Ohio congressional candidate Emilia Sykes vows to fight for abortion and LGBTQ rights

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'I hope that we can organize enough people around the fact that we want our personal freedoms in this country,' said Sykes, candidate for Ohio's 13th Congressional District.

Democrat Ohio Rep. Emilia Sykes, the former minority leader of the Ohio House of Representatives, is running to represent the state's 13th Congressional District in the U.S. House against a staunchly anti-abortion, anti-trans Republican candidate. Sykes discussed in an interview with the American Independent Foundation her pro-abortion and pro-LGBTQ stances.

The 13th District is currently represented by Rep. Tim Ryan (D), who is running for one of Ohio's U.S. Senate seats, but was recently redrawn to include many parts that were not previously part of it. The district now includes more of Akron and Canton and does no longer includes most of Youngstown.

Dave’s Redistricting, a redistricting app which uses a composite of data from the 2016 and 2020 elections, says 50.7% of the voters within the newly drawn-district are estimated to be Democratic, with 47% estimated Republican voters. Before redistricting, the 13th District went for President Joe Biden (D) in the 2020 presidential election.

From 1983 to 2014, Sykes’ parents, Vernon Sykes and Barbara Sykes, held the same Ohio House seat in Akron she does currently. In her bid to get into Congress, Sykes is running against Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a conservative lawyer who was previously Miss Ohio USA. Gilbert was endorsed by former president Donald Trump in March.

Gilbert supported the overturning of Roe v. Wade. On June 24, the day of the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, she tweeted that “Today was a great day for unborn children everywhere, who all deserve to live & cannot speak for themselves. We must continue to protect them.” she also favors the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which was introduced in the Senate in January of 2021 and would establish federal criminal penalties of “a fine, a prison term of up to five years, or both” for performing or attempting to perform an abortion 20 weeks into a pregnancy.

Gilbert also opposes transgender equality, suggesting gender-affirming care "should be criminal" in a 2020 tweet, which was in response to comments by Joe Biden in support of trans kids, even though he did not specifically mention gender-affirming care or surgery.

By contrast, Sykes was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, a LGBTQ rights advocacy organization, in July. Sykes told the American Independent Foundation that she supports the Equality Act, which would provide a number of explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in housing, public accommodations, jury service, and more. She also backs the Women's Health Protection Act, which would protect the right to an abortion and a health care provider’s right to perform this medical procedure and the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act of 2022 to stop state law from preventing people from accessing abortions out of their state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

THE AMERICAN INDEPENDENT FOUNDATION: You advocated for job protections for LGBTQ Ohio House employees and said you were “delighted” to see the 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County decision in favor of LGBTQ worker nondiscrimination protections. Are you concerned that there will be more legal battles to undermine Bostock in conservative courts, and what would you do to help support LGBTQ worker rights in Congress?

REP. EMILIA SYKES: Yes, I am concerned about the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals in this country and whether or not they have the same freedoms as other Americans who do not identify in the same way.

This is a question about equality and whether or not people can live a life where they can take care of themselves, form family ties, [and] have stability in housing. What makes me concerned about it in particular is the dictum in place from Justice [Clarence] Thomas, where he said we also need to look at Obergefell and see what its legal standing looks like. As an Ohioan, [in a case] where the lead plaintiff is an Ohioan who sued the Ohio Department of Health and its director, it’s very close to us here. We hear the stories and know what it means when someone is fearful of losing their job or their home or their family based on shoddy legal analysis.

I worry for the people of our community who just want to live here, be productive and contribute to society, despite forces suggesting that they would not. So it's why we need to codify legislation like the Equality Act. It's important to make sure that people have equal rights to be married, to not be discriminated against, and earn money and be productive citizens of this country. Ultimately, what we're talking about is someone's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness — and it should be available for everyone.

TAIF: Many LGBTQ people have had their rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive care gutted after the June Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Your Republican opponent, Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, supports legislation introduced in Congress last year that could result in a physician being imprisoned for up to five years for performing an abortion. What kind of legislation would you support in Congress to support abortion access?

SYKES: I’m certainly supportive of the Women’s Health Protection Act and ensuring that people who need access to reproductive care can receive abortion care, contraceptive care, and pregnancy care. As we talk about the choices, the choice to become a parent is also very difficult and sometimes deadly. We need to make sure all choices are available, including parenthood, abortion care, and contraception. Just [creating] hard blocks eliminating abortion care and contraception, and then forcing people into parenthood without necessary support — like maternal health programs that are keeping women alive, paid family leave, or an extended earned income or child tax credit — really eliminates the choice for a lot of people. So we could be doing a lot better in terms of our policy decisions to make it easier for people to start and create or grow their families. Just eliminating access to abortion is not it.

TAIF: In 2021, you opposed a trans sports ban bill in your state because you said it would “harm children.” What would you do as a member of Congress to advocate for trans youth, some of whose families have moved or plan to move out of their states to avoid anti-trans laws?

SYKES: These bills are just solutions looking for a problem. I just like to remind people that when we're talking about these bills, especially around trans children in sports, we're talking about children. It just bothers me that the adults in the room, in these legislative bodies, are making these very harmful decisions around children and treating them so harshly and cruelly when we should be nurturing and helping children through extracurricular activities that makes them much more wholesome students and citizens.

This argument that these anti-trans bills are to protect women's sports is absurd. We can support women's sports by supporting women's sports: going to games, sponsoring the teams, giving them equal TV time, and buying the tickets. That's how you support women's sports. Not this.

I believe the most important act Congress can take is passing the The Equality Act to create explicit nondiscrimination protections for the trans community, and codify the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision.

TAIF: Families of trans kids who leave for another state due to anti-trans laws are becoming subject to family investigations. Do you think there's anything that can be done through Congress to ensure that families can still move to other states and protect their families without facing prosecution?

SYKES: We've seen different state laws crop up, especially as state legislatures have become more and more conservative. It's similar to why the passing of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s [was necessary], when states were just unwilling to recognize the personhood of Black people and people of color. We are now talking about codifying Roe, because leaving it up to the states is making it very challenging. So perhaps there is something that will need to be done at a federal level, but what exactly that looks like, I'm not sure.

Ultimately, though, families deserve to be able to travel around this country without being targeted, in fear of someone identifying them and having their children being ripped away from them simply because their family dynamics are a little different, though. That is a serious encroachment upon their personal freedom, and it shouldn't be tolerated nor celebrated.

TAIF: After the Dobbs decision, in response to Justice Thomas’ solo opinion and his past statements on marriage equality and birth control, you tweeted that “We MUST stand up and show the power hungry GOP that we won’t back down, and we WANT our rights.” How do you propose fighting against efforts to undermine marriage equality?

SYKES: It’s about organizing people who are personally impacted, and those who understand and can empathize with folks who will be personally impacted. Recognizing that, once we start down the slippery slope of eliminating certain rights, [others will follow.] With abortion rights, we see that contraceptive rights might be next. Marriage equality may also be next. That is a very scary place for the United States to go, and whether or not a person is personally impacted by any of these decisions, I hope that we can organize enough people around the fact that we want our personal freedoms in this country.

That's what makes this country unique, and that's why so many people love it and want to protect our democracy. Often, doing that requires communicating with people who are not personally impacted, and helping everyone understand: if we allow certain people to lose their rights, it just won't stop there. Overturning legal precedents for marriage equality may open the door to attacks on contraception, interracial marriage and more. This is a conversation we should be having with all Americans. We have been ringing the alarm for a long time. People have seen the writing on the wall, and the first step of this has started to occur. We need to stop it and reverse course immediately.

That starts with this November election and ensuring that we have Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate to push back on this agenda that wants to take away rights and freedoms from people.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.