Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg.
Both: And you are listening to The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.
Phil: A quick favor to ask our listeners before jumping in today’s episode, take a few seconds to leave a five-star rating on The I’m From Driftwood Podcast. More ratings and reviews help the podcast appear in recommendations, which means more people who need to hear all these queer and trans stories will be able to find them more easily. It just takes a few seconds and will make a big difference. All right. Now, on today’s episode. On today’s show, we hear two stories from queer elected officials. Up first, we have Ritchie.
Ritchie: I’m Richie Torres and I’m from Bronx, New York. I remember the first time when I went to the village and saw two men hold hands together. I was shocked because you would never in the Bronx, at least in my experience of the Bronx, see two men holding hands, showing affection in the projects, but I saw it in the village and it was unremarkable there. I would often experience LGBT romance vicariously through the media. Right? The only time I ever saw a movie in the theaters twice was Brokeback Mountain because it was such a powerful portrayal of love between two men.
I was 16 years old, either sophomore or junior in Lehman High School. It was a school that had 5,000, in a school that was designed for no more than 2000, so it was crowded. It was cramped. It was teeming. I was active in extracurricular programs. I was a member of the law team, the debate team. There was a rumor circulating that my debate coach was gay. So, I decided to look up his profile on Myspace before Facebook controlled the world and I came to discover that he was gay. He identified as gay on his profile, and I was so excited and fascinated because I had no family, no friends, no neighbors who were openly LGBT.
I remember going to him after class when I could speak to him privately. And then, I was spontaneously prompted to come out and he was shocked. He was left speechless. So, he gave me no immediate response, but then we had a longer conversation about it a few days later. He was supportive as I expect he would be and I think he was shocked to learn that I was gay. So, that was the very first moment in my life when I acknowledged my sexuality to someone else.
The second moment came when there was a forum in Lehman High School on the definition of marriage. I don’t know why there was a forum on the definition of marriage and I was assigned to argue in favor of marriage equality. For whatever reason, I had a Jim McGreevey moment. I announced in an auditorium full of high school students that I’m a gay American. So, far more people knew about my sexuality than before. So, after my Jim McGreevey moment, I was only out to a select set of people like coworkers when I was working for the city council.
I never went on dates. I had no relationships. I acknowledged that I was gay to myself and to a select set of people, but I was not living the life of a truly openly gay man. And then, came the decision to run for public office. I was one of nine candidates in a hotly contested race. I was intent on winning and you’re concerned… When you’re a candidate, you’re concerned. You’re one controversy away from derailing your candidacy. So, I was anxious about doing anything that could derail my chances of winning and an openly LGBT candidate never won public office in the Bronx before. But then, one day, I received a call from a reporter inquiring about my positions on LGBT issues on marriage equality. And then, he asked whether there were… Did I have people in my life who were LGBT who shaped my views on the LGBT community? And I said, “Well, I’m a member of the LGBT community. I’m openly gay.” That was the moment when I decided I’m an openly gay elected official. I’m going to run as an openly gay elected official, and I’m going to win, and I did.
It was a question of integrity. I’m asking residents who have been failed by their elected officials to trust me, right, and how can I be trusted if I’m telling lies about something as basic as my sexual identity. I will tell you, the process of coming out has taught me an ethic of radical authenticity. Not only am I open about my sexuality. I’m open about every aspect of my life. I speak openly about my story of growing up in public housing and struggling with poverty or grappling with depression to the point of contemplating suicide. My experience as an LGBT person has made me far more authentic as an elected official than I otherwise would be.
I’ve been able to make a powerful difference, but the most important difference that I’ve made is serving as a role model. It is sending a clear message that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. You should feel no shame and you should go through the same romantic experiences that your peers go through because you deserve nothing less. That’s what I wish I had for myself. So, I believe in the normalizing power of my own visibility, so that young people can grow up normally without shame, with pride, with visibility.
Phil: It’s interesting in this story to watch someone change in the blink of an eye. I mean, basically in the blink of an eye, his life changed, right? Whereas he was living as a gay man, but not really out. He had a moment of reckoning where this reporter asked a question and he knew that it’s like, “Okay, what am I going to do?” It’s interesting when you watch people come to this place in their lives, where they have to take road A or take road B, and depending on what they do, it really impacts their lives in such a massive way. It was interesting to watch him just decide, “Okay, this is the moment. This is the moment where I step up. This is the moment where I own this.”
I mean, I would imagine him as a representative and him as an official was always… kind of had this whole idea that he wanted to be transparent. He had to act on what that meant, right? He had to act on what that really meant to be transparent and decide, “Hey, if I am going to present myself and have these people trust me, then guess what? I have to bring all of me to this job.”
Alex: Yeah. That’s such a good point. And then, the other thing too is that it was cool to hear his evolution over time because you hear about how he’s really going through these different stages in life of never ever even seeing gay people interacting with each other publicly. To then having to make this really pivotal decision about living publicly and also not being so sure about it, to now he’s in every single article that you read about this new class of LGBTQ lawmakers. His name is there.
It’s interesting. I guess one of those things when you become a politician is that these aspects of your identity become so defining. So, I have an appreciation for why it can be such a tricky thing to balance for people. In your heart of hearts, you may want to be out, but then you’re also having to make all these decisions about what it means to live so publicly and the kind of blowback that you’ll face for that. So, I guess it’s tricky, but I definitely think that it would make you more honest. I feel like if I were a constituent, it would be important to me to have someone who would be out, especially when you are in a governing body that is dealing with issues that have to do with LGBTQ people. I feel like it’s so important to have out LGBTQ lawmakers in Congress because they’re making these really crucial decisions about passing the Equality Act or other legislation that dictates our lives.
Phil: It just reminds me of going back to the ’90s and when Ellen first came out and how clever they were with how that happened and this whole idea of like, “Oh, my God. What’s going to happen? If I do this, my life’s going to change and is it going to change for the worst? Is this going to ruin my career? Am I going to stop my career just as things are starting to bloom for me?”
Alex: There was a time when it was absolutely unfathomable that anyone could be an out LGBTQ person and run for office and still when you look at the upper echelons of office. Of course, the higher up in office you get, the more homogenous it becomes of white cis straight men occupying those spaces. But even just to think about someone like Pete Buttigieg being the transportation secretary, being an out gay man and how during the campaign in 2019, 2020, then into 2021, and now 2022, it’s still very notable that there is one out gay person in that position. Also, I don’t want to erase. There are some high-ranking trans officials as well in the Biden administration and I don’t want to erase anyone, but it still feels like we’ve come so far in that. At one time it was improbable that you could be an out LGBTQ elected official, and yet I think as you start to look at these higher and higher echelons, they’re still very few and far between.
Phil: We talk about visibility all the time in this podcast. The importance of coming out as an LGBTQ official is important, not just for the people around you in the society and other younger queer people, but also for other people who want to run for office. Right? They need to see that that’s a thing that can be done. And I think we have made some strides there, but you’re right. I mean, as the higher up you go, the fewer queer people. So, it’s like we’ve had some wins, but we were still waiting for some wins on the higher ranks.
Alex: Our next story comes from an Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston, Texas.
Annise: I knew that I was gay and began to put a name to it when I was 12. Didn’t come out till I was 15. I fell in love with a girl who was a year older than I, 16. We started a torrid relationship. I mean, it was just first love, just magnetic. We had to be around each other all the time. Unfortunately, her mother walked in on us when we were kissing and decreed that we could never see each other again and really kind of some real vicious comments.
We couldn’t handle that. We had to be together. So, we found ways to sneak around to see each other. We would double date or each get dates with guys and have them take us to the movies, and then we’d kind of run into each other. So, we could sit together. I mean, al sorts of things, anything to be together. So, for months and months, we had this kind of double life going on, but I would also spend evenings just sitting in the dark, staring up at her window hours and hours at a time, absolutely miserable. Couldn’t make me be 15 again for anything in the world.
I had spent the summer between my junior and senior year in college living with my parents. I had not done that since I left home to go to college, but I stayed with them for the summer and a younger woman from the university that I’d been involved within Iowa carried on our relationship by phone, which of course this is before cell phones. I was racking up these long-distance phone bills that I was having a very hard time explaining to my parents why they were there. And then, we went back to school in the fall and her mother went to the university and attempted to have me expelled. Actually, attempted to have both of us expelled because we were in a relationship with each other. Fortunately, for me, they explained to her that policies had changed. Times had changed that that might have been something that would’ve been done in the past, but they didn’t do that anymore.
Now, they did call us in and inquire individually as to whether we were doing okay in school. Did we have any problems? Did we need any psychological counseling? And we both said, no, absolutely terrified, but the university dropped it. A week or so later, I received a letter in the mail from my mother and she had included a letter from my girlfriend’s mother to her and it started as eight pages. It started out, “Last year at rise, your daughter and my daughter had a big love affair.” And it went on and on about it. She’d gone to the university and the university didn’t care and now my parents needed to… They probably had to pull me out of school and they needed to make me stay away from her daughter, and my mother just put it back in the envelope it came in and forwarded it to me. But I guess it made her mother feel that I had somehow corrupted her daughter and if I got out of the picture, it would be okay again but no. Her daughter’s still gay after all these years.
Nathan: It doesn’t just turn on and off.
Annise: It just doesn’t just turn on and off. No.
Alex: I definitely feel like Annise kind of had a little bit of a sense of humor about everything, but as I was listening on this, I was like, “This is actually so terrible.” I can’t even imagine. You’re in school. You’ve been hiding this thing the whole time. And there’s actually these really horrible consequences that you’re being pulled into the administration’s office at risk of getting kicked out of school and outed to your entire family because of your girlfriend’s mom, basically writing this letter.
Phil: It was pretty clear that the girlfriend’s mom thought that if Annise was removed from the equation that everything would shift. Right? This girl would then magically become straight and not have any sort of feelings toward Annise and everything would just go back to the way it was, but the truth of the matter is that car was only rolling down the street. Okay? So, we’re not going to have a reversal all of a sudden just because you removed Annise. You removed Annise, and then she just dates another woman, right? So, it’s just fascinating to hear.
I mean, we’re also talking about… I’m not really sure what year we’re talking about, but we do sound like we’re talking about a time where obviously there was a lot more taboos associated with being LGBTQIA. When I listen to this story, I think to myself, there’s so many queer people today who can’t imagine being in this situation, right, who can’t imagine being in a situation where people’s moms are writing letters to your mom and trying to blow things up for most of us these days. We can get to a place of a little bit of complacency and taking for granted what we have because there was a time when this was very much a thing for many people.
Alex: Yeah, totally normal. Also, on the flip side, it’s like the school had recently changed its policy to not kick out gay students. Well, that means that there was a policy in place that would’ve actually kicked her out had it not been changed. The amount of frustration and rage I had at this mother for writing a letter… I understand that probably, as a mom, it’s all in context of the time that it was a time when there were way more homophobic attitudes, and probably the mother’s behavior was a reflection of the time that they were in, where you would try to do something like this, I guess, in some deeply misguided effort to try to help your daughter or your child. But it’s still really infuriating just to think that you would totally derail your kid’s own academic career because of something like this. It’s really just beyond the pale to think that you would reach out to the university to do something like this.
Phil: That’s hard to believe. I think also, when you think about her mom, the girlfriend’s mom, it sounds so much like kind of what you were saying, that it was more about the reflection, right? It was more about like… This is a reflection on our family. This is taboo. You are bringing this bad name, this thing to our family. This wasn’t about her daughter. It was about how it looked to the family in many cases. It’s interesting. I think about some of the other stories we’ve covered where people are coming out as trans and parents dealing with their child who’s transitioning, and there’s something that they are trying to express. There’s something that they need to have come out of them and the focus is on the child. Right? In this situation, you see a focus on how does this look to everyone else? Right? The focus is not on Annise’s girlfriend or Annise. It’s like, everyone else thinks this is bad, right? We’re going to receive judgment from everyone else. So, there’s no focus on the individual itself and I think that’s always going to be a recipe for disaster.
Alex: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The one thing I would end on is that it’s amazing to consider the beginnings of these stories that both Representative Torres and Mayor Parker, the beginnings of their stories are really characterized by this idea of hiding who you are and not seeing people who are like you. And then, now, to be able to do an episode about LGBTQ lawmakers… It’s not even a singular one person. Every single election we have basically, there is a historic number of LGBTQ+ people who are elected at all different levels of office, and it’s really amazing to hear. It’s still so exciting to hear about some of these people. One person that I wanted to highlight is Mauree Turner, who is a non-binary identified official in the Oklahoma State Legislature, who’s also the first practicing Muslim-elected to the Oklahoma State Legislature. Breaking a lot of barriers there. I just remember hearing about representative Turner and how this was the first non-binary person.
I think that it’s always so hard when you have these firsts for people because it puts so much pressure on that one person, but I also just think it’s nice to see, not just gay people represented, not just lesbian people represented, not just cis LGBTQ people represented. I feel like we’re starting to see an even more full representation of the kinds of LGBTQ+ people who are in the government now and I think that’s really important.
Phil: I was looking up some numbers and it looked like as of 2021, there are 23 states that have at least one transgender elected official. Now, a lot of those officials are trans women. So, that’s great. We love it. We want to see that, but we want to see even more. We want to see some trans men out there too. I would love to see, like you said, a little boost from some of the other fractions we have in our community, but it’s nice to see that we have a bump somewhere.
Alex: One of the reasons why I feel like it is so critical to have LGBTQ+ people elected across all different offices is that from this year or this past year, I should say, we saw a historical number of anti-trans bills introduced at the state level. These bills are introduced by lawmakers in the various chambers in these state governments. These laws get supported by various PTA organizations. I mean, these are all forms of government and people that you’re electing as your officials and I feel like it is so critical to have LGBTQ+ people in these positions, running for office, and also to really challenge a lot of these really bigoted lawmakers as well by being like, “I’m your freaking colleague here.” So, I just think it’s so important to have people who know what it’s like making the rules and making change for the rest of us.
Phil: Yeah. Also, I would go even further about what you said at like, “I’m your freaking colleague.” So, you’re putting up a human face to this issue, so that you’re not so removed from it, right? These other elected officials have to deal with… There’s a person behind what you’re doing right now. There’s a person that… An actual human’s going to be affected by this. So, you need to know that. And it looks like me.
The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thrope. It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood: The LTGBTQAI+ Story Archive.
Phil: Its mission is to send a lifesaving message to queer and trans people everywhere. You are not alone.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. Its program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
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Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more, at imfromdriftwood.org.
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Phil: This program is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Alex: In partnership with the City Council.
Phil: Additional funding is provided by the Humanities New York SHARP Grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.