A gay Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives created a stir last week when he told the Philadelphia Gay News in an interview that the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund urged him to delay coming out until after the November 2012 election and possibly later.
Denis Dison, the Victory Fund’s senior vice president for programs, disputed claims by critics that the group pushed for Rep. Mike Fleck’s delay in coming out because it wanted another candidate it endorsed to become the state’s first openly gay state lawmaker.
Fleck, who won election in 2006 in the state’s rural, conservative 81st District, told PGN he was ready to come out as gay in the spring of 2012. At the time he had secured the Republican Party nomination for re-election and learned that no Democrat planned to run against him in the November general election.
“I was running unopposed so I didn’t see what the fallout would be,” PGN quoted him as saying. “But Victory Fund frowned upon that and said, ‘No, no, you’ve got a lot of people in tough races, your colleagues, and this isn’t an issue in their race. You can’t come out and put them like a deer in headlights, have them asked things like, ‘Your best friend just came out, where are you on equality legislation?’”
PGN reported that Fleck said when the election came and went the Victory Fund continued to urge him to delay coming out. But this time he ignored the advice and arranged for his hometown newspaper, the Huntington Daily News, to do a story reporting his coming out in its Dec. 1, 2012 edition.
The story of his coming out was picked up by other media outlets in the U.S. and even abroad and quickly went viral.
Fleck’s comments to PGN prompted lesbian commentator Faith Elmes to write a column for the Pennsylvania blog Keystone Student Voice questioning the Victory Fund’s motives in reportedly urging Fleck to postpone coming out. Elmes accused the Victory Fund of pushing for Fleck to stay in the closet long enough so that gay activist and attorney Brian Sims, a Democrat, would emerge as the state’s first openly gay member of the Pennsylvania House in his bid for a seat in a liberal, Democratic district that includes part of Philadelphia.
The Victory Fund endorsed Sims’ election bid and promoted him to potential campaign donors as being poised to become the first openly gay member of the state legislature. Sims defeated a pro-gay incumbent in the Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the November 2012 general election in what observers say is a safe Democratic district.
Elmes noted that Sims served on the Victory Fund’s campaign board that decides which candidates the group should endorse in its role as the nation’s leading advocate for the election of openly LGBT candidates for public office.
“If Mr. Sims secured the full title of ‘first openly gay legislator in PA,’ the organization would have amplified media presence after ‘their guy’ won,” Elmes wrote. “The Victory Fund could claim credit for prevailing in what they call on their website a ‘Horizon State’ [in which no out LGBT person held elective office to the state legislature].”
Sims, who takes strong exception to Elmes’ assertions, said he resigned from the Victory Fund’s board before he announced his candidacy for the 182nd House district, as is required under Victory Fund rules for all board members seeking to run for public office.
Dison, citing strict confidentiality rules in the Victory Fund’s role in advising closeted elected officials on how best to come out, declined to comment on what the group said to Fleck during the time he deliberated over whether to come out.
However, in a written statement to the Blade, he disputed claims that the Victory Fund’s endorsement of Sims played any role in its advice to Fleck.
“What’s important to us isn’t who was the first, but that the LGBT community finally gained not one but two authentic voices in the state legislature in the same year,” Dison said in his statement. “Our work assisting closeted officials who want to come out is aimed at increasing the likelihood they can remain public servants,” he said.
“That was our only consideration when we advised Rep. Mike Fleck last year,” said Dison. “Other theories are false.”
Some media outlets reported that Fleck became the state’s first openly gay state representative by way of coming out in the Dec. 1, 2012 newspaper story. These reports note that Sims didn’t take office until Jan. 1, when he took the oath of office at the state capital in Harrisburg.
But others, including Sims, point to the state constitution, which declares that the legislative session officially begins on the first day of December following the November election.
“For all of the things that are sort of gray and up in the air – this is not,” Sims told the Blade in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Article 2, Section 2 of our state constitution is two lines, and it’s very clear. My term began on the first day of December. My ceremonial swearing in was just that, a ceremonial swearing in on Jan. 1.”
Assuming Sims’ interpretation of the state constitution is correct, he and Fleck became “openly gay” lawmakers on the same day.
Fleck couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Sims said he did not know that Fleck planned to come out until a day or two before the newspaper story reporting his status as a gay man was published last December. He said he and Fleck are on good terms. Sims said a few days after Fleck came out he wrote a column in the Huffington Post welcoming Fleck.
“I was really frustrated that there were people who felt like Mike was trying to steal the spotlight or trying to race me somehow to this mythical title of first gay whatever,” Sims said. “That wasn’t the case.”