Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA), a bisexual woman, was a representational and political win for the LGBTQ community when she flipped a House seat from red to blue last year. But less than a year later, after the beginning of divorce proceedings and the release of texts and nude photos without her consent, she has resigned. And although her choice to get involved with at least one subordinate can’t be overlooked, it would appear that her gender, her sexuality — and to some extent her non-monogamy — singled her out.
The resignation of Katie Hill from Congress felt nothing short of gut-wrenching for me, for many other millennials, LGBTQ people, non-monogamous people, and for women. It tells many of us that we don’t belong in government and that straight cis men who have been accused of far worse personal conduct will pass muster nearly every time.
In her speech on the House floor on Thursday, Hill said, “I am leaving now because of a double standard… I am leaving because I didn’t want to be peddled by papers and blogs and websites, used by shameless operatives for the dirtiest gutter politics that I’ve ever seen, and the right-wing media to drive clicks and expand their audience by distributing intimate photos of me taken without my knowledge, let alone my consent, for the sexual entertainment of millions.”
First, one has to understand what led up to her resignation. Hill told her husband, Kenny Heslep, that she was leaving him in June, according the Los Angeles Times, and then the couple moved forward with divorce proceedings. Then RedState published multiple articles about Hill’s alleged relationships with people she worked with. One October story quoted Heslep, who claimed on social media that Hill was involved with a male Congressional staffer. According to the Times, Joe Messina, a former campaign adviser for the Republican incumbent she challenged, Steve Knight, received nude photos of Katie Hill as well as texts. He did not publish them on his blog but noted that he received them. He also reportedly checked in on the National Republican Congressional Committee to see how widely they’d been circulated and learned that “they were all over the place.”
Soon, RedState published a nude photo of Hill brushing a woman’s hair and texts that RedState said were exchanged between Hill and Heslep, in an article from Jennifer Van Laar, a former advisor for Knight’s campaign. RedState never disclosed in the piece that she worked for the former Congressman in 2014. The Daily Mail published a story with multiple nude photos of Hill. The RedState story included information about Hill’s relationship with a 22 year-old female campaign staffer — a relationship that included her husband — which Hill has acknowledged. Hill and her husband are both in their 30s. Hill has denied having a relationship with a Congressional staffer, Graham Kelly, a relationship that would have violated House rules. As for Heslep, he told his parents that he his computer had been hacked just before the publication of the photos, according to BuzzFeed.
Following the release of these photos, Hill characterized her relationship with Heslep as abusive. She wrote in a letter, “This is what needs to happen so that the good people who supported me will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives who seem to happily provide a platform to a monster who is driving a smear campaign built around cyber exploitation.”
When Rep. Hill mentioned this alleged abuse, I immediately thought of the research on abuse of and sexual violence toward bisexual women. Although we don’t know for sure whether Heslep released the photos or precisely what his relationship with Hill was like, it’s difficult for queer women and nonbinary people not to be affected by Hill’s description of an abusive marriage and by our knowledge of intimate partner abuse of bi women in relationships and the high rates of sexual violence bi women experience. The Centers for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey found that bisexual women have a higher prevalence of intimate partner violence than heterosexual women. Bi women are 1.8 times more likely to report intimate partner violence and 2.6 times more likely to report having experienced sexual violence from intimate partners compared to straight women. Eighty-nine percent of bisexual women reported that they experienced intimate partner violence, rape, stalking only from male perpetrators. And of course there are other kinds of abuse, such as emotional and verbal abuse, that may be higher for bi women as well. According to a Lehigh University researcher’s 2017 work, unique considerations for increased sexual violence against bi women are “social construction of bisexual women as especially worthy of distrust, jealousy, and other emotions” and the hypersexualization of bi women by men, which is reinforced by media representation of bi women.
Hill stated herself that she was fearful that people would continue to release similar photos and texts if she did not step down. In that respect and others, the power dynamics of the situation and the actors involved in it are different than many other situations in which lawmakers are asked to step down over some kind of inappropriate relationship or sexual misconduct. Hill’s bisexuality and all of the stereotypes that people continue to identify with it — deceptive, promiscuous, greedy — are all amplified by similar stereotypes that people apply to polyamorous and other nonmonogamous people. This all occurred after outlets slyly accused her of not being queer enough because she was married to a man.
Her bisexuality and relationships with multiple people are surely judged more harshly because of her gender. Women in Congress are not supposed to show that they have any sexuality at all, much less a queer sexuality or non-traditional relationships. We’ve seen this slanted coverage of bi women before. Following Amber Heard’s abuse allegations against Johnny Depp, tabloid media frequently referred to her bisexuality to discredit her. Add to this that women in political life are certainly not supposed to be seen in nude photographs, and when they rarely are soon nude, are dismissed on both sides of the aisle. Many so-called progressives with #Resist in their Twitter bios enjoy calling out First Lady Melania Trump for posing nude as a model rather than her support of her husband’s birtherism. It’s not surprising then that when biphobia, sexism, and judgment of polyamory collide, you have someone as prominent as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) putting the onus on young people to stop taking nude photographs if they want to be major players in government.
In a press conference after Hill’s resignation, Pelosi called the release of the photos a “profound violation” but also said, “I do say to my own children and grandchildren, especially young children, you know, some of these–I don’t know what to call them–appearances on social media can come back to haunt you if they are taken out of context and that. But I do think that we have to be careful.”
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said that the release of the photos will surely deter young women from running for office. It isn’t a question of if what happened to Hill will happen to other young women who run for Congress, but when. Twelve percent of people 18 to 29-years-old said people shared explicit images of them without their consent, compared to 5 percent of those who were over the age of 30. This issue is not going away for future generations of lawmakers. Instead of telling people that they must never share nude photographs if they want to be part of political life, political leaders need to gather the moral courage to tell people that nude photographs are not in themselves disqualifying. Women and femme nonbinary people and queer people’s nude bodies are not disqualifying.
Katie Hill said in her Thursday speech, “I came here to give a voice to the unheard in the halls of power. I wanted to show young people, queer people, working people, imperfect people that they belong here because this is the people’s house. I fell short of that and I’m sorry.”
If Democratic leaders want their party to have a future, they need to have more awareness of the world young, queer, imperfect people currently live in, and act accordingly. I’m a bi femme nonbinary person who has been in at least one relationship that could be characterized as abusive, which involved one incident of sexual assault. For years, I asked this man to stop contacting me through various phone numbers and emails where he tried all kinds of ruses to get my attention. A decade after it first began, I still hear from him and need at least an hour to gather the strength to calm back down. I have also tried polyamorous relationships and found the judgment from people who didn’t understand my relationships, as well as stereotypes that poly people were only interested in sex, difficult to navigate. For all these reasons and more, it’s hard for me not to feel personally angry at how quickly many powerful Democrats shrugged their shoulders at Hill. I don’t believe that months from now, prominent Democrats will express regret, as so many Democrats did when they told the New Yorker that they shouldn’t have supported the resignation of Rep. Al Franken (D-MN), a man who was accused of sexual misconduct by eight women. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and other lawmakers have faced sexual harassment allegations over the years and remain in Congress.
I recall reporting on her campaign to flip the 25th Congressional seat in California for ThinkProgress. I sat down with her in a small white room with bare walls to ask her questions for a small window of time she made available. She nimbly addressed my questions about healthcare, homelessness, education, and more. She addressed my questions about how her bisexuality affected her campaign and how she would address the health and safety needs of other bi people. Anyone who watched CNN and the Human Rights Campaign’s town hall in October, where few questions acknowledged bi people, know how difficult it is to get most politicians to acknowledge the unique safety and health issues affecting bi people. Before the House’s passage of the Equality Act, Hill spoke passionately in favor of the sweeping nondiscrimination bill, which clarifies and expands housing, employment, public accommodations, and other protections, on the House floor. House Republicans repeatedly perpetuated lies about trans people that essentially called them enablers of and participants in fraud.
Hill said, “I can tell you that no trans person is trying to game the system to participate in sports. That does not happen. And that is a sad scare tactic that has no place on the floor of the People’s House.”
She added, “You, my colleagues, are on the wrong side of history.”
A voice which cut through the noise on policy issues affecting LGBTQ people, including economic inequality and homelessness, has been lost. There are clear power imbalances in relationships between employees and their direct supervisors and employers, and the nature of the relationship itself makes consent thorny to navigate, to say the very least. There was enough of an age difference between the couple and the staffer to raise other issues about the power dynamics of their relationship. It can also be true at the same time that the people driving the conversation about Hill and her behavior appeared to be extremely invested in the gendered and queerphobic sexual humiliation of a young member of Congress in a way that suggests they’d like to deter the next Katie Hill from thinking twice about political life.