Political Notebook: Gay former congressional staffer Ratevosian vies for LA House seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 9, 2023
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Congressional candidate Jirair Ratevosian, Ph.D., joined health care workers demonstrating for better conditions outside Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles on July 29. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
Congressional candidate Jirair Ratevosian, Ph.D., joined health care workers demonstrating for better conditions outside Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles on July 29. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

Years before being appointed by President Joe Biden as the most senior Armenian American official at the State Department, Jirair Ratevosian, Ph.D., had served as legislative director to Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). Now, the gay Los Angeles native is looking to serve on Capitol Hill himself.

Ratevosian, 42, is vying for the 30th Congressional District seat being vacated by Congressmember Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) next year. Both Schiff and Lee are running next year to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California).

"When the seat opened up I entered because there was nobody in the race who looked like me or who could bring different communities together like I can and or who have the experience I have," Ratevosian told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent phone interview to talk about his candidacy.

In May, having decided to enter the race, Ratevosian moved back to Southern California after quitting from the State Department, where he was a senior adviser for health equity policy and had also advised the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Global Health Diplomacy. In that role he had helped oversee PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

"I am unemployed and 100% focused on my campaign," said Ratevosian, noting it is the first time he has not had a paying job since the age of 15, when he was hired as an ice cream scooper at a Baskin-Robbins near where he was living then in Sun Valley, a working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles.

While his parents now live in the San Fernando Valley outside the congressional district, Ratevosian is renting an apartment in the city of Burbank. The House seat also includes the cities of Pasadena, Glendale, and West Hollywood, plus a number of Los Angeles neighborhoods such as Echo Park, Hollywood, Silver Lake, Sunland, Tujunga and Hancock Park.

"I quit my job and moved out here to Burbank in order to bring my experience to making Congress work better and work better for the people here in the district," said Ratevosian.

First, he has to survive what is shaping up to be a crowded primary race next March, where the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation will advance to the November ballot. Nearly 20 people have pulled papers to seek the seat, including lesbian West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne, who is Iranian, and nonbinary transgender drag queen Maebe A. Girl, an at-large representative on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council who has sought the seat in the last two elections.

Another gay Armenian American, Dr. Alex Balekian, has also jumped into the race. The ICU physician had filed as no-party preference but recently switched to run as a Republican.

As last week's Political Notebook noted, Balekian came under fire from Maebe in July for misgendering her and using her deadname. Both Shyne and Ratevosian expressed support for Maebe after she posted about it on Instagram.

So far, most of the attention on the race from the mainstream media has gone to actor Ben Savage plus several current and former elected officials who are also aiming to succeed Schiff in the House. To date, they include straight allies Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Burbank); former state senator Anthony Portantino, who lost his 2022 county supervisor race; and former Los Angeles city attorney Mike Feuer, who had served in the state Assembly and on the Los Angeles City Council and dropped out of the mayoral race last year.

Most LGBTQ groups have yet to endorse in the House race, though Shyne does have the support of LPAC, which works to elect lesbians, queer women, and nonbinary people to office. Several of the out candidates hope to secure endorsements from the national LGBTQ Victory Fund and statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California.

As for Ratevosian, he told the B.A.R. he hopes to also be endorsed by Lee, though she has yet to do so. Like the other out candidates who would break through pink political glass ceilings if elected, so too would Ratevosian as one of the few LGBTQ Armenian elected officials.

"You don't meet a lot of gay Armenians to begin with, let alone those in office," he said. "This district is one of the most diverse and has the most Armenians of any district and is one of the queerest districts in the country."

Long ties to the Bay Area

His parents both immigrated to the U.S. His mother was born and spent her childhood in Lebanon until the country's 1976 civil war, when her family left for America.

His father was born in Siberia where Ratevosian's paternal grandfather, who was also named Jirair, was sent due to being an anti-communist activist when Armenia was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. They also sought asylum in the U.S. and ended up in Hollywood, where Ratevosian's parents first met.

"They both have an amazing story of resilience and it has rubbed off on me. They came here speaking no English with no money in their pockets," he said. "I was raised by my grandparents, as my mom worked at McDonald's and my dad was a banker."

After graduating from UCLA in 2003, Ratevosian was accepted into a two-year medical post-baccalaureate program at UCSF and spent a year living in San Francisco before moving to Daly City. He left for Boston University in 2005, where he graduated two years later with a master's degree in international health.

He then worked on HIV and AIDS policy issues, first with Physicians for Human Rights then as a public policy deputy director at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. In May 2011 he went to work for Lee in her D.C. office where he also focused on HIV policy as well as foreign affairs.

"I would come to Oakland from time to time. Those were my favorite years," recalled Ratevosian.

In August 2014 he took a job with Gilead Sciences as head of its corporate social responsibility. That year he also came out of the closet and participated in his second AIDS/LifeCycle ride that raises money for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

"I didn't realize the ride was shaping who I was," recalled Ratevosian, explaining that the love and support he received from his fellow riders allowed him to be public about his sexual orientation. "It pushed me out of my comfort zone physically and emotionally. It opened up my eyes."

A cousin of his had already come out as gay, nonetheless Ratevosian found it hard to do so himself having grown up in a conservative culture. Yet his friends and sister "were incredibly supportive" of him, as were his parents, though it took them a few months to get there, said Ratevosian.

"Right now, they are champions of queerness and of love and of Michael," he said, referring to his fiancé, Michael Ighadaro.

While the position at Gilead had him traveling to Africa and Asia, Ratevosian was based in the company's Bay Area offices and briefly owned a home in San Leandro, though he sold it in late 2015 when he relocated back to D.C. when Gilead opened an office there.

While campaigning on behalf of Biden as an Iowa precinct captain in January 2020, Ratevosian met Ighadaro, a gay Nigerian granted asylum in the U.S. who is director of global policy advocacy at the Prevention Access Campaign.

(Ighadaro, who is living with HIV, was named a "2015 Champion of Change" by then-President Barack Obama and was featured in the 2021 HBO documentary "The Legend of The Underground." He has been splitting his time between Burbank and D.C. to care for the couple's dog since Ratevosian launched his House bid.)

During his time at Gilead then the State Department, which he joined in 2021, Ratevosian was also enrolled at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Last year, he earned his doctorate in public health.

"I have worked on HIV my whole life," he noted. "I have also worked on politics, social justice, all sorts of human rights issues."

Ratevosian reported raising more than $100,000 during his first 30 days as a House candidate. He will be coming back to the Bay Area for several fundraisers he has planned between September 17 and 19.

Events are set to take place in downtown San Francisco and the East Bay, one of which will be in Berkeley. Anyone interested in attending can email an RSVP to [email protected] in order to receive the exact locations and times for the fundraisers.

"I am the only candidate in the race who has the necessary experience to bring different communities together and stand up to Republican extremists, and do that on day one," said Ratevosian. "There is no time for learning in this job, especially when we have big shoes to fill in Adam Schiff's."

To learn more about his candidacy, visit his campaign website.

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of profiles of out 2024 congressional candidates in California.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on a nonbinary candidate running in 2024 for a Santa Cruz City Council seat.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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