Capitol Hill is getting its sole transgender staff member, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute announced Thursday.
Connecticut native Ben Panico, who last year interned in the office of Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., through the institute, has been appointed as a fellow for the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. He will spend a year helping the caucus, founded in 2008, pursue an ambitious gay-rights agenda in a Congress with a record number of openly gay lawmakers. He is the first openly transgender person to hold the position.
“I first started my work at Victory as a Congressional Intern and have now risen through Victory’s programing to a Congressional Fellow," Panico said in a statement released by the organization, which has brought more than 20 college leaders to the District since launching its internship program in 2011. The fellowship program launched in 2013.
Funded by a grant from the David Bohnett Foundation, Panico will rotate through the offices of the seven House Democrats who serve as co-chairmen for the caucus, supporting Caucus Executive Director Brad Jacklin. He also will participate in educational and leadership development programs to learn more about Congress and policymaking careers.
"This is an opportunity for me to gain professional experience and build a network of connections,” Panico said. “Visibility has been so integral to the LGBT community’s progress over the years and I believe it’s essential to continue that tradition to increase awareness about transgender issues on Capitol Hill.”
The caucus co-chairmen work with a small full-time staff to advance a gay-rights agenda on the federal level.
Before being appointed a congressional fellow, Panico worked on state policy. As an intern at Equality Maryland, he did outreach for marriage equality legislation and a transgender rights bill. The Johns Hopkins University graduate also wrote a report to the Maryland Department of Corrections on best practices for transgender inmates, helped translate Equality Maryland resources to Spanish and organized listening sessions for members of the Latina transgender community in Prince George's County.
“Ben Panico brings a wealth of experiences to this position, and as Capitol Hill’s only openly transgender staff member, he brings a much needed voice to the table,” Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute, said in a statement. “I am confident Ben will be able to gain immense experience and assist in advancing an equality agenda in Congress.”
From a workplace equality standpoint, Panico's hiring is further evidence that life has changed drastically for gay staffers over the past decade. In 2004, facing unprecedented tension during debate for the now-defunct Federal Marriage Amendment, four staffers formed the Gay, Lesbian and Allies Senate Staff Caucus. They recently talked to CQ Roll Call about the group's founding and future.
Correction 2:35 p.m. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Panico would be the first openly transgender Capitol Hill staffer. There have been three other openly transgender staffers in Congress, according to Steven Thai, press secretary for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute.
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