As the new state representative for District 90, 29-year-old Torrey Harris has much to celebrate. He captured more than three quarters of the district vote, winning over a candidate 40 years his senior who’d held the seat for 26 years.
He also cleared an additional hurdle: As a bisexual man, he’s one of the first two LGBTQ candidates elected to the Tennessee legislature.
His win is one of a series of milestone victories for LGBTQ candidates this election cycle, including the first transgender person elected to a state Senate in Delaware and the first openly gay Black U.S. representatives in New York.
In Tennessee, Harris and District 18 Representative-elect Eddie Mannis, a white Republican who identifies as gay, are the first openly LGBTQ members of the Tennessee State Legislature. That milestone is important to Harris, and has garnered outsized media attention.
“I’m absolutely grateful and happy to be a part of the first class of LGBT elected officials in the state of Tennessee. It finally gives an opportunity for this community to actually have representation from the actual community,” Harris said, adding that he believes his predecessors in the party have done a good job advocating for LGBTQ rights.
Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable
Be the first to meet the Black women changing Memphis by signing up for our weekly newsletter.
A progressive, Harris campaigned on issues like increased funding for public schools, better access to health care and mental health services, increased workforce development programs for ex-offenders and gun reform laws. Harris is devoted to District 90, an oddly shaped district including parts of North Memphis, Midtown and South Memphis, he said. A mantra of his campaign has been that he’ll be a representative who will “listen, empower and serve” the residents of the district, Memphis and Tennessee.
In April, the Tennessee Democratic Party State Executive Committee kicked incumbent John DeBerry off the Democratic primary ballot amid accusations he had grown increasingly more conservative, siding with Republicans on some issues, like abortion and school choice. He ran in the general election as an independent after the Republican legislature amended election laws to allow DeBerry to run as an independent.
On election night, Harris won 77% of the vote, a crushing victory in the predominantly Black district.
After his loss, DeBerry said he thinks Harris doesn’t have enough legislative experience to be effective.
“He’s of that progressive mindset that it’s their turn. I’m not saying he’s a bad boy. That’s not my call; that’s between him and God,” DeBerry said. “I’m saying he has no business having his first job in politics in the House of Representatives of the state of Tennessee.”
DeBerry’s first elected position was the District 90 seat in 1994 when he was 43 years old.
Gaining name recognition
Harris first ran for the seat in 2018, losing in the primary to DeBerry, who ran unopposed in the general election. Harris’s campaign manager, Theryn C. Bond, joined him in the last 90 days of that campaign.
He attributes the 2018 loss largely to name recognition. So in early 2019, when Bond began plotting the 2020 race, Harris worked to address the newcomer label.
“Everybody knew who I was because I was at every event, I participated in every community activity I could possibly go to. If somebody had something going on I was there,” he said. He also gives constituents his personal cell phone number.
Harris’s grassroots campaigning paid off with Telise Ezell-Turner, a 69-year-old retired nurse who lives in Frayser. She held Harris signs at a polling location during this year’s primary election, and she voted for him in 2018.
She met him as he was canvassing in Frayser, an area of which she’s extremely proud, but also believes is chronically overlooked and under-financed.
“The area that I live in – we are fighting to survive and we need good representation when it comes to people speaking for us in Nashville, speaking for us in other arenas that we are not privy to,” she said. “We need someone that understands our plight.”
Trump actions spark “Rainbow Wave”
More LGBTQ people ran for political office in 2020 than any year prior, an influx some political scientists are calling the “Rainbow Wave,” said Dorian Rhea Debussy, political scientist and Associate Director for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kenyon College in Ohio.
Debussy said the Rainbow Wave may have been spurred by the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back protections for LGBTQ Americans that were expanded substantially during the Obama years.
“I think that’s one thing that has put a lot of kindling on the fire in terms of gearing up LGBTQ people to run for office,” Debussy said.
Prior to the 2020 election, Tennessee was one of four states that had never elected an LGBTQ candidate to their state legislature, a level of government that is important in securing protections for queer Americans, said Elliot Imse, Executive Director of Communications for the Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports LGBT candidates running for office.
“Hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills are introduced in state legislatures every year, making them the frontlines for both defending and advancing equality,” Imse said. “State legislatures are in many ways the laboratories of democracy, so when an anti-LGBTQ bill successfully passes in one state, we see it introduced in other states as well.”
Before Harris and Mannis, Tennessee had eight openly LGBTQ elected officials statewide with five on the Nashville and Davidson County Metropolitan Council and three sitting as judges.
Imse said the Victory Fund considers Tennessee a lower quality state for LGBTQ Americans because it is far behind the majority of states in representation and protections for LGBTQ people. He said the mere presence of LGBT lawmakers makes a difference in the policy passed at the state level.
“We know that when there is an LGBTQ person in the state legislatures, it makes it more difficult for bigoted legislators to attack our community with as much viciousness,” Imse said. “It’s much more difficult to look a fellow legislator in the eye and say, ‘you are less than me.’”
But while Harris is proud to be able to represent the LGBTQ community, he’s clear that his sexuality only captures one aspect of his identity. He’s also a Black man and a millennial, and he was raised by his mother, a public school teacher, and his grandmother, in Hope, Arkansas, where he lived until he was 19.
“In 2020 it’s been tough, it’s been a long, long year for us as Black people whether it be from protesting to voter suppression,” Harris said. “The system doesn’t always work for us, so we’ve got to do a better job of making sure that we’re advocating for ourselves by running for office and holding these positions.”
Looking back, and to the future
DeBerry said he has not extended a hand to Harris.
“No, I have not reached out to him. For what? I am 69 years old. I have served in office since 1995. I have passed bills in the state of Tennessee. I have worked with presidents. I have been all around this country lecturing on things that help the whole country,” DeBerry said. “[Why] in the world do I need to talk to an untested child who just puts his name up and the system uses him against me?”
Harris is eager to fight for his constituents. Last Wednesday morning, he spoke with staff from the House speaker’s office, and was assigned a temporary office and a parking spot. And now, with the 112th General Assembly set to convene on Jan. 21, 2021, what’s next?
“It’s time to get to work,” he said.
Hannah Grabenstein and Carrington J. Tatum are corps members with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.