Jenna Wadsworth is used to blazing trails. At age 21, she became the youngest woman elected to a North Carolina office with her successful 2010 campaign for Wake County Soil and Water District Supervisor. Now, at age 31, she’s eyeing an even bigger goalpost: to oust Republican Steve Troxler and become the state’s next Commissioner of Agriculture. It’s one of the state’s more conservative offices, and Wadsworth is not only unabashedly progressive, but if elected, she’d be the first-ever LGBTQ person to serve on the council of state. Wadsworth sat down with the INDY to talk about how to celebrate Pride during the pandemic, legalizing weed, and what readers can expect if she’s elected.
INDY: You grew up in rural North Carolina. How did that affect your experience coming out?
Jenna Wadsworth: Everybody’s coming-out story is a little different, and they all have merit. We should respect everybody’s process and timeline for coming out when they feel comfortable. I get asked about this a lot now, running as an out candidate, but you know, it didn’t feel like this ceremonious big event in my life. I am a North Carolina native. I was born in Raleigh, but I grew up on a hog, cow, chicken, corn, tobacco, and soybean farm on a dirt road in Johnston County.
I always knew that I was not straight, and that really became clear when I was 15 or 16. I’ve always been proud to be who I am; I want to be very clear about that. But there are a number of folks who didn’t even realize that I was out until they saw that I was endorsed by the National LGBTQ Victory Fund or LPAC as an out candidate. Everyone who was close to me always knew that I was bisexual. I have a degree of privilege being a cisgender feminine woman, especially since a lot of my more public relationships have always been with men. So people just assumed, and I don’t know if it was right or wrong for me to let them do that. I thought there were 100 things more interesting about me when I first ran for office in college than the fact that I could love someone who identified as a man or a woman.
Even in 2010, when I ran for office for the first time as a junior in college, we weren’t where we are now. We had just started evolving, as the South has become more progressive in recent years. We were going through the fight for marriage rights, trying to overturn DOMA on the federal level. I think people still weren’t as open-minded as they are now. In the last couple years, in particular, I’ve seen so many violations of our human rights. I’ve seen it be questioned by people who hold positions of power, whether or not we, as members of the LGBTQ community, deserve the same rights and privileges as anyone else.
When I occupied a position of power here in Wake County, and especially when I became the Democratic nominee for statewide office, I knew that it would be a waste to remain silent when so many other people who were members of my community were hurting, especially those who didn’t have the same privilege of being cisgender, like I am. Being able to use my voice to amplify the idea that we’re human beings who deserve love and respect and equality and dignity, the same rights and freedoms as everyone else, has been a really powerful experience. It’s been so moving throughout this campaign to have people of all ages who have not come out reach out to me to talk to me about how much my visibility matters. This election is so much bigger than just me: It’s an opportunity for voters to prove that representation does indeed matter.
Was it an easy choice to be so open about your sexual orientation when running for this office, especially in a state that has historically been so unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ individuals?
I’ve never been one who was willing to or capable of staying silent in the face of injustice. That’s just not who I am. I am loud and unapologetic when it comes to fighting for what’s right.
Do you have any words of advice for others in situations where they might not yet feel comfortable being open about their sexuality or gender identity?
I want to remind folk that they matter. You are important, and you are special, and you are valued, and you are loved, I’ll fight for you, and when you’re ready to come out, I’ll be there to support you and stand by your side. In certain professional settings, it can be so hard to come out and live authentically as yourself. More than anything, you hear criticism from outside voices, who would never have to experience not being their authentic selves. Folks with the privilege to not have to imagine how painful it is not to get to be yourself are the ones who often try to dull our shine, or shut us down or keep us silent. I had a number of folks that tried to discourage me from being so open about being a member of the LGBTQ community. “Jenna, you’re running for one of the most conservative offices that’s on the ballot as an unabashedly progressive candidate, and then on top of that, now, we hear that you’re gay.” I saw that “risk.” I said, you know, at the end of the day, getting to be proud, getting to be authentic, getting to be myself, I think that’s the most important thing. How could folks expect me to lead and serve them if I couldn’t be transparent and authentic about who I am?
What can our readers expect from you if you are elected to be Secretary of Agriculture?
One thing I’m advocating for is the legalization of cannabis. I think that’s probably one of the more exciting things that urban readers would be particularly thrilled to hear, and I think it’s a huge economic opportunity for our farmers. COVID-19 has created major budget shortfalls in places, so legalizing marijuana is a way to really fill some of those gaps and to provide money for the things that matter, including public education, health care, and transportation. Legalization also creates an opportunity to combat the opioid epidemic and to achieve social justice for communities of color who have for too long been disproportionately criminalized on the basis of possession charges versus Caucasian users, despite the fact that white folks and Black folks are using cannabis at the same rates.
I also talk about bridging the urban-rural divide and figuring out how, no matter where you call home, your zip code doesn’t have to be a determinant to your long-term success and outcomes in this state. That means advocating for rural broadband access. Although a lot of us in the Triangle have strong broadband access, there are places that don’t, but in particular, rural and disadvantaged communities. If you want to help people build power, you’ve got to give them the tools necessary to succeed.
I’m talking about advocating for investments in rural health care because if you are not healthy, you could not be an economically productive citizen. It’s another failure of legislative Republicans to create policy that actually made a difference in the lives of the people that they’re supposed to be serving. The current commissioner doesn’t recognize climate change and sits as an honorary co-chair of the Trump-Pence 2020 campaign team. Because of the inaction, poorly implemented strategies, and personal opinions of the current commissioner, we’re seeing farmers suffer. They are worse off now than they were 15 years ago when he first took office. As a result of all these bankruptcies and farm stress, you’re seeing farmers committing suicide at nearly record rates, especially here in the South.
When I talk about bridging the urban-rural divide and about making meaningful investments in health care, that absolutely includes mental health care and destigmatizing it in rural communities. But in general, when you destigmatize mental health care, that doesn’t just help our farmers: That helps people all over the state. It helps LGBTQ-identifying folks, especially LGBTQ youth, who are more likely to consider committing suicide, because again, they don’t feel welcomed or accepted in their communities.
I see it as a form of advocacy for my community, my LGBTQ community as well. I think it is absolutely critical that the person who is leading our state’s biggest industry is able to give a nod to our past to learn from our agricultural heritage but has a vision for the future and the ability to implement that vision to create a more sustainable, just, and equitable future for every single person who calls this state home.
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