Diversifying Politics

When Joe Angelo ran for city commissioner of tiny Wilton Manors in South Florida four years ago, he pledged to control development, build a new city hall and clean up neighborhoods to fight crime.

But when he won, the headline in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel spotlighted his history-making traits: "Florida's First Gay Black Public Official."

"It was scary to see that big headline," recalls Angelo, 42, who's ended up liking politics so much he's considering running for mayor. "But the day after the headline was the best day, because I realized I was liberated."

Although it might seem easy to "liberate" yourself from the political closet in Wilton Manors -- which was the second U.S. city to elect a gay-majority legislative body -- Angelo still had to jump past his gut-level fear that voters would reject him because he's gay. Layering race on top of sexual orientation only makes such a jump scarier.

"Gay black people are reticent to jump in because they think it is shallow water," Angelo says. "Once they see more people like themselves are in the political water and doing fine, then it'll be easier for them to jump in."

While the nation now has about 400 openly gay elected officials serving everywhere from school boards to Congress, the vast majority are white. But from April 24 to 27, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which helps elect gay candidates, will holds its first-ever political training program for gays of color. The Baltimore program coincides with the gay National Black Justice Coalition's annual conference.

If you are a gay person of color who's yearned to serve your community in politics but can't imagine how to get started, this training program is designed just for you.

And elected officials who are both black and gay will answer your questions before they launch into the nitty-gritty of how to raise money, develop a winning campaign message and blunt anti-gay attacks. (Fill out an application at: glli.org)

The Victory Fund is taking another important step: It has just announced the Bayard Rustin Award, an annual $1,000 prize to be administered by the National Conference of Black Political Scientists to recognize the best scholarly paper on black gays' participation in electoral politics.

There's much to be learned about experiences of out black political trailblazers. Dana Rone, for example, became the first black lesbian elected in New Jersey when she won the first of two terms on Newark's school board. Now, the 41-year-old advocate for the poor is serving a four-year term on the city council.

"It's essential to be honest and bring that to elective office," Rone says. "Then people feel they can trust you."

Kecia Cunningham, 42, is serving her third term on the Decatur, Ga., City Council. The African-American lesbian first won in 1999 and has since run unopposed.

"You need to be very comfortable with yourself," she says of jumping into politics and being honest about being gay. "We kept the focus on the fact that I was competent and committed to the work of the city. Potholes don't ask who you fall in love with."

America's problems are more likely to be fixed if her leadership is diverse. If you're black and gay, maybe jumping into public service is right for you.



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