Sistah Summerfest 2003
                June 6-8, 2003
An Event for Womyn of all Ages,
                               Lifestyles and Persuasions



Kecia Cunningham  FemmeNoir Events Contact Coffee Klatch Commentary Village

Brenda Crawford
Mandy Carter
Christine Tripp JD
Vallerie Wagner
Kecia Cunningham
Denise Simmons
Sabrina Sojourner
June Jordan
Linda Bellos
Barbara Smith
Alicia Banks
Angela Davis
Hon. Deborah Batts
Jacqueline Anderson
Mary Morten
Nadine Smith
Renae Ogletree
Ruth Waters
Vernita Gray





Kecia Cunningham
City Commissioner, Decatur

Banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status 'is reflective of who we are as a city,' said Kecia Cunningham, an openly gay Decatur City Commissioner

Probably the most important indicator of how far Atlanta has come, and Georgia has grown, is the recent election of seven open gays and lesbians to public office. In 1997, Cathy Woolard made history by becoming Georgia’s first out lesbian elected to office when she won a seat on the Atlanta City Council. In 1999, Kecia Cunningham became the south's first openly lesbian African-American elected to office when she won a seat on the Decatur City Commission. Kecia is only one of two African-American lesbians currently in office in the entire nation.

Kecia Cunningham is a 10-year resident of the City of Decatur. She has served as Vice Chair of the Decatur Development Authority and on the Finance Committee for the City Schools of Decatur.  She is a 1998 graduate of Leadership DeKalb and serves as the program chair on the organization's Board of Directors. She also sits on the Advisory Board for CHRIS Homes. She is employed by Wachovia Bank and was the 1999 Outstanding Young Alumna for Agnes Scott College.

Excerpt From Article in Venus Magazine

When Decatur, Georgia, Mayor Elizabeth Wilson summoned Kecia Cunningham into her office, Cunningham knew something was up, but couldn't figure out what. Then Mayor Wilson lowered the boom.

"I'm going to retire in two years and want you to run for my seat on the City Commission."

That was an incredible moment, Cunningham remembers. But there were caveats about her candidacy perhaps the mayor didn¹t understand.

"I don't know my next-door neighbors very well," Cunningham offered feebly.

"That's OK. We'll work on that," the mayor said.

"Well, I don't have a church home," Cunningham cautioned.

"That's OK. We'll work on that," the mayor repeated.

"I'm a lesbian," Cunningham finally blurted out.

"That's OK," Mayor Wilson retorted, "we¹ll work on that, too."

Cunningham became a candidate and won the commissioner's seat and is an example of a new breed of politician-- black, gay or lesbian and out--holding elective and appointed offices across the nation.

An increasing number of Black lesbians and gays who are out made it into public service during the 1990s despite a prevailing homophobia. We know all about that," says Philip Reed, the only out Black member of the New York City Council. If I let that get me down, I wouldn't get up in the morning. That's not a good enough excuse for me."

Not every gay and lesbian politician is so forthright. There can be dire consequences. Members of an unpopular minority group, lesbians and gays campaign with few legal protections against discrimination or other maltreatment. A primary concern of closeted politicians is that they will be pegged as a single-issue candidate, that is, concerned only about gay issues and, consequently, lose credibility with non-gay voters. It¹s a conundrum. What value to the LGBT community is the politician if he or she can't advocate for it?

Reed "was able on some level to raise my profile and find people who wanted to support me, financially. If I'd remained anonymous, in terms of my sexual orientation, perhaps I would not have had that experience." Being out actually "makes [running] a lot easier," Commissioner Cunningham believes. " . . . If you're in the closet, there's always the fear of what happens if they find out. Nowadays politics and campaigning are all about mudslinging. You run a far greater risk of having it go negative because people will think you are trying to hide it."

"I don't have any choice, but to be out," George Smith, the first former homeless person appointed to run the San Francisco Mayors' Office on homelessness said when we interviewed him. Smith was appointed by Mayor Brown. A former drug addict who became homeless, Smith became a fixture in the city's shelter system.

"But I didn't like the way I was being treated," he said, and vowed someday "to make the system work better." A homeless advocate, Smith landed a junior position in the Mayor's Office on Homelessness and worked his way up to Director. On the way up, he managed the shelter in which he once stayed. "I've been blessed that the Mayor gave me the oppo/rtunity," Smith opined. "What I learned when I was getting clean off drugs is that when you hide and you're ashamed of things, you give power to other people to use those things against you. I've been through hell and back. I've paid my dues. I'm not ashamed and from that I get strength." Smith's is not a singular story, but a twice-told tale to those in our community who have stepped out in electoral politics. The 1990s spawned a new group of Black LGBT politicians that is not preoccupied with serving from inside closets and see such efforts as potential hindrances.

"It's about integrity, honesty, and speaking from a place of truth and safety," asserts Andrea Shorter, appointed by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to the Community College Board. "If you can't advocate for yourself, how can you advocate for other people?" That's the point of running for any office: helping to empower your constituents.

New York City Councilman Reed says that "In direct elective office, you're not playing an advisory role; you are really in the process of making policy." New York City School Board Member Doug Robinson agrees. "There are all these major boards that white men have created over the years. There's money and decisions being made at these high levels. If we're not there, we can't complain."

The problem, of course, is getting there. Fundamentally, many of us are intimidated by politics--its customs, and its lingo. "Just jump in there and try to learn as much as you can," advises Community College Board member Shorter. "Don't be discouraged. You'll always run up against people who want to maintain the status quo, want to guard the old way of doing things, and are suspicious of queer people wanting to do things. Take positions of leadership. You're going to make mistakes and more than likely you will live through it."

Shorter ran unsuccessfully to maintain the San Francisco Community College Trustee seat she was appointed to mid-term. She is now an appointed member of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women.

Many persons get into politics from an advocacy position, or watchdogs of the system. "My partner and I have two children, 15 and 12 years old," School Board Member Robinson says. "I had always been on the other side as a parent advocate. The principal of my younger son's school asked me to run." New York City Councilman Reed recommends joining your block association, church association, or community advisory board. "[Then] go to the meeting; they'll tell you what to do next." Reed worked as a community activist for 20 years, then ran for his seat unsuccessfully in 1991. He prevailed when he ran again in 1997. 

Robinson asserts that we should ³"work in the Black lesbian and gay community, but [also] work in the general community and build alliances." Cunningham reminds us that one's "stripes" are earned in many ways. "Our communities are looking for people who are willing to serve on boards and commissions. It may not be glamorous, it may be the waste management board, but the experience you get can put you in a better position to serve on the planning commission, which would put you in a better position to run for the city commission or the city council. Be willing to give back and one of these days someone may call you to their dining room table and tell you, "I want you to run.'"

Robinson put it plainly: to fully participate in politics -- and in life, in general -- "we have to learn to be more comfortable with ourselves and we have to be out." 

The point is to get involved and see where it takes you. That's the decision BLG pioneers made in the early 1990s. They were "firsts" and stepped out on faith. In 1991, Sherry Harris made history when she won a seat on the Seattle, Washington, City Council and became the first out African-American elected to public office. A year later, Kenneth Reeves ran for the mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He made history when he won becoming the first out African American to head a major US city. Today, he is a member of the Cambridge City Council. Sabrina Sojourner joined the list of firsts when she ran for US Representative (shadow senator) for the nation's capital and won. She was the first out Black lesbian or gay person elected to public office in Washington, D.C.

The phrase is old, oft-repeated, and has been a rallying cry for every group seeking political, social, and economic respect, and our community is no different: the youth are our future. Shorter recalls that many San Franciscan Black LGBTs were "energized" and inspired to find ways to contribute when she was initially appointed, but in order to continue to do so "African-American LGBT and questioning, especially youth, must see their own running and appointed to positions of authority and power." "It's very distressing to me that kids don't have role models," laments Robinson. It's important for people of color to step up to the plate and say I'm a lesbian or gay man, a role model, and can contribute to the community. Once you're out, it relieves all that burden and baggage that being in the closet does [bring]."



Back Home Next