Officials Say Being Openly Gay Isnt a Detriment
Even in just the past decade, society has become more accepting of homosexuals,
say members of the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials, meeting in
Journal, November 21, 1999
By Felice J. Freyer, Journal Staff Writer
For all he knows, state Rep. Michael S. Pisaturo is the only gay person in his
blue-collar Cranston district. Its unlikely, of course, but his constituency
includes no identifiable enclave of homosexuals, just lots of suburban working people and
elderly folks living in four high-rises.
And yet, when Pisaturo decided to run for office in 1994, he publicly acknowledged his
sexual orientation from the start. And he found that, even in Cranston, being openly gay
worked in his favor. "People would say, I dont agree with gay rights, but
youre honest and I like that, "he recalled yesterday in a conversation at
the Westin Hotel, where he is co-chairman of the annual conference of the International
Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials. "Its an asset for a politician. People
admire integrity and honesty. Its inspiring. Youre [seen as] a person of
Some 75 openly gay government officials from around the country came to Providence this
weekend for the 15th annual conference, taking the occasion to hobnob, share ideas, assess
where theyve been and whats ahead, and to examine the mixed successes of gay
political power. No question, that power is greater than ever before, and society is more
accepting of homosexuality than it was even a decade ago. As recently as 1987, activists
had counted only 20 openly gay elected officials in the country. Today the count is closer
to 200, and many of these officials like U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who acknowledged
his homosexuality in 1987 are returned to office time and time again by
But Frank is one of only three openly gay members of the U.S. House, and there are none
in the Senate. Only 11 states have laws guaranteeing civil rights to gays, and all but 18
have outlawed same-sex marriage.
Rhode Island, where Pisaturo says a "live and let live" attitude often allows
for liberal public policy, has two openly gay legislators. Far from being shunned, the
conference attendees this weekend were proudly feted at Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.s
house Friday night and in Governor Almonds office last night. "Society is
evolving," Pisaturo says. "Its becoming anachronistic to be not accepting
of gays and lesbians."
Yet even in this atmosphere, Pisaturo says he knows of at least six Rhode Island
legislators who are secretly gay. When he urges them to come out of the closet, he points
to his own political experience. Pisaturo lost the 1994 election by 370 votes, but went on
to win two years later the top vote-getter at every polling booth. The things
people in Cranston care about, whether its education aid from the state or services
for the elderly, "are my issues, too," he says. Thats not to say that
being gay is irrelevant to Pisaturos political life. Far from it. He was inspired to
run for office by his concern about cutbacks in funding for AIDS prevention and treatment.
He has sponsored several bills dealing specifically with gay issues, such as same-sex
marriage. And he gets money and assistance from people and organizations outside his
district who want to keep openly gay people in office.
Pisaturo says he was the first nonincumbent to win election as an openly gay candidate
in Rhode Island. (Former Sen. William P. Fitzpatrick did not acknowledge his homosexuality
until after he won election to his first term.) And there is only one other openly gay
member of the General Assembly, Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-Providence, who only recently
came out in response to a columnists question. As for the closeted gay legislators,
Pisaturo says their secrecy is "a personal choice. . . . I really dont believe
it has anything to do with fearing not getting reelected."
Alan Spear, Minnesotas Senate president, has seen all that has changed and all
that has stayed the same in the gay-rights struggle in his nearly three decades in office.
Elected to the Minnesota legislature in 1972, he acknowledged in 1974 that he was gay. His
constituents, in a liberal section of St. Paul encompassing a campus of the University of
Minnesota, were neither terribly surprised nor terribly upset at the disclosure. At that
time, however, an openly gay elected official was a great rarity.
When Spear was first elected, the gay community had two main
issues on its agenda to give gays the same civil-rights protections afforded to
women and blacks, and to repeal the state laws prohibiting sodomy, which are usually
applied only to homosexuals. It took 21 years to achieve the first goal, and the second
one is still in the works, he says. The sodomy issue is a tough one, Spear says:
"Unlike some issues, it directly involves sex. You cant talk about it without
talking about how people have sex. That makes politicians nervous." (Rhode Island
passed its gay-rights law two years after Minnesota, in 1995, and in 1997 [sic, 1998]
repealed the states law prohibiting oral and anal sex.)
A powerful force advancing the gay-rights movement has been the growing willingness of
ordinary people to be open with family, friends, and coworkers about their sexual
orientation. "What changes attitudes most," Spear says, "is when an
individual knows a gay or lesbian personally. The most political thing that a gay or
lesbian person can do is to come out. Its not only a personal decision. It has a
Looking to the future, gay activists are focusing on same-sex marriage and other
"I support gay marriage," says Spear, who plans to retire next year, at the
end of his term. "I dont have any illusions that its going to happen
quickly." Meanwhile, however, Americans may be ready to "at least recognize that
we have made commitments to a partner" and agree to laws honoring those
In Rhode Island, for example, Pisaturo has pushed for what he calls "mini-marriage
bills" that give the partners of gay people some of the rights that spouses have.
Rhode Island is one of only three states that requires hospitals to give domestic partners
the same visiting rights as relatives. And Rhode Island is the only state in which a
partner can be placed in charge of ones funeral planning, overriding next of kin.
A priority for Pisaturo in the future will be pushing to make the domestic partners of
state employees eligible for benefits. Annisa Parker got a taste of some of the
ambiguities involving domestic partners when she was elected to the Houston City Council
in 1997. She informed the citys protocol office that she had a partner and expected
her to be invited to all the events to which spouses are invited, and introduced just as
spouses are. The office responded by stopping the practice of introducing spouses
but Parkers partner does get the appropriate invitations. They go to events
together, and even sometimes dance.
Once, at a meeting, Parker observed that the citys ethics ordinance, which
prohibits awarding city contracts to spouses of officials, does not prevent her partner
from getting such a contract. When someone proposed amending the ordinance to encompass
gay partners, Parker shot back, "Not until you give me benefits."
Parker was already well-known as a gay activist when she decided to run for City
Council. Being openly lesbian drew extra media attention, which probably helped her win.
But she was running as a good-government candidate concerned with neighborhood issues, and
being gay was actually irrelevant.
"There arent many city issues that are gay issues," she says. City
government is concerned with potholes and sewers and such, not social and sexual matters.
During the campaign, Parker says, "I spent a lot of time going everywhere so
people could see what a lesbian candidate looked like." She wore a business suit. She
looked like any other candidate. And thats a good part of what the gay-rights
movement is all about these days. Parker says it has evolved from the "in-your-face
activism" of the 70s and 80s to the 90s attitude that
"were just going to be here and you have to get used to us."
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