Senator Jesse Helms’ hateful anti-LGBTQ+ views kept his lesbian granddaughter in the closet

Late US senator Jesse Helms

The granddaughter of late US senator Jesse Helms has opened up about feeling unable to come out as queer and suppressing her LGBTQ+ identity due to his homophobic views.

Helms, who passed away in 2008, served North Carolina from 1973 to 2003 and was known for taking extreme anti-LGBTQ+ stances, even for the time.

During the 1980s and 90s, the politician engaged in vicious rhetoric when it came to LGBTQ+ people, actively campaigned against gay rights and voted against federal funding for AIDS research at the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

However, he unknowingly had queer people in his family and his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric prevented his own granddaughter from feeling safe enough to come out.

Helms’ granddaughter, Jennifer Knox, spoke to The Assembly about her experience of staying in the closet because of the late senator’s views on the community.

“There really are, for me anyway, two Jesses – the granddad and the senator,” Knox said. “The granddad is the bigger influence on my life.”

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Coming out is often complicated to navigate. Add in having one of the most notorious anti-LGBTQ+ senators as a grandfather, and it becomes near impossible.

Despite coming to terms with her sexuality in college in the 90s, coming out to her parents in 2002 and marrying her now ex-wife in 2007, Knox shared that she never came out to Helms before his death.

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Helms had publicly called homosexuality a “filthy, disgusting practise” and LGBTQ+ people “weak” and “morally sick”, yet insisted in his last re-election campaign that he didn’t hate gay people, saying: “I don’t even know any homosexuals.”

But he did know his granddaughter – he just wasn’t aware of her sexuality.

Knox shared that she realised in college, where she was training to become a judge, that she was gay. She didn’t feel that she could be open about it, though. When she told her parents in 2002, she said “it didn’t go over well” and her mother told her to go to therapy.

Knox had just one meeting with a therapist, who asked her why she was there. Knox recounts saying “I’m gay”, and the therapist asking again: “So, why are you here?”

Knox worked on political campaigns and once she graduated, as a district court judge in Wake County, North Carolina for 10 years. While she was running for office, a website with a history of naming closeted gay politicians outed her and exposed that she was living with her female partner.

Knox didn’t address the rumours, and she was elected regardless.

Senator Jesse Helms conducts a Senate hearing. (Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The politician and campaigner then went on to marry her partner in 2007, while Helms was still alive, but he was not aware as he was unwell in the years before his death.

“I’m not the kind of person to confront him about his views,” she said. “We really didn’t talk about politics as a family. It was almost like it was two separate lives between his political life and his family life.”

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“He had strongly held beliefs that weren’t always right,” she said. Knox is no longer a Republican, having previously helped her grandfather with his campaigns in the early 2000s, and has registered as unaffiliated – meaning she is a non-partisan judge.

“I’m way more liberal than I used to be,” she said. Knox believes in limited government, but said today’s Republican Party “wants to creep into everyone’s personal life” and won’t acknowledge racism built into the system.   

She believes her story – including her relationship with her anti-LGBTQ+ grandfather – is proof that the idea of queerness being a choice is nothing but a myth.

“Of all the people in the world – Jesse Helms’ granddaughter – you think I chose this?” she said. “There have been many times I’ve been judged because of who he is and not who I am.”

Knox added that his comments were “confusing and painful” and kept her in the closet for years. She still hasn’t read his memoir or any of the books about him. “I’m not ready,” she admitted.  

When asked how she believes Helms would have reacted to her coming out if she’d have told him, she said she has no idea.

“We did have a pretty strong bond. I didn’t want to risk losing that relationship. Obviously, it’s not something he would have approved of.

“That’s a question I’ll never know the answer to.” 

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