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Biden announces Karine Jean-Pierre as 1st Black, lesbian press secretary

by Brody Levesque, Washington Blade

Karine Jean-Pierre conducts press briefing in November 2021. Photo: Screen capture via White House YouTube
Karine Jean-Pierre conducts press briefing in November 2021. Photo: Screen capture via White House YouTube  

The White House announced Thursday that Karine Jean-Pierre has been promoted to be assistant to the president and White House press secretary, becoming both the first Black and lesbian person in that position.

Jean-Pierre will replace current press secretary Jen Psaki, who will depart from the White House May 13.

"I am proud to announce that Karine Jean-Pierre will serve as the next White House press secretary, President Joe Biden said in the statement released May 5.

"Karine not only brings the experience, talent and integrity needed for this difficult job, but she will continue to lead the way in communicating about the work of the Biden-Harris Administration on behalf of the American people," Biden stated. "Jill and I have known and respected Karine a long time and she will be a strong voice speaking for me and this administration.

"Jen Psaki has set the standard for returning decency, respect and decorum to the White House Briefing Room. I want to say thank you to Jen for raising the bar, communicating directly and truthfully to the American people, and keeping her sense of humor while doing so. I thank Jen her service to the country, and wish her the very best as she moves forward," the president stated.

Jean-Pierre, 44, was named to her first role in the Biden administration as deputy White House press secretary under Psaki in November 2020.

Although Jean-Pierre is not the first Black woman to hold the position as deputy White House press secretary, that honor belonging to former President George H.W. Bush's deputy White House press secretary, Judy A. Smith in 1991, and not the first openly gay person to brief the press — Eric Schultz served as deputy White House press secretary during the Obama administration in 2014 — Jean-Pierre's place in history is cemented as a result of her being the first both Black and lesbian deputy press secretary.

Now her place in history is marked by her elevation as the first both Black and lesbian White House press secretary.

The daughter of immigrant parents from Haiti, Jean-Pierre was born in Martinique and later raised in Queens, a borough of New York City. A longtime activist and communications specialist, she has a master's degree in public affairs conferred on her by New York's Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she taught as an adjunct professor and lecturer in international and public affairs since 2014.

During the first term of President Barack Obama she served as the regional political director for the White House Office of Political Affairs.

Speaking with the Advocate magazine in June 2011, Jean-Pierre reflected on her tenure working for the Obama administration as an openly LGBTQ staffer.

"What's been wonderful is that I was not the only; I was one of many. President Obama didn't hire LGBT staffers, he hired experienced individuals who happen to be LGBT," she said. "Serving and working for President Obama where you can be openly gay has been an amazing honor. It felt incredible to be a part of an administration that prioritizes LGBT issues."

In 2016 after her White House stint, Jean-Pierre served as a senior adviser and national spokesperson for Washington D.C.-based MoveOn, a progressive nonprofit public policy advocacy group and political action committee. Her primary portfolio at the nonprofit was addressing President Donald Trump's rhetoric and platform of hate, violence, racism, immigrant-bashing, and women-bashing.

She also served as the deputy campaign manager for former Democratic Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's 2016 campaign run for the Oval Office.

Jean-Pierre received national recognition after a June 1, 2019 incident during the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum she was moderating in San Francisco, when 24-year-old Aidan Cook, a member of the animal right activist organization Direct Action Everywhere, rushed the stage grabbing the microphone out of then-California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris' hand. The senator was a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination at the time of the incident.

Jean-Pierre, who had jumped in between Cook and the senator after he took the microphone, kept the activist away from Harris until security arrived and removed him. At the time of the incident, Harris, like most other candidates in early stages of the primary process, didn't have a U.S. Secret Service detail for protection.

Jean-Pierre joined the Biden-Harris campaign in May 2020 and then accepted the position of chief of staff to Harris in August.

Speaking with NBC News journalist Tim Fitzsimons, "The sun was setting and the lights got much more prominent," she said, referring to late June 2015, when she watched the White House lit in rainbow colors to mark the historic Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. "People had signs and people were crying, and there was just so much joy."

"I remember thinking how proud I was of this administration, that I had worked for that," Jean-Pierre, said. "It really brought together, in that one moment, how important LGBTQ rights were and how much that administration fought for our rights."

She told NBC News at the time, if elected, Biden and Harris would "continue the work that Joe Biden and Obama did" by supporting LGBTQ rights and "continuing to put forth policy that protects the community."

Jean-Pierre, her partner, CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, and their daughter reside in Washington, D.C.

GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis responded to the announcement on Twitter writing:

"Karine Jean-Pierre is a brilliant communicator and person of tremendous intelligence, humor and poise, skills that will serve her and our country well in her new role. There are few jobs more visible or more important to our democracy than to share information with the White House press corps and answer their questions. To have an out queer person of color speak for the President of the United States says everything about Karine's talent and heart, and recognizes that LGBTQ people can belong, contribute and succeed in every room. Our whole community looks forward to seeing Karine deliver for our nation and represent every LGBTQ person with pride."

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