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