The Beltway Four: Suburban Washington’s Openly Gay Mayors
By Tony Varona
It was only in April of 1974 that Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly gay official to win a race for public elective office in the United States. She won a seat on the Ann Arbor, MI city council. In the ensuing 35 years, many LGBT Americans followed in Kozachenko’s footsteps by winning races for county and city council offices throughout the nation. Very few, however, have succeeded at winning the highest ranking and most visible and influential office in local government – that of mayor.
It was with good reason, then, that we celebrated Kenneth Reeves’s election as the first openly gay (and African-American) mayor of Cambridge, MA in 1992; Neil Giuliano’s election as mayor of Tempe, AZ in 1994; David Cicilline’s (now Congressman Cicilline’s) election as the first openly gay mayor of an American state capital – Providence, RI – in 2002; Sam Adams’s election as mayor of Portland, OR in 2008; Denise Simmons’s 2008 election as the first African-American lesbian mayor of Cambridge, MA; and Stu Rasmussen’s election in 2008 as the first openly transgender mayor of any American municipality (Silverton, OR). The last two Election Days brought big news with Annise Parker’s 2009 election to the mayoralty of Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation, and Lexington, KY’s 2010 election of Jim Gray as mayor.
What has not drawn the community and media attention it deserves is the fact that the mayors of four of the most important of Washington, DC’s suburbs – all in Maryland either bordering or a few miles north of the DC border – also are openly gay. Mayor Bruce Williams of Takoma Park, Mayor David Lublin of Chevy Chase, Mayor Peter Fosselman of Kensington, and Mayor Jeffrey Slavin of Somerset, serve as the chief executives of towns that are home to some of the most influential members of the Washington elite, including the Chief Justice of the United States, senior members of the President’s Administration, diplomats, top association executives and lobbyists, key Congressional staffers, and high-profile print and electronic news media personalities.
In preparing this post, I reached out to and asked each of these four mayors how they think their being openly gay affects their constituents’ perspectives, how it has informed their work, and what they think the future holds for LGBT Americans interested in elective office.
More below the fold.
Mayor of Takoma Park since 2007, Bruce Williams was the first openly gay local elected official in Maryland and metropolitan Washington when he was elected to the Takoma Park City Council in 1993. In response to my questions, he said in part:
For those who might not have been as far along as their neighbors, my partner and I have provided an example of how we are really very much like them. We have the same concerns about making sure that our family (including our two children and two grandchildren), along with our community, get the opportunity to live our lives in a supportive and caring environment. […] Being gay has made it possible for me to have a deeper and more personal understanding of the plight of other minorities, and this has made me more open and sympathetic to the concerns of people in a much broader way. I think that LGBT Americans interested in elective office can see that just about anything is possible. If we bring our concerns to the table, understand the concerns of others, and work to build partnerships with others across a broad spectrum of issues, we can gain and hold elective office.
Chevy Chase’s David Lublin has served as mayor since May 2010. (David is a government professor and a colleague of mine at American University, and – I am proud to say – is my own mayor.) He was first elected to the Chevy Chase Town Council in 2008. He said:
[My being openly gay] doesn’t come up a lot in discussions of snow removal, sector plans, and power outages. When the power goes out, no one really cares if the person in charge is gay or straight – they just want it turned on again! On the other hand, I think it provides one more example of the normalcy of LGBT people and our lives. Thinking about where we were 20 years ago, it’s amazing that there are so many open and out officials in Montgomery County and Maryland. When the extraordinary becomes ordinary, that’s progress. I think it does sensitize people to the need to include all classes of people when issues such as benefits and equal treatment come up.
[Being gay] has accentuated my belief that government needs to go the extra mile to include people on the outside and I hope more awareness of people whose voices are not always heard. Being LGBT is pretty much a non-issue for most voters in Montgomery County today. This reflects that our county is at the forefront of a trend which is becoming more and more common around America. LGBT candidates will increasingly feel free to run for office and then win or lose based on voter assessments of their abilities and issue positions – the next step in moving towards a society that judges people by the “content of their character” in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mayor Pete Fosselman of Kensington echoed some of Mayor Lublin’s remarks:
My being gay – at least in Kensington – has no effect with my constituents; as the Town is clearly a socially liberal community (and we are 38% Republican) and residents don’t think twice about it. They have elected me three times [first in 2006] to run the Town and revitalize it. Gay or straight has no bearing. Part of this may be that we are small in comparison to, say, Takoma Park or even much larger – Baltimore, where social issues may have more relevance. With reference to the future for LGBT leaders? I think more people are adopting Kensington-like attitudes about being gay or straight. They don’t care. If you can get the job done, then you are a good leader. However, organizations like Equality Maryland, the Victory Fund and the HRC and fearless individuals have opened a tremendous number of doors that were locked for years to all of us in the LGBT community. I sometimes feel that I’m coasting on their work, considering what politicians before my time had to navigate just to serve the public, and be recognized as equals.
Mayor Jeffrey Slavin of Somerset, first elected mayor in 2008, shared these interesting and thought-provoking answers:
I live in a Town where I would call the overwhelming majority of residents “progressive.” I think they actually like having someone from our LGBT community as mayor because it makes a statement to the world on their behalves. I think that most of my constituents are generally supportive of ENDA, marriage equality and gays in the military, for example. Being gay has helped me to be more sensitive to and give respect to all voices and opinions and to protect those in the minority on issues even when I disagree. As the next generations advance in age and in their careers, more LGBT Americans than ever will hold elective office because young people today are indifferent to or understand the irrelevance of sexuality for office holders as far as ability to do the job. And I actually predict that one day we will be overrepresented in elective office in the same way that we are overrepresented in hairdressing, floristry and in Hollywood.
As several of them noted, Mayors Williams, Lublin, Fosselman and Slavin were elected to office in municipalities known for being home to large numbers of progressive residents. But this reality should neither diminish the significance of their respective elections, nor minimize the effect their visible leadership has on public perceptions concerning LGBT rights causes. All four mayors, no doubt, serve some very powerful constituents whose influence is felt far beyond the borders of these small towns, but whose views on LGBT equality are unsupportive or, at best, evolving. Seeing these mayors lead local government – skillfully administering town finances, personnel and public institutions – helps change many hearts and minds towards acceptance, understanding and, ultimately, support. For some of these residents, in fact, the mayor and his partner may be the only openly gay people with whom they relate on a regular basis.
The mere presence of an openly gay chief executive in government can catalyze efforts towards marriage equality and statutory nondiscrimination protections. As an especially striking example of this dynamic, Iceland’s 2009 election of the first openly gay head of state in the world, Johanna Sigurdardottir, preceded the unanimous adoption in June 2010 of a national law granting full marriage equality to same-sex couples. With passage of Maryland’s marriage equality bill within striking distance in the state legislature, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) again under consideration approximately 6 miles to the south on Capitol Hill, the high-profile and effective leadership of the openly gay mayors of Washington’s Maryland suburbs has never been so important.
Tony Varona is a law professor and academic dean at the American University Washington College of Law. He is on the board of directors of GLAAD and is the former general counsel/legal director for HRC & HRC Foundation.