PHOENIX — Something is bugging Kyrsten Sinema.
It tugged at her while she spoke to kids at the elementary school where she once served as a social worker. It rubbed her wrong while she told the pack of teachers and staff members trailing her into the parking lot afterward about the time she got pulled over by a police officer on her way home from a similar speech. He asked for her license. She had left it in the school office.
“You’re a shambles,” she recalls the policeman telling her.
“Officer, yes, I am!” she told him.
Just then, it dawns on her what’s been bothering her all morning.
“I didn’t zip my dress! I’m like, there’s something itching,” she says. “Oh, it’s my dress!”
Now she’s digging under the ruffles of her jacket collar and waving over a photographer for help. Ah, relief. The whole thing cracks her up.
Sinema likes to crack herself her up. She likes to crack everyone else up, too, even though this last tendency — the aspirationally comedic — is forever getting her in trouble.
“I think there’s this pressure to get rid of the fun that makes us human,” Sinema says a few minutes later. “It hasn’t worked on me.”
Sinema is a bracingly unfiltered talker, a precocious achiever, a high-energy persuader, an adjunct professor, a lawyer, a marathon runner, a lover of designer clothes. She is a holder of many, many degrees — this she’s happy to tell you in a humble-braggy sort of way. And she can be a lot of fun to hang out with, a rambling, kind of kooky monologist who can pivot from whimsical and wacky to substantive and earnest without a pause.
Krysten Sinema is also — and it irks her to no end that this is such an object of fascination — an openly bisexual woman. And not just any openly bisexual woman, but the first openly bisexual person to be elected to Congress, an undoubtedly historic figure whose very presence on Capitol Hill could serve as an inspiration when she is sworn in Thursday and joins six openly gay and lesbian members in the most demographically diverse Congress in U.S. history.
In an era when gay men and lesbians getting elected to public office is trending from “oh, wow” to almost ho-hum, it’s a real bummer for this 36-year-old Arizona Democrat that news reports around the world have distilled her to a single distinguishing characteristic based on her sexual orientation (although Sinema has been open about her sexuality for years and welcomed the endorsement and financial support of gay rights groups). And when Sinema is bothered, she isn’t that fun-loving, self-deprecating, laugh riot with the quirky ways. She can turn lecturing, hectoring, defensive, accusatory, pouty and curiously repetitive. Even a softball question about how her sexual orientation has informed her thinking about public policy — she was, after all, the architect of a successful campaign to block a same-sex marriage ban in Arizona — peeves her.
“I don’t have a story to tell,” she snaps. “I don’t think this is relevant or significant. I’m confused when these questions come up.”
What’s curious about Sinema’s pique is that it only extends the conversation. She just keeps talking and talking and talking . . . and talking.
“I’m not a pioneer. I’m just a regular person who works hard. Nor am I a poster child. I’m not forging away or pioneering . . . .”
“I don’t understand why it’s a big deal . . . .”
Okay. Got it.
“I don’t understand what the mystique is . . . .”
After listening to Sinema go on for 20 minutes or so, one has to wonder: If she keeps this up, isn’t it possible that all these huffy and lengthy protestations about her sexual orientation not being a big deal end up making it into, well, a very, very big deal, indeed?
Home was abandoned gas station
Sinema does have another story to tell and it’s a terrific story. It often gets reduced to a simple Point A to Point B construct: Little girl grows up poor, becomes big success. But it’s more nuanced than that.
She was born in Tucson and moved to Florida after her parents went through what she describes as “a tough divorce.” Her mother later married the vice principal at her elementary school. They were middle class for a time, but her stepfather, the man she still refers to as Mr. Howard, lost his job, and Sinema says the family became “homeless.” For more than two years — starting when she was in third grade — they squatted in an abandoned gas station outside the town of Defuniak Springs on the Florida Panhandle, she says.
They had no electricity and no running water, she says, but, “we had a toilet.” How that toilet was flushed with no running water, she wouldn’t say. They showered in an uncle’s trailer “down the road,” she says, and her clothes were hand-me-downs from a girl named Monyca — that’s Monyca with a “y,” she says — who attended the same Mormon church as her family.