Last edited: February 14, 2005

Officials Say Being Openly Gay Isn’t 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 Providence.

Providence 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. It’s 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 don’t agree with gay rights, but you’re 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. "It’s an asset for a politician. People admire integrity and honesty. It’s inspiring. You’re [seen as] a person of courage."

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 they’ve been and what’s 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 overwhelming margins.

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 Almond’s office last night. "Society is evolving," Pisaturo says. "It’s 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 it’s education aid from the state or services for the elderly, "are my issues, too," he says. That’s not to say that being gay is irrelevant to Pisaturo’s 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 columnist’s question. As for the closeted gay legislators, Pisaturo says their secrecy is "a personal choice. . . . I really don’t believe it has anything to do with fearing not getting reelected."

Alan Spear, Minnesota’s 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 can’t 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 state’s 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. It’s not only a personal decision. It has a ripple effect."

Looking to the future, gay activists are focusing on same-sex marriage and other domestic-partnership issues.

"I support gay marriage," says Spear, who plans to retire next year, at the end of his term. "I don’t have any illusions that it’s 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 relationships.

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 one’s 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 city’s 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 Parker’s partner does get the appropriate invitations. They go to events together, and even sometimes dance.

Once, at a meeting, Parker observed that the city’s 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 aren’t 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 that’s 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 "we’re just going to be here and you have to get used to us."

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