A Representative Rep with a Determined “Boots-on-the-Ground Strategy”
Rep. Jessica Benham, the first openly autistic and openly out LGBTQ woman in the state Legislature, is making her mark in Harrisburg.
Jessica Benham climbs up the cracked steps of a modest frame house in Arlington and knocks on the door. A middle-aged man in a white undershirt looks warily at the woman in the denim shorts and running shoes who could pass for a college student.
“I am your state representative,” Benham says by way of introduction.
She stares at his eyebrows instead of his eyes, one of the ways she has learned to mask her autism.
Then the lawmaker delivers the line that usually softens wary constituents. “I am not running for office — I just like to see what folks are thinking about in the neighborhood and if there is anything on your mind.”
“OK,” he says, his face blank.
She hands him a survey from her office, hops down the stairs and says cheerily to a reporter tagging along, “You can tell when they don’t want to be bothered.” A few doors down on this sweltering August day, she walks up another steep hill on Elinor Street. She introduces herself to a woman doing lawn work in her front yard and the woman nods.
“It’s nice to see a woman in there,” she calls out at Benham.
Benham’s heard many variations of that in meetings and emails and letters from across the country. It’s nice to see a young person in public office. An autistic person. Someone from the LGBTQ community.
Or a note she received recently. “I’m an autistic disabled staffer in the Washington State Legislature … Thank you for your fierce advocacy. I hope you know you have folks cheering you on and supporting you from all over the world.”
She smiles. “People see themselves reflected in me, even when I’m not their rep. It is really cool.”
As someone who failed second grade because she couldn’t decipher social clues — she wouldn’t be diagnosed with autism until college — Benham, 31, never imagined she would become a politician. Now she is in her first term, representing some 60,000 constituents in Pennsylvania House District 36, which covers parts of the South Side Flats, South Side Slopes, Arlington, Mt. Oliver/St. Clair, Bon Air, Carrick, Overbrook, Mount Washington and Brookline city neighborhoods, as well as Brentwood, Mt. Oliver Borough and parts of Baldwin Borough.
In fact, the first time someone mentioned that she should run for office — to fill the vacancy of Rep. Harry Readshaw, a longstanding Democrat who wasn’t seeking reelection in 2020 — her reaction was to laugh.
“Yeah, the autistic, bisexual woman should run for office,” she says. “That’s a really good joke.”
But she began to take the idea seriously when friends and fellow activists pointed out that she was already fighting for those neighborhoods through her advocacy for disability rights, worker rights, public safety and environmental issues. As a member of the Zone 3 Public Safety Council and co-captain of the East Slopes Block Watch and co-founder of an autism advocacy group, she was used to dealing with politicians. She was also a total policy wonk who dug deep into the minutiae of legislation that put other people to sleep.
The 2020 race turned controversial when the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsed Benham’s opponent Heather Kass, a Democrat who had posted on social media in praise of Donald Trump before the 2016 election and criticized the Affordable Care Act.
Eric Garcia, author of “We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation” and a political reporter for The Independent, says Benham is among a handful of autistic politicians taking office recently. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican from Texas, and Yuh-Line Niou, a New York State Assembly member running for Senate, are also autistic.
“It’s incredibly important,” Garcia says. “It shows that you are starting to see autistic people develop political power in a way that you didn’t see even a few years ago. It shows there is a generation of autistic people who benefited from better diagnosis and better services based on legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Autistic people are reaping benefits and they are demanding to be included in the political conversation.”
Fueled by early-morning workouts lifting weights and an afternoon Red Bull, Benham spends her time outside of Harrisburg stacking one event on top of another in her home district. The same sweltering August afternoon she knocked on doors in Arlington, she had already spent the morning directing traffic at a paper-shredding event in the South Side. Then she spent another hour at a coffee shop, talking to a young couple, recently transplanted from Florida, about community groups they could join.
“If you haven’t met Jess, you haven’t been out of your house,” says Jill Hackney, a South Side resident and artist. “She’s boots-on-the ground in the community.”
Her district office on Brownsville Road in Carrick, formerly a butcher shop, is decorated with second-hand furniture. Her brown-and-white cat Ravi, who commutes with her from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh and back, can often be found sleeping on the desk.
“This feels like the working-class roots I came from, and it reflects my district. When I walk into Harrisburg and it’s all gold and brocade and fancy pictures, that is uncomfortable … There are a lot of politicians who are truly representative and reflective of their districts, but there are a lot who are disconnected from what their people want. Power and access to power corrupts.“
She has been the primary sponsor on some 20 bills, including one that came after the shootings on Carson Street during crowded summer nights last year. The bill would give more local control to municipalities seeking to regulate “nuisance bars” and allow them to set “saturation ratios” for bars. She also secured a grant for the South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace, an organization that puts “peacemakers” on the ground to help prevent violence.
As a progressive in a Republican-majority state legislature, she has found common goals with Republicans on disability rights in a few of the bills she’s sponsored. She worked across the aisle with Rep. Kate Klunk, a Republican representing York, on a bill that was signed into law that raises the income cap on workers with disabilities, allowing them to earn more income without losing medical insurance.
“Jessica’s been wonderful to work with,” says Klunk, who drafted the bill because of her experience with a disabled uncle. “She is one of the Democrats who I can sit down and have a conversation with and move the needle on issues. And I can’t say that about everyone up here, Republicans or Democrats. It’s just nice to find somebody who’s passionate and who brings a unique perspective” to disability-rights issues.
LGBTQ rights have been another story, though. The first time Benham spoke on the House floor was in favor of an amendment to add sexuality to a nondiscrimination bill, which was ultimately voted down. “To watch every single Republican vote that amendment down kind of hits you in your core because that’s every single one of them saying that people like me don’t deserve to be protected from discrimination, that I can be fired for being queer, and that it is OK that I be denied housing.”
Those moments on the House floor can be a punch to the gut, but it’s not like she didn’t see it coming. In fact, her childhood prepared her to advocate in these situations. “You know, you can’t grow up as a queer disabled kid in this world without being resilient.”
Benham grew up in Bridgeville, the daughter of a Baptist pastor and a piano teacher. Elementary school was rough — she was constantly sent to the principal’s office for being disruptive in class, she recalls.
“All I heard from the teacher over and over was, ‘She’s a bad kid.’”
“School systems are built to accommodate some kids but not other kids. In the early ’90s, schools did not understand disability and difference and accommodation. It’s not perfect now. We know that kids with disabilities and Black and brown kids are more often victims of school pushout. And I think because of my experience growing up, that’s why I fight so hard on education issues.”
Church was another place where she felt out of place. She knew early on that her sexuality was at odds with the teachings of conservative Christianity. “The stigma around being queer was ingrained in me as a child,” she says. So was the stigma of being disabled. She would hear people talk about how disabled people exist to show God’s glory. “And if you believed hard enough, you wouldn’t be disabled anymore. I think it’s wrong,” says Benham, who has since found acceptance as an adult at the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community on the South Side, where she is an elder.
It wasn’t until her freshman year at Bethel University, an evangelical Christian school in Minnesota, that she realized the coping strategies she had devised to fit into a neurotypical world were no longer working. She was diagnosed with autism, something that has long been seen as a boy’s issue when, in reality, many girls are overlooked because they’ve been socialized to mask their autistic traits.
“One thing that happens to autistic girls is that we are very explicitly socialized in this world. We are taught, ‘cross your legs, be ladylike, don’t chew with your mouth open.’ We’re taught those social rules a little bit more explicitly.”
She earned both a bachelor’s in communication and political science at Bethel University. She also earned a master’s in communications study at Minnesota State University at Mankato. In 2015, she returned to Pittsburgh to earn a master’s in bioethics and a doctorate in communications. Her thesis, “Proud to be Autistic: Metaphorical Construction and Salience of Cultural and Personal Identity in #StopCombatingMe,” delved into autistic self-advocacy through a neurodiversity perspective.
In 2014, Benham co-founded the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy with Cori Fraser. “It was run by autistic people, rather than people trying to fix autism,” she says. The organization has advocated for a wide range of issues, including sensory-friendly spaces and increasing access to individual education programs for autistic students. As the first openly autistic member of the General Assembly and one of only a few in the country, Benham says only a fraction of the legislation she sponsors is specific to disability issues. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the autistic legislator who works on autistic things.
“I say all policy is disability policy, because disabled people live in this world. If we think about environmental policy, for example, people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty and therefore more likely to live closer to a source of pollution.”
Despite the standard narrative of a disability being something to overcome, she says being autistic makes her a more effective politician. A common characteristic of autism is systemized thinking, which Benham says gives her a strong level of organization, a powerful memory and an ability to focus on policy details.
Brian Sims, a Democrat representing parts of Philadelphia, is the first openly gay member of the House; Benham considers him a big brother. He says Benham has been a strong ally on LGBTQ rights, especially transgender rights. She also has worked with him to co-sponsor a sex education bill that encompasses “reproductive rights, equality, gender equality.”
“Jess is not just a good coalition builder, but she also knows how to read law. She can look at a bill, understand what’s missing and figure out how to change it to make it better.”
Fraser, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, is in awe of how she has moved from an outsider pushing for political reform to someone working from within the halls of Harrisburg. “For a queer autistic person with fairly radical politics for our state legislature, Jess still moves through these systems and keeps up these relationships in ways that are just mind-blowing to me.”
On a balmy September day, South Side residents mill around a plaza next to Armstrong Park for an annual street party. A breezy disc jockey talks up local businesses as the throbbing theme song to “The Addams Family” plays in a loop in the background. Families and friends sit around tables to eat hot dogs, salads and other foods while others visit the various booths. Rep. Benham has a booth, but she isn’t sitting behind it — she’s too busy mingling with the crowd.
“I am an extrovert. I get my energy from people.”
Among the familiar faces is Hackney, the South Side artist, who first talked to her state representative when Benham called her out of the blue, asking if she had any concerns. Hackney mentioned that her daughter Jamie, a high school senior who had just come out as trans, was struggling in virtual school because of the pandemic. Benham followed up the conversation with a letter to Jamie, offering her encouragement.
“I didn’t expect that,” Hackney says. “She didn’t know us from anyone.”
Jamie wrote her representative a letter with her resume, asking if she could intern in her office. Benham hired her as an intern last summer.
Despite the chill vibe at the street party, there is an undercurrent of tension because of the spate of summer shootings on Carson Street.
Richard Cupka, the owner of Cupka’s 2 Cafe, a Carson Street bar, called the recent violence “ridiculous.”
“You have a shooting every week, cars driving into buildings. It’s very easy to fix. You have to let the police police.”
He sees Benham walking toward him and stops to hug her. Despite their conflicting political views — she thinks the violence is a complex mix of mental health, poverty and lack of access to opportunity — they both want safer streets.
Cupka says, “We are at the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of Republican and Democrat. But she’s a nice lady and she’s practical and caring.”
A few months later, Benham hosts a public forum at City Theatre for her constituents with officials from the state Liquor Control Board and others. About 50 residents attended the event, and Benham live-streamed it.
After the event, it was back to the stained-glass windows of the State Capitol building in Harrisburg. It’s exactly where she wants to be, as she seeks reelection this year, but it never feels like home. “I always say the minute this job feels comfortable, that is the moment I need to do something else.”