As we celebrate Black History Month, Gay Politics honors the African-American, openly LGBT elected and appointed officials who have made a difference through their service in government. These individuals have shown the true diversity and leadership potential of the LGBT community.
Today the Victory Fund is working to grow the number of LGBT people of color serving in public office. With this year’s endorsement of Lawrence Robinson for Phoenix City Council and Dwayne Crenshaw for San Diego City Council, we hope to amplify LGBT African-Americans’ voices within the political sphere.
And now a look back at just a few of the trailblazing figures who have added to the rich histories of the LGBT and African American experiences in the U.S.
Sherry Harris became the first Victory Fund-endorsed candidate to be elected to public office when she won a seat on the Seattle City Council in 1991. Harris helped to pass resolutions condemning anti-LGBT discrimination and helped get a Domestic Partnership registration law passed in Seattle. Her work on HIV/AIDS included securing more funding for prevention, directing the Health Department’s coordination of services, passing a resolution supporting the AIDS Cure Act, and leading the effort to establish an AIDS Memorial Park.
“It is always difficult to be first. Someone has to forge the way. If there is a lesson for the gay community as well as the black community, which can be gleamed from my election, it is that we begin to honor and embrace our diversity. We are not a homogeneous species—each human is complex and multi-faceted. If we don’t learn to celebrate our differences we won’t be able to make a difference. I believe that every human being has come here to contribute to making a difference in his or her own unique way,” said Harris.
Deborah A. Batts shattered the glass ceiling within the federal government’s judicial branch when President Clinton appointed her to the U.S. District Court in New York. After 18 years of service to the people of New York, she took senior status last year on her 65th birthday. Batts once commented that “being a lesbian is definitely an important part” of her life, but clarified that it is one of many important facets of her life: “I am also a very devoted mother, I’m an attorney, a former prosecutor, and I’m an African American.” In a culture that previously propagated that LGBT people were somehow deviant or untrustworthy, Batts’ appointment to the federal bench marked an important milestone in the movement for equality.
The people of Palm Springs, Calif., elected the country’s first openly gay African-American mayor in 2003. Ron Oden had previously served on the Palm Springs City Council for eight years. Throughout his tenure, Mayor Oden doubled the city’s budget and Palm Springs saw more economic growth than ever before. He was also apologetically vocal in his determination to promote diversity and consistently partnered with the Palm Springs branch of the NAACP, the Palm Springs Human Rights Task Force, and the Palm Springs Human Rights Commission.
Denise Simmons became the first out lesbian African-American mayor of Cambridge, Mass.—the first to lead any American city, for that matter. Prior to serving as mayor, she was a member of the Cambridge City Council, where she worked to help make Cambridge City Hall the first municipality to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples in 2004. Simmons earned a reputation for being able to calmly diffuse tense situations, to promote community dialogue, and to foster a sense of unity within the city regardless of who you are, what you look like, or who you love.
Georgia’s District 58 elected Simone Bell, the country’s first African-American lesbian to serve in a U.S. state legislature. In a 2009 interview with Gay Politics, Bell emphasized her commitment to serving her community as an out lawmaker: “Our district is beautifully diverse, filled with hardworking and engaged voters who love their communities and want to continue on the road of progress…I am passionate, prepared and committed to continue to work hard for all of the people when I reach the General Assembly as I have for the past twenty years. My sexuality is not a barrier to reaching my goals and I believe the people of District 58 will not allow it to be a barrier to reaching their goals.”