Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference January 31, 2002 in Arlington, VA. Source: Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

Family Values: Jesse Helms' Gay Granddaughter Stayed in Closet Thanks to Gramps


The lesbian granddaughter of venomously anti-LGBTQ+ North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms opened up in a recent interview about how her "sweet" grandpa was the reason she stayed in the closet.

Helms' callous anti-gay stances at the height of the AIDS epidemic gave him a public persona of being a raging homophobe, and indelibly marked his 30 years in the senate. Among his many demagogic statements was the claim that gay Americans constituted a threat to "the American family as a basic unit of society," a hard-right wing talking point that has echoed down the decades, persisting even now.

Though Helms publicly declared he didn't even know anyone gay, like many people who make such claims he was deeply mistaken – and his anti-gay crusade was part of the reason why he could live in such a gay-free fantasy land. In reality, noted The Assembly, his own granddaughter, Jennifer Knox – a staffer on Helms' 1996 reelection campaign and a graduate of Helms' own alma mater, the Baptist college Wingate University – is a lesbian.

Knox never came out to dear old granddad, and she compartmentalized his public persona and the man she knew outside the glare of public attention. The Assembly relayed that Knox has "blocked out aspects of his Senate career. The disconnect between the 'very sweet' man she knew and his barbed public comments was 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," The Assembly said. Said Knox: "I'm not ready."

"There really are, for me anyway, two Jesses," Knox told the publication, "the granddad and the senator." She added that "[t]he granddad is the bigger influence on my life" – so much so that she followed in his footsteps as a Republican official, winning an election for District Court Judge in 2004. She was outed by a website as gay, The Assembly recalled, but "didn't publicly address the rumors, and Wake County voters didn't seem to care."

A decade later she won the election for Wake County Clerk of Superior Court, by which time she had already been married – after a 2007 ceremony in Canada – for seven years (she and her wife divorced in 2019). Knox had come out to her parents in 2002; they sent her to therapy, with predictable results.

Helms, who died in 2008, evidently never caught on and Knox – she told The Assembly – wasn't "the kind of person to confront him about his views."

"We really didn't talk about politics as a family," Knox went on to say. "It was almost like it was two separate lives between his political life and his family life." Moreover, Knox said, "I didn't know how he'd react" if she had come out to him. "We did have a pretty strong bond. I didn't want to risk losing that relationship."

For her own part, the 49-year-old former judge – who lost her re-election bid in 2018 and is now a lawyer in private practice – says that she is now "way more liberal than I used to be." That may in part be due to the way the Republican party has lurched toward the extreme fringes; Knox, now "unaffiliated," seemingly retains something of a classic conservatism, and her small government philosophy doesn't mix well with how today's GOP "wants to creep into everyone's personal life..."

The well-worn antigay tropes routinely deployed by Republicans also grate. "It irks her when conservatives refer to sexual orientation as a chosen lifestyle," The Assembly noted.

As Knox put it: "Of all the people in the world – Jesse Helms' granddaughter – you think I chose this?"

But neither did she choose her lineage. "There have been many times I've been judged because of who he is and not who I am," Knox told the publication.

Read These Next