As a lobbyist, Gaelle Esposito has spoken publicly at the Arizona Capitol countless times on behalf of different organizations. But when she stood before lawmakers in January, it was as much for herself as it was for anyone.
This was her first time speaking as Gaelle.
On Jan. 18, Esposito, who is a partner at the progressive lobbying and advocacy firm, Creosote Partners, spoke before the Senate Education Committee on behalf of the ACLU of Arizona. She spoke from experience, and described what it was like for her to come out in her 30s as a trans woman.
The bill she spoke against was SB 1001, the first anti-trans bill to get a hearing in Arizona this year.
A Problematic Bill
If passed, SB 1001 would prohibit any employee or independent contractor of a public school district or charter school from addressing a student under the age of 18 with a pronoun or name—unless it is a nickname commonly associated with the student’s name of record—that does not align with a student’s biological sex, unless the worker receives written permission from a parent.
“I’m in my 30s,” Esposito said in her testimony. “If that conversation was a challenge for me, we can only imagine how hard it can be for students who may not know if their parents will love and support them no matter what.”
She spoke of not having to worry about a loss of housing or financial stability as an adult, something that many young trans students have to consider before talking to their parents about their gender identity.
“For those young people who may not have that same security of housing, may not have that same security of finances, that’s an even bigger hurdle to jump over,” she said.
Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills), the main sponsor of the bill, defended his proposal, and said that it “deals with a situation where a student who is having an identity crisis in terms of gender wants to be called by a different pronoun or name that does not align with their biological gender.”
He also described the legislation as a protection of parental rights and student safety, but did not elaborate on how prohibiting educators from using preferred pronouns would enhance student safety.
“[This bill] ignores the nuances of the process of coming out,” Esposito said. “It also just ignores whatever rights a student may have to their self-expression.”
The bill, which has passed in committee, will almost certainly face the veto stamp if it arrives at Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’ desk.
A Nerve-Wracking Experience
This testimony was not Esposito’s first legislative rodeo—she has been involved at the Capitol for about a decade and was active in state politics before then.
But this time, it was particularly personal for Esposito to speak before the committee; her transition began a little over a year ago, making this legislative session her first as Gaelle.
“This one was far more nerve-wracking than most, not just because it was my first time testifying since my transition [became public],” Esposito said. “It was very challenging and to have to do that in front of an audience that was full of some very hostile and hateful people.”
“Gaelle has always been an advocate for the little guy,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a written statement. “Gaelle has a way of taking tough personal experiences and turning them into change so that others don’t have to go through what she did.”
Esposito was Gallego’s chief of staff during her time as a Phoenix councilwoman in 2017.
Becoming a Lobbyist
Esposito left Gallego’s office to join Creosote Partners five years ago, around the same time Gallego resigned as councilwoman to run for mayor. Gaelle said her work at Creosote has given her the opportunity to represent causes she believes in and communities and people she cares about.
A product of the Tempe Union High School District and child of parents who work in education, Esposito chose education as the main avenue of her advocacy. Public education is where people who can’t find a belonging can express themselves, Esposito believes, and where people can grow in their communities with student clubs, activities, and programs.
“I had a problem with bullies [in high school]. I had a problem with people who use their power to attack others who may not have the same resources and ability to stand up for themselves,” Esposito said.
Over the years, she began to see a shift in the priorities of education administrators, and a “whittling away of the focus on what a public education should be about.”
Marilyn Rodriguez, Esposito’s colleague and fellow partner at Creosote Partners, said much of Esposito’s passion for public education comes from firsthand experiences, and seeing just how broken policies enacted by the state’s Republican-majority Legislature have made it.
Early Start in Politics
Esposito’s political involvement didn’t start at the mayor’s office or at the Capitol: it began in high school.
Her wife, Aimee Esposito, told The Copper Courier that Gaelle once skipped school to go to an event for former Democratic US Rep. Harry Mitchell. Her parents found out when they saw her on TV.
Joaquin Rios, a friend of Esposito since high school and Arizona state director for State Innovation Exchange, got her involved in politics. Rios recalled working with her as a political volunteer while students at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe.
“She is somebody who always was very dedicated, very values-driven, and [who] always showed up in spaces to be about something rather than to be somebody,” Rios said. He characterized his friend as one who is not afraid to ruffle feathers or call out injustices.
“She is a real presence in progressive politics, a real presence at the Capitol, and probably will be for a very long time,” Rios said.
Esposito lives in the Phoenix area with her wife and their three little dogs, and she dreams of opening a hot-dog stand on the beach when she is done with her political life.