Being Black and Gay in the Political Public Eye NPR's Tony Cox continues the discussion about black gay politicians with gay rights activist Jasmyne Cannick and openly gay conservative and Washington insider Robert Traynham.
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Being Black and Gay in the Political Public Eye

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Being Black and Gay in the Political Public Eye

Being Black and Gay in the Political Public Eye

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TONY COX, host:

Again, that was Connecticut State Legislator Jason Bartlett, and as we said last week, publicly announcing that he is gay. Turning now, though, to Jasmyne Cannick. She is a co-founder and former board member of the Black Justice Coalition, a gay rights organization based in Washington, D.C. And Robert Traynham is an openly gay African—American Republican, and he was a spokesperson for former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, a gay rights opponent. Welcome to the both of you.

Ms. JASMYNE CANNICK (Co-founder, Black Justice Coalition): Hi.

Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (Gay African—American Republican): Hi, Tony.

COX: So let me start with you Jasmyne. What do you make of Bartlett's decision to go public?

Ms. CANNICK: Oh, I think it's a good thing. I think anytime you have an elected official who feel comfortable enough within his own sexual orientation to sort of come out and he is willing to do so and he wasn't forced to do so, I think that's a good thing. I think it opens up the doors for other people in his position to do the same in the future.

COX: Robert, you worked for a U.S. senator in D.C. who was against gay rights, and gay rights groups criticized you for working for him. How hard it is to be gay and work in the halls of Congress or any other legislative body for that matter, especially with those who may be opposed to your lifestyle?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, first, let me say Tony, congratulations to Representative Bartlett for coming out regardless of whether or not he's a public official or not. Anyone who feels trapped, who is in the closet or whatever the terminology may be, for anyone to come out is a huge step forward, regardless of their position. To answer your question specifically, Tony, well you know, it's always difficult to try to - at least in my opinion - to try to differentiate between your private life and your public life.

You know, in my public life I try to be a professional. I try to be a good staffer. I try to do the best job that I possibly could. And in my personal life I try to keep that separate, because it was separate. I was not an elected official. I was not someone who - at least at the time, I didn't think anyone cared about who I was. And so I honestly felt that continuing to be private about my private life which was the appropriate and professional thing to do.

It's unfortunate that there are some people out there that continue to try to meld the two - or to try to force you to become something that you're not. So it wasn't very difficult for me to be who I was on Capitol Hill. Being an African—American, being an openly gay Republican, I certainly wasn't hiding the fact that I was gay. But I certainly didn't broadcast it as well. And there's a distinct difference there.

COX: Let me end the conversation with this. And let me first say this before I ask this question of you, Jasmyne. This is a delicate topic, and at NPR, we are sensitive to it, especially when it comes to matters of privacy. Now our policy is not to say things or to make allegations that are not first vetted by us. So in that context, let's talk about the climate that allows some gay people to feel comfortable about coming out and others not. Your organization, the Black Justice Coalition, keeps track of this very kind of thing, and according to your group, there are six openly gay black elected officials. So what makes Bartlett's situation unique, and why are there not more?

Ms. CANNICK: Well first of all, let me just correct you for one moment. My former organization. I'm no longer on the board. I left the board when I went to Congress. But you know, I think - well first of all let me backup, also. We have more than six, actually, by the list that I'm looking at right now. And, you know, we've had over the years about 14 or 15 African—Americans who have served or ran for office and been openly gay, including Eden E. Simmons right now, who's the mayor of Cambridge, who's an African—American lesbian.

COX: Now this is a person who has already become openly announced?

Ms. CANNICK: Right.

COX: Okay, go ahead.

Ms. CANNICK: All right, so and I think the important thing with Representative Bartlett is that you know, in terms of ranking, obviously, being in the state legislature, he's probably the highest ranking as of right now. We've had most of the people who have you know, successfully ran for office, have ran at sort of the local level. So we are talking city counsel, mayoralship positions. So I think that, again, you know, going back to what I said at the top, was that, you know, having Representative Bartlett come out, again, it opens the door for other folks.

I think if you've look at the last week and in the past couple of years, there have been more and more African—Americans running for elected office. But at the same time, you've had more and more African—Americans who have been lesbian or gay who have either unsuccessfully or successfully ran for political office…

COX: Now let me stop you to ask, and we're really running low on time, are African—Americans who are openly gay and running for office, are they being elected in predominantly black districts?

Ms. CANNICK: There are hardly - I look at California. We hardly have any black districts. I think what it comes down to is, we are electing people who we feel can get the job done, regardless of their sexual orientation. And I think Representative Bartlett is a perfect example of that. I don't think his sexual orientation comes into play with his constituents.

COX: I have less than 30 seconds for you, Robert. You agree with that assessment?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I do. Look, being gay is only part of you. It should be more about who you are as a person. It should be more about what you bring to the table. And that's clearly what his constituents, in Representative Bartlett's case, see.

COX: We'll stop right there. Thank you so much. Robert Traynham, a spokesperson for former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, Jasmyne Cannick, a co-founder of the gay advocacy group the Black Justice Coalition, joining us here at NPR West. Thank you both.

Ms. CANNICK: Thank you.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Thank you.

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