Ben Panico has experienced something other transgender Capitol Hill staffers haven’t in the past — a warm welcome.
Trans staffers of years past remember feeling like pariahs, trying to fit into a buttoned-down world where gender conformity was the norm.
The 22-year-old Panico experienced a different reception.
“Capitol Hill is a very friendly place to be,” he told Fusion. “Most people … that know that I’m trans just treat me like any other person.”
Panico is one of only four openly transgender people to have worked on Capitol Hill, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute. He works in the office of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) for the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.
“It’s really my dream to just come here and be able to talk about and work on the issues that mean so much to me every day,” he said. “And to be able to do it in such an important setting with such powerful people.”
The public understanding of trans issues has evolved in recent years. Whether it’s through Orange Is the New Black or activist Janet Mock, Americans are learning more about the experience of being transgender.
Capitol Hill isn’t always on the cutting-edge of social change, but attitudes appear to be changing, at least in progressive circles.
Part of that is Ben’s own job. He serves as the “David Bohnett Victory Congressional Fellow,” a position that was created to assist the Equality Caucus on LGBT issues.
Mara Keisling, the executive founder of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., remembers a time not that long ago when Washington was a very different place for transgender staffers like Panico.
“When I started in Washington about 12 years ago, we all the time had to ask Congress members if they knew what a transgender person was,” Keisling said. “We even had to ask staffers that.”
According to Panico, he was “assigned female at birth,” but identifies as male. He keeps then details of his transition private, but he believes his gender identity gives him perspective into issues impacting the LGBT community.
“I have had unique experiences that no one else on the Hill right now can speak for because, you know, I’m a transgender person,” said Panico.
In the Unites States, only 18 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Three states have laws that only have protections for sexual orientation.
Ninety percent of transgender people reported experiencing harassment at work, according to American Progress.
Despite those numbers, Panico’s experience in his congressional workplace has been positive.
Transgender Capitol Hill aides didn’t always feel as welcome.
“I worked on Capitol Hill right after I graduated from college when I was 22, so that was a long time ago … Back then it was a little different than it is now,” said Nico Quintana.
Quintana, 31, now a program director for an LGBT rights organization in Oregon, worked on the on Hill from 2006 to 2008, as staffer for two Democratic members of Congress from California, Reps. Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey.
Although Quintana worked in what he described as “extremely progressive” legislative offices, he said he didn’t have any role models.
“There were lots of openly gay staffers, but there weren’t any openly trans staffers at that time that I knew of, which was challenging,” he said.
Quintana credits Diego Sanchez, a transgender staffer for former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for changing the way gender identity was treated on Capitol Hill.
Sanchez, a prominent transgender advocate who was born female, was appointed as a senior policy advisor for Frank, and remains as one of the most well-known transgender congressional aides.
“It’s about Congressman Frank’s leadership and courage to step up and bring in someone qualified for the assigned portfolio who also is a transgender man,” Sanchez said. “He’s raised the bar,” Sanchez told The Hill newspaper in 2008.
Sanchez was also credited at the time as being the “first” openly transgender man hired on the Hill.
Americans have become more tolerant since Quintana worked in Washington. Ninety two percent of the LGBT community believe that people are more accepting than 10 years ago, according to Pew Research Center.
“I think the environment was not as trans-friendly at that time, and has come a long way of being more LGBT friendly in general,” Quintana said.
Panico is open about his gender identity, but he says, it doesn’t make him all that different from other twenty-somethings on the Hill.
“Being trans is just one part of my identity, he said. “And in the same way that I don’t think about it all the time, other people don’t think about it all the time either.”