THE NEW FACE OF LEADERSHIP: BLACK, GAY AND PROUD
by Herndon L. Davis
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16, 2006 -- On this Martin Luther King Day, as we approach the upcoming 2006 congressional elections, there is growing concern in the African-American community about its ability - or perhaps its inability - to hold on to once unshakable political power.
No longer the country's largest ethnic minority and still reeling from forced comparisons of its civil rights legacy to the current-day struggles of gays and lesbians, the African-American community is hard-pressed to find a new collection of superstar leaders who can pick up where retiring black politicians have left off.
Concern about a waning black political power may be a bit premature. On the horizon is an array of black political warriors who've emerged upon the campaign trail to receive the passing torch of black leadership.
In addition to being savvy politicians who are proud of their ethnic heritage, these men and women are also proud of being something else: being gay. They're black, gay and proud, and honestly don't care who knows it.
In fact, black and openly gay candidates are running for public office at unprecedented levels in America, while a growing elite are actually winning political office, erasing any doubts about their electability.
A generation ago, suspected black gay politicians would be outed after their death, as was the case for U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, outed by Advocate Magazine in March 1996. But today many black gay and lesbian politicians are eagerly and publicly embracing their sexual orientation - and their ethnicity - as part of a vibrantly diverse political fabric that is inclusive of everyone.
In 1992, Kenneth Reeves became the first black openly gay mayor of Cambridge, Mass. In 2003, Ron Oden became the first black openly gay mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., a city where only two percent of the population is black. Meanwhile, in the Dep South, it was 1999 when Kecia Cunningham became the first and only black and openly gay elected official in Georgia, becoming a city commissioner of the Atlanta suburb of Decatur. A year earlier, in 1998, political veteran Phil Reed was elected to the first of threee terms on the New York City Council, representing Harlem.
On the national political scene, during the Clinton Administration lawyer and activist Keith Boykin served as a Special Assistant to the President and Director of Specialty Media. Boykin was lauded as the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House.
And for every black and openly gay candidate who actually wins political office or appointment, there are dozens of others who unsuccessfully run, people who are not deterred by the staggering odds against them.
Community leaders such as Keisha Waites of Atlanta, Jass Stewart of Brockton, Mass., Vivian Paige of Norfolk, Va., and Carl Highshaw of Carson, Calif., continue to press their aspirations to eventually tear open the envelope of opportunity for black gays and lesbian candidates across America.
To assist them in their efforts, three national organizations that are fueling a rise in political visibility of the black gay community. The two-year-old National Black Justice Coalition is America's only black and gay civil rights organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of black gay and lesbians.
The newly formed Black Caucus of The Stonewall Democrats, is a politically focused entity dedicated to increasing visibility and political involvement of black gay and lesbians within the Democratic Party. Finally, The Victory Fund is a 14-year-old political organization dedicated to nurturing hundreds of gay and lesbian candidates across all ethnic groups and political affiliations to help them win public office.
Although black and openly gay politicians have earned a great deal of achievement in a relatively short time, it hasn't been without great difficulty. Mayor Ron Oden of Palm Springs admits that his biggest challenge has been reminding "people in the dominant culture that I am black before I am gay," adding that the average person relates to him first as black, not as gay.
Oden also stresses that there are still "societally-placed barriers" for him, and that he finds it disheartening that other gays are not as sensitive to "the challenges of people of color and of African-Americans."
City Commissioner Kecia Cunningham adds that some of her initial challenges in running for office came from having to deal with "elderly African-Americans who were not very happy," says Cunningham, who is open about her sexual orientation. She also says that keeping a balance is another challenge, as "there are a lot of demands placed upon your time and thoughts, what people think and expect of you." She also has a family and work obligations included her delicate balance.
Dave DeCiccoi of The Victory Fund chimes in adding that "people of color who are openly gay and running for office face the same primary challenges as others - developing an effective fundraising plan and reaching the right voters with a compelling message. But when candidates have strong qualifications and talk about the issues that voters care about, sexual orientation is often not a barrier to winning office."
Oden confirmed that by becoming mayor of a city where only two percent of the population is black (a far larger nuimber is gay, however). He credits his success to three things: "Knowing who you are; knowing you are who you're supposed to be; and knowing that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing," he says. "When you're connected and centered as a person, you can't help but be connected and centered with the universe or God," he adds.
Cunningham credits her early success to being mentored by her political predecessor. She adds that "the prior incumbent, who was the first African-American on the City Commission. took it upon herself to help navigate me through the waters."
Now in her second term, she credits her success to "staying in the community, which means a whole lot of listening," and being deliberate in her decision-making. She adds that she's worked very hard to become "more than just a label or a name" by making a concentrated effort to be both alert and knowledgeable about the desert community's issues.
If the past 10 years of political progress is any indication what the next 10 years will hold for the black-and-gay community, the face and the voice of black leadership will soon take diversity to a whole new level, one virtually unheard of a decade ago. Herndon L. Davis is an author, lecturer, and television host. He can be reached directly at http://herndondavis.com.