Newly elected state Rep. Jessica Benham is changing the makeup of the Pennsylvania Legislature.
PITTSBURGH — Growing up, Jessica Benham was told she was a “bad kid.” She even got kicked out of school in second grade.
But look at what this “bad kid” is doing now.
Benham was recently elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for the 36th District, which includes parts of Pittsburgh, in Allegheny County. A Democrat, she beat three other candidates in the primary election and won the general election with 62% of the votes. She will be the first woman to hold the seat since it was established in 1969.
She also will be the first openly bisexual woman to win a seat in state government and the first openly autistic person to win election to any state legislature.
“I never hid who I was when I was campaigning,” Benham said. “When running for office, I think it’s important for you to be open and honest about who you are.”
Benham decided to run for state representative to make sure the people in her district had access to the things they needed to thrive— family-sustaining jobs, affordable health care, a clean environment, reduction of gun violence, and quality education.
“I believe that we advocate and legislate through our personal experiences,” Benham explained. “The fact that I have faced adversity in my life like so many of my constituents has better prepared me to do what I can to meet their needs.”
Benham, 29, knew early in life that she was different, but she wasn’t diagnosed with autism until she was in college. Women generally are not diagnosed until later in life because of their ability to mask or camouflage their symptoms, according to the Organization for Autism Research.
The Pittsburgh-area public schools she attended as a child were not equipped to handle students like her, she said, so she was deemed a problem child.
Over the years, she has studied human behavior through her personal experiences and interactions as well as in her academic career, teaching herself the unwritten social norms that don’t come naturally to her such as making eye contact when speaking to someone.
“There seems to be this expectation in our culture that autistic people will be the ones to adapt and change,” Benham said. “We can adapt and change, but communication goes both ways. We need to learn and adapt together, crossing those divides that make us different.”
Her sexuality is another aspect of her life that has helped shape the person she is today. Benham is happily married to a man, but celebrates the fact that she is bisexual and has had past relationships with women. It would be easy, she said, to not talk about it, but that would be like hiding a piece of herself.
She has endured slurs hurled at her and felt unsafe for simply walking down the street while holding hands with another woman.
“Growing up as a bisexual, autistic kid, you develop a thick skin very early on,” Benham said. “I would say that equips me well to handle Harrisburg.”
Becoming a state representative wasn’t always her goal, Benham said.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications from Bethel University, a master’s degree in communication from Minnesota State University, and a master’s degree in bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh.
She co-founded and serves as Director of Development for The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, a grassroots self-advocacy project run by autistic people for autistic people.
The lack of people like her in political positions made the idea seem unattainable. So she forged her own path, and did what she thought wasn’t possible.
“People want someone in Harrisburg who is going to cut through all the nonsense and address what they want,” Benham said. “I’ve never backed down from fighting for what’s right.”
Since she won the election, Benham has received hundreds of positive messages from people in her district, throughout the state, across the country, and even around the world.
“All of us have these unique gifts we can offer to our communities,” Benham said. “Listen to your gut and serve your community, and do what you are called to do.”