When the Washington Blade caught up with Gisele Barreto Fetterman this month, she was looking forward to some upcoming travel plans.

First up is a trip to Washington in January to witness the swearing-in ceremony for her husband, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who was just elected to represent the Keystone State in the U.S. Senate after one of the year’s most hard-fought midterm races.  

Then, in March, she plans to visit family in Brazil for the first time since travel to her native country was restricted in the early days of the pandemic, and just in time to celebrate another electoral victory as Brazilian voters have ousted their far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

Travel of the more rote and routine variety also lies ahead for Fetterman and the senator-elect, who will be dividing their time between Washington and the couple’s home with their three children in Braddock, Pa.

Gisele Fetterman is eager for the opportunity to better acquaint herself with the nation’s capital. Having already met some very nice people in the city, she told the Blade, “I’m so excited to make some more fun memories and get to know D.C. better.”

It is difficult to imagine she will have trouble making friends. Even over the phone, she is disarmingly funny, sensitive, and kind; unflinchingly sincere in her dedication to service on behalf of those in need.

At the same time, because the breathless and exhaustive press coverage of her husband’s race against Republican opponent Dr. Oz sometimes included unwarranted scrutiny and criticism of the Democratic candidate’s wife, some folks who were not previously familiar with her might have been left with an incomplete or distorted picture.

Gisele Fetterman was under the microscope as much for her sartorial choices (almost all thrifted), as for her stalwart presence as one of the Fetterman campaign’s most effective surrogates.

Regarding the right-wing attacks that were focused on her identity as a bisexual woman and immigrant from Latin America, she jokes, “they made me sound like a superhero.”

Still, this type of partisan rancor, mean spiritedness, cynicism, and guilefulness are so anathema to Gisele Fetterman’s character and core values that you are left with the impression that she would probably prefer to keep politics at an arm’s length but for her marriage to an incoming U.S. senator.

Leading by example with love and unconditional acceptance

Children are a comforting reminder that human beings are not predestined to fear or harbor prejudice against each other, she said, recalling a memorable exchange that happened as her family was hosting a wedding for a gay couple.

She had rushed to Costco to pick up a big rainbow cake and was fastidiously preparing their home for the ceremony when one of her boys asked what the fuss was about. “Daddy marries people all the time,” he said. “What’s the big deal?”

“This time it’s two boys who are getting married,” Gisele Fetterman said. For her son, it was still just another wedding. “Oh my God, it was just such a sweet and normal and beautiful reaction,” she said, “but that’s all he knows.”

John Fetterman has married same-sex couples for years, including when such unions were illegal under Pennsylvania law during his tenure as mayor of Braddock. Raising children to be “loving and accepting and non-judgmental is really easy if we live that example for them,” Gisele Fetterman said.

She would know, having grown up around LGBTQ people who were embraced unconditionally. After moving with her family to New York at the age of eight, a gay couple who lived nearby stepped in to help care for Gisele and her brother when their mom had to work long hours, she said. The neighbors “became like uncles.”

“My best friend in middle school was gay, my best friend in high school was gay, and I consider myself a member of the community, too, so it’s always just felt very natural” to enjoy the company of other LGBTQ people, she said. “I always choose them.”

More broadly, she said she has always felt closest to “those who have been underrepresented, or historically ignored,” a personal ethos that has informed her work as an activist, philanthropist, and founder-director of mission-driven nonprofit organizations.

A nutritionist by trade, 10 years ago she launched a program to cut down on food waste while helping people who are experiencing hunger. More than 24 million pounds of good, safe-to-eat food from retailers, wholesalers, and grocers has since been rescued from landfills and rerouted to help feed people who are food-insecure.

Gisele Fetterman also leads initiatives to provide those in need with other essential items, support services, and emergency funds, including through the organizations that she founded or co-founded, Free Store 15104, For Good PGH, and 412 Food Rescue.

Along with her nonprofit work, she said the way in which she has approached her role as a politician’s wife has also been influenced by her memories of and experiences with financial hardship in both Brazil and the United States.

For instance, in 2019 when her husband was elected to become Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor after 13 years as Mayor Fetterman, the new house that came with his new job, complete with a swimming pool, made her uncomfortable. “I would never want to live in a mansion that taxpayers are paying for,” she said. “It just felt wrong.”

Ultimately, the family opted not to live in the lieutenant governor’s mansion. The pool, however, was a different story.

She knew that generations of Black people in America have been denied access to swimming pools through segregation, redlining, and other racist policies, suffering consequences like higher rates of accidental drowning as a result. So she decided to open the pool for public use.

“I really believe you have to see yourself in places to know that you belong in them,” she said. Welcoming historically excluded people to learn about water safety and enjoy themselves in a space that otherwise would be reserved for the couple and their three children made for some “amazing summers,” she said.

In October, a Fox News columnist characterized as “bizarre” Gisele Fetterman’s rationale for opening the swimming pool for public use, writing that Pennsylvania’s second lady had called the act of swimming itself “racist.”

Was it possible that the author had not understood her words rather than deliberately mischaracterizing them and the context in which they were delivered to make a bad-faith attack with Election Day less than two weeks ahead?

Gisele Fetterman appears to think so, as she did not entertain the notion that perhaps the columnist should be tossed into an outdoor pool in December. Instead, she suggested a history book, adding that America’s record of racism and segregation is “really painful, and it can be ugly, but it’s really important to know.”

Asked how she might advise her husband on the challenge of dealing with difficult colleagues in Congress, particularly the senator from Texas whom former GOP House Speaker John Boehner memorably called “lucifer in the flesh,” she again urged patience and understanding.

“The way I work with difficult or unkind people,” she said, is to make up a narrative, a story about something or someone that may have caused the poor behavior because imagining there is an underlying reason can help lower the temperature.

At the same time, she said, while it’s true that hurt people hurt people, everyone is capable of reflecting, consulting a therapist, and otherwise doing whatever it takes to forge a different path.

There may be a dearth of kindness and empathy in Washington’s political circles, but there is certainly no shortage of self-aggrandizement or inflated egos.

Here, too, she may be able to offer some guidance, given her habit of never taking herself too seriously or missing the opportunity for a self-deprecating joke (often directed at her husband).

For instance, after becoming the second lady of Pennsylvania, she shortened her title to its acronym, preferring instead to call herself and be known by others as “the SLOP.”

She also shares photos on social media with her 6-foot-8 husband’s head partially cropped out so that her shoes are visible in the frame, and insists that their marriage operates with the unspoken understanding that Gisele is always right when there are differences of opinion.

On that latter point, should anyone long for the same dynamic with their spouse or significant other, Gisele Fetterman offers the following advice: “You just have to be really confident in your truth,” she said, adding, “then you just, like, ignore him when he’s speaking.”

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