, worked for Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign and ran for office several times for that party before switching to the Democrats.
While working as a spokesperson for the Arizona Green Party, Sinema worked to repeal the death penalty. Sinema has served as an Advisory Board Member of the Arizona Death Penalty Forum. In 2013, Sinema co-sponsored a letter opposing Saudi Arabia for “the use of torture and capital punishment against the LGBTQ community.”
Sinema has a long history of anti-war stances and has organized 15 anti-war rallies prior to the Iraq War. It was Sinema’s history as an anti-war activist and Marxist, that McSally had run against. During the 2018 election, the conservative National Review laid out Sinema’s progressive history in a sneeringly misogynist and dismissive essay titled “The Ridiculous Kyrsten Sinema.” It was a reprise of her Republican opponent’s attack ads against her in 2012, which accused Sinema of being an “anti-American hippie” who practiced “Pagan rituals.”
Sinema grew up poor and, at times, homeless. Raised a Mormon, Sinema went to Brigham Young University as an undergraduate on a scholarship, finishing with honors at only 18 and eventually leaving the Mormon church for atheism.
She then went on to earn four more degrees. Sinema has a master’s in social work, a master’s in business administration, a law degree and a Ph.D. in justice studies. She is Dr. Sinema—with more degrees than any other senator—and has worked as a social worker and a criminal defense attorney.
In 2008, Sinema completed the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government program for senior executives in state and local government as a David Bohnett LGBTQ Victory Institute Leadership Fellow.
Sinema was an adjunct professor teaching master’s-level policy and grant-writing classes at Arizona State University School of Social Work and an adjunct Business Law Professor at Arizona Summit Law School, formerly known as Phoenix School of Law. These were a lot of successes for Sinema, who lived with her family in an abandoned gas station for years. According to congressional records, she has the least wealth of any other senator, living on her Senate salary.
Since Sinema’s 2018 election, she has become known as the style queen of the Senate—her colored wigs, vibrant hipster chic and designer booties setting her apart from the staid and buttoned-up professional looks of her fellow women senators. Sinema’s fashion choices have made news more often than her policy decisions.
But as Melody Smith alluded, that has changed as Sinema’s quixotic turns on policy have raised eyebrows and ire among progressives nationwide, as well as a phalanx of her Arizona constituents like Smith.
As one of two vocal Blue Dog Democrats (the other is West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin), Sinema has found herself in the spotlight since Democrats regained a one-vote control of the Senate in January with the elections of Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia’s run-off races. Sinema’s centrist—some argue contrarian—positions on key Democratic issues like the filibuster and minimum wage have frustrated the Biden White House and enraged progressives.
Sinema’s recent stances—particularly on minimum wage as the Biden stimulus package was being debated—are a conundrum. Sinema, who is known for her acid wit and jocularity, made news with a sarcastic political misstep on March 6.
While wearing a pleated miniskirt and carrying a Lululemon bag, Sinema gave a flouncing thumbs down to the inclusion of raising the minimum wage in the American Rescue Plan Act as it was being debated in the Senate.
One former Arizonan, Ashok Kumar, tweeted a video of Sinema’s vote and posted this angry response, “I knew Kyrsten Sinema in the mid-2000s. We were local Green antiwar elected officials. We’d meet up at conferences & laugh at shameless centrists. Here she is fucking curtsying while voting against raising the minimum wage. I’m convinced she’s a psychopath.”
That flounce was the kicker for many. Sawyer Hackett, communications director for Julián Castro, who was also aghast, tweeted the video and said, “Did Sinema really have to vote against a $15 minimum wage for 24 million people like this?”
While Sinema’s action was meant to mimic the late Sen. John McCain’s thumbs down vote against rescinding the Affordable Care Act in 2017, it was a dramatic political error that opened a floodgate of repressed anger at Sinema’s move away from the left. And where McCain’s vote benefited Democrats, Sinema’s did not.
The Arizona senator was one of eight Democrats to vote against adding the minimum wage raise to the package, but Sinema was the only one to get media attention for her vote. The vote was moot regardless, as the Senate Parliamentarian refused to allow the provision for raising the minimum wage in the relief package. The Parliamentarian asserted the addition of the minimum wage provision violated the rules of reconciliation through which the bill was being passed—a point Sinema’s office reiterated to us.
Sinema’s office was also curt in their response over media attacks on Sinema when there were other senators, including Tom Carper from President Biden’s home state of Delaware, voting against the inclusion. Hannah Hurley, Sinema’s spokeswoman, said, “Commentary about a female senator’s body language, clothing or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet.”
Perhaps, but some fellow Democrats disagreed. And it was the manner of her vote—which is what drew media attention (no one has even mentioned the other seven Democrats who voted with her)—that has haunted her in the weeks since.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), of the progressive group of women of color House members led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and known colloquially as “The Squad,” did not hold back on her outrage at Sinema’s flounce. Tlaib said, “No one should ever be this happy to vote against uplifting people out of poverty.”
Yet Sinema is not against raising the minimum wage. She had tweeted previously that raising the minimum wage was itself a “no brainer.” And as Sinema’s office pointed out, the vote that mattered—passing President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Relief Bill—was a vocal ‘yay’ from Sinema. That bill provided stimulus checks for millions; expanded unemployment, child care credits and SNAP (food stamps) benefits; and included a plethora of other progressive policies also expected to lift millions of American children out of poverty.
Not a single Republican senator voted for the bill.
Sinema’s profile has continued to rise as pivotal legislation may be stalled by not only the GOP, but Sinema and Manchin, as both reject ending the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass any bill. President Biden has said the filibuster must go—that it is a relic of another era and will stymie the most pivotal of his proposed progressive legislation.
Sinema told the Wall Street Journal on April 6, “When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules.”
Most progressives disagree strongly with that assessment by Sinema. They assert that when things are broken, fixing them is the only option—not maintaining a status quo that has historically harmed women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people like Sinema herself.
In her 2009 book, Unite and Conquer, Sinema wrote: “Voters say regularly that they’re tired of the partisan bickering and want politicians to sit down and work out practical solutions to the pressing problems facing our country. While we hear this regularly from the public, we’ve not made any real effort to change the way we do business.”
Working with Republicans was the only way she could get anything done as a minority Democrat in the Arizona Legislature.
In 2021, some in the Arizona state Democratic Party argue that the majority of Sinema’s constituents are conservative and she is walking a fine line. Others are disappointed and angry. One local strategist who requested anonymity said, “Kyrsten has lost that edge that we loved about her. It sometimes feels as if she’s lost sight of what she promised us—to be an honest broker for the people of Arizona and by extension, for the country."
The debate over who Sinema really represents was raised recently at a vogue ball held on April 3 organized by the Arizona Chapter of the Working Families Party (AZWFP), in tandem with Arizona Ballroom champions Felicia “FeFe” Minor and Shannon Perkins, was convened to demand that Sinema support the THRIVE agenda and “to no longer pander to our community.”
THRIVE (thriveagenda.com) stands for Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy. According to the website, “The THRIVE Agenda presents a bold new vision to revive our economy while addressing these interlocking crises of climate change, racial injustice, public health, and economic inequity with a plan to create dignified jobs for millions of unemployed workers and support a better life for the millions more who remain vulnerable in this pivotal moment.”
Some could argue Sinema supports the THRIVE agenda because she supports President Biden’s relief, infrastructure and voting rights proposals, which are inclusive of most of this. Conversely, her stance on the filibuster argues against getting any of the new legislation past the GOP. And the possibility exists that the GOP could reclaim the Senate in the 2022 midterms.
Matthew Marquez, the AZWFP campaign organizer, said the THRIVE event was intended to “call on Sen. Sinema to take action on a recovery package for jobs, racial justice and climate change.”
Local LGBTQ+ organizer Felicia “FeFe” Minor said, “We’re part of the ‘rainbow wave’ that helped Sinema get elected into office.” Minor added, “LGBTQ+ representation isn’t enough. We need her to give back to the queer Black, brown, Indigenous and progressive communities that got her there by going hard on racial justice and jobs.”
Yet just days before the event, Sinema was the top signatory to an interfaith statement calling for LGBTQ equality. As reported by several Arizona media outlets, Sinema joined an area leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder C. Dale Willis, in Area Seventy for the church in Arizona, in a news release featuring the statement.
The statement was released as an open letter to Arizona residents and signed by nine leaders. The letter called to support “non-discrimination ordinances that protect all people, including LGBTQ people, from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, while also protecting important religious rights.”
The letter continued, “No one should be denied these protections for being LGBTQ, and likewise religious persons and institutions should be protected in practicing their faith.”
The interfaith signees included Methodist, Jewish, Episcopal and United Church of Christ leaders. The letter was also signed by Michael Soto, president of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Arizona. Both Soto and Sinema are former Latter-day Saints.
“As someone who grew up in the LDS Church in Mesa and is also transgender, this is an incredible moment of love and acceptance of the equal worth and dignity of LGBTQ people,” Soto said.
The Mesa City Council passed an ordinance on March 1 to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
“This letter serves as a powerful rebuke of attempts to repeal the ordinance and divide our community using fear and lies,” Soto said. “I hope Mesa residents will join church leadership and decline to sign the petition seeking to repeal the ordinance.”
Sinema has been a staunch supporter of the Equality Act for years. In 2017, while in the House, Sinema said, “On behalf of the co-chairs, I thank my colleagues in both parties who have joined the LGBT Equality Caucus and pledged to stand for and with the LGBT community,” Sinema said in a statement. “While we've made significant progress in recent years, we still have more work to do and must protect the progress we’ve made. Our caucus continues to work to ensure every American has the fundamental freedom and opportunity to pursue the American Dream.”
On her Twitter account, Sinema wrote on April 10, “Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender should never prevent someone from achieving the American dream. That’s why we introduced the Equality Act — to ensure that no Americans face discrimination in housing, education, or employment because of who they are or who they love.”
The Twitter account of Sinema exemplifies her dichotomous stances almost day-to-day. It also points to Arizonans’ mixed views on her leadership. One response on April 11 to her filibuster stance said, “Kyrsten I voted for you! Time to think it over! 50 Senators represent 35% of the people and you want to give them extra points for Insurrection?”
Another said, “Thank you, @SenatorSinema for doing an outstanding job! You are a fantastic person and an extraordinary Senator. Thank you for your integrity and compassion and for saving the Covid Relief bill. You are a true Arizona Treasure and Arizona loves you! #teamsinema.”
Despite her centrist views, the left is not letting up or giving up on Sinema. One local LGBTQ activist who declined to be named for this story said, “I don’t need a pile-on for saying what’s true.” They believe Sinema can be reasoned with. “She’s not a millionaire out of touch with the people,” they said. “She’s traveled all over the state. She’s lived in poverty. She may love her outfits, but she started putting that shit together from yard sales and thrift stores. She knows we need a living wage, voting rights and the Equality Act.”
But two left magazines, Jacobin and The Nation, posted stories in March about Sinema as the new Margaret Thatcher of the Senate—a power-grabber who had rejected her progressive roots. Jacobin’s piece, “How Kyrsten Sinema Went from Lefty Activist to Proud Neoliberal Democrat,” was mystified by Sinema’s vote to table the minimum wage. The piece damns her complicity with the GOP, noting “a death by a thousand compromises that has turned Sinema into a right-wing Democrat who makes a virtue of defying not just the party’s Left but even its center.”
The Nation essay’s headline says: “How Kyrsten Sinema Sold Out: The origin story of the Senate’s newest super villain.” The piece illuminates Sinema’s former positions, highlighting a letter she wrote in 2002 while a member of the Green Party: “Capitalism,” she wrote, “gave us NAFTA, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, which benefit the American ruling class at the expense of workers in the United States and abroad.”
Sinema concluded, “Until the average American realizes that capitalism damages her livelihood while augmenting the livelihoods of the wealthy, the Almighty Dollar will continue to rule. It certainly is not ruling in our favor.”
It is this Sinema who Arizona activists want back. The Democratic strategist OUTvoices spoke with was succinct, suggesting that Sinema was heading in the wrong direction. “Arizona is on the cusp of change,” they said. “Kyrsten needs to recognize that and remember her roots.”
Sen. Sinema’s office did not respond to several requests for comment for this story and a staffer referred us to HRC for Sinema’s statement on the Equality Act, where the senator has a video statement on the importance of the bill.