March 14, 2014 | by Jim Graham
Importance of openly gay elected officials
Jim Graham, Washington, D.C., gay news, Washington Blade, gay elected

Gay D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) (Washington Blade file photo by Jeff Surprenant)

Like so many others, I have gone through many stages as a gay man. Knowing who I am, and being comfortable with all that, has taken time. I have gone from denying my sexuality and marrying a woman (who I loved then and still do to this day), to divorce. What followed were awkward personal times working in the U.S. Senate where there was then zero tolerance for being gay.

But when I became the volunteer President of Whitman-Walker Clinic on April 1, 1981, I came out of the closet with a roar — for a time everyone (whether they liked it or not) had to be told by me that I was gay. Those were my “Billboard Years.” More change followed after 16 years as head of the Clinic. I became more “right sized.” Being gay was a key part but only one part of my make-up. When I ran for D.C. Council in 1998, I ran on that basis and got elected, and re-elected ever since.

With all that in mind, I was struck by a recent suggestion by a Blade columnist that it wouldn’t matter if the D.C. Council went from its current two gay members to none at all.

It’s amazing that a gay columnist for a gay newspaper would suggest that not having gay elected leaders is of no significance! Harvey Milk must be turning over in his grave.

I have never campaigned just as a “gay man.” Had I done so, I would never have won. When I was first elected in 1998, Ward One was 71 percent minority population — 46 percent black and 25 percent Latino. I ran against an incumbent, African-American male, well known for his leadership in D.C. and in the national Civil Rights Movement.  In 1998, one out of every four Ward 1 residents were living in poverty. My record at Whitman-Walker demonstrated a commitment to all people as well as poor people –especially those living with HIV and AIDS, from the earliest days of the pandemic.

Why do people vote a particular way? The reasons are limitless, and surely sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, are all part of it. “Identity politics” is hardly dead. It matters — sometimes positive, sometimes negative — that a candidate is gay. It can make a big difference.

My sexual orientation informs what I do and say. But being gay is only part of who I am. I work every day to integrate all aspects of my life.

Yet to suggest as the columnist did “that LGBT residents are fully integrated into the fabric of local life” — and that “sexual orientation of elected officials is inconsequential” is just plain wrong. LGBT candidates bring a unique experience to government.

For example, I was just honored by the DC Center for my work on a recently passed bill establishing an LGBTQ homeless services program with 10 beds for these kids only.

Would that have passed without the energetic support of a gay Council member? Maybe, maybe not. But the DC Center surely thought it made a positive difference.

And why else does the Victory Fund endorse openly gay and lesbian candidates?  It’s not because — as the columnist suggested — “that the gay community is fully integrated into our different communities.” It’s because that having one of our own at the table counts.

But that is just the start. I, along with hundreds of other out LGBT elected officials, cannot win without earning the trust of our communities to stand with them and fight for everyone.

8 Comments
  • I want the best qualified person to represent me,and he/she need not be gay to get my vote. Being gay is not a qualification for any public political office. I am totally against the Victory Fund. When they recommend someone who is not gay over a gay person vying for that same office who is less qualified… then I'll consider them an honest voice.

  • Jim Graham is right that he has not run in the past solely as a gay candidate. That is why I find it peculiar that he is placing such emphasis on the “seat at the table” argument (in this case meaning keeping him in the seat) now that a combination of longevity in office and ethical problems have made him vulnerable. Here he mischaracterizes Mark Lee’s argument in the referenced column, which is something he does a lot. At the Stein Club endoesement forum a few weeks ago, he falsely claimed that GLAA had given him no credit for his long record of service, when in fact we had given him every available record-related point. He also gave the impression that his entire disagreement with GLAA was over ABC reform, a ploy also used by Muriel Bowser at the subsequent Stein mayoral forum. The ploy did not work for either candidate.

    Jim does deserve props for his long service. Indeed, GLAA awarded him our hard-to-get championship point for steering to passage the LGBT youth homelessness bill, for which we also gave him a shout-out in our policy brief. But the LGBT community’s seat at the table is about much more than having one of us on the DC Council. It is about hard-earned clout won over decades of smart and sustained advocacy, productive relationships with policy makers, and involvement in our communities all across town. Anti-gay campaigning has been a loser in DC for more than three decades. In race after race here, multiple pro-LGBT candidates are battling for our support, which increasingly hinges on other issues. One such issue in the Ward One race was raised by someone who pointed out that 16 years ago, in his successful first run for the Council, Jim said that incumbent Frank Smith had been in office for 16 years, and that was an awfully long time. Jim is now in his 16th year on the Council. Let him make his best case against his challenger; surely that best case is not that he is gay.

    As a voter I care not about who you sleep with, but what you will do on my issues–and Jim disagrees with GLAA on some of our issues. That is his right, but he can hardly blame people for noticing. I note that Brianne Nadeau has a thinner record on LGBT issues, which is reflected in her rating from GLAA being lower than Jim’s. The voters in their wisdom will sort all this out.

  • It’s really strange that Mr. Graham trumpets the Victory Fund’s support for openly gay candidates in light of the organization’s refusal to support him.

  • Jerry….your comment about not liking Victory Fund until it recommends someone who is not gay, indicates a total misunderstanding of the Fund's mission….it is to endorse and support only qualified and out LBGT candidates for office. Endorsing and supporting straight candidates is left to other organizations.
    Here ends today's lesson!

  • Jerry….your comment about not liking Victory Fund until it recommends someone who is not gay, indicates a total misunderstanding of the Fund's mission….it is to endorse and support only qualified and out LBGT candidates for office. Endorsing and supporting straight candidates is left to other organizations.
    Here ends today's lesson!

  • Utterly self-serving drivel that leads to endorsing gay Republicans who will pad Boehner's majority and thereby stabbing strong straight allies in the back.

  • John Klenert There ends your smug retort, which merely illustrates how out-of-touch Victory Fund's identity fetish has become. See Mayor Christine Quinn and absurd endorsements of Republican candidates in Democratic congressional districts. VF's "mission" is cartoonishly unsophisticated.

  • John Klenert That's the difference between you and me… when it comes to politics… I want the best qualifies period. Being gay does not make anyone better in public office. However if they are qualified… it's not who they sleep with but all that they serve intheir public office… gay and straight. This world is not all gay… and in my book it's the last reason to vote for someone.

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