Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Governing 101: Gay Politicians Are Going Back to School to Learn How to Be More Effective Public Officials

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Governing 101: Gay Politicians Are Going Back to School to Learn How to Be More Effective Public Officials

Article excerpt

Robert Fyrst represents the bright future of gay polities. In 1999 he became the first openly gay and only African-American member of the 37-member Dane County, Wis., board of supervisor. This year the single father testified before the state legislature against a bill that would ban same-sex marriage.

"A lot of people are invested in marriage being defined as 'one man, one woman,'" Fyrst says, describing his testimony. "But then I tried to bring the argument back to the reality that a lot of people are being denied benefits and rights that everyone else takes for granted. We have to get beyond the days when we go to public hearings and shout and raise hell. We're not going to get everything at once, even though we should."

Fyrst credits the fine-tuning of his argument to a fellowship to the executive management program al Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Thanks to the fellowships, granted by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation, three gay public servants graduated front the three-week program last year and seven graduated this June, including Fyrst. The foundation hopes to sponsor 10 fellows next year.

"One thing I learned [in the program] is that if we are going to keep moving into, the political mainstream, we have to listen very carefully to what others are telling us," Fyrst says. "This is not easy to for a political to say, but we have to consider the possibility that we are wrong once in a while. And we have to think a lot about bread-and-butter politics--education, taxes, and health care--if we are going to enlarge our base."

Gay people have a long way to go in electoral politics. Only three of Congress's 535 members are openly gay. Of the nation's 511,000 slate and other elected officials, 248 are public about their homosexuality, according to the Victory Foundation, an arm of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports gay candidates nationwide.

These numbers make gays and lesbians among the nation's most underrepresented minority groups at an inopportune time. Federal gay rights legislation remains bottled up in a Republican-controlled Congress, and gay politics have taken on an increasingly local bent. For instance, should Congress pass the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, the battle would shift to the states, where gay officials would play a critical role. (Three quarters of state legislatures must approve the amendment for it to become law.)

No one is more aware of this political reality than Fred Hochberg, who dreamed up the fellowship while an openly gay political appointee in the Clinton administration, "Like African-Americans and Latinos, we have a long way to go," says Hochberg, a businessman and philanthropist who underwrites one of the $10,000 fellowships each year. "We have an even smaller base from which to draw. …

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