News » Glbt

Chat with the nation’s first lesbian, African-American mayor

by Scott Kearnan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 29, 2008

As the presidential primaries continue to unfold, nightly newscasts are quick to remind viewers that a major historical precedent may be only months away: There's never been a stronger chance that voters will elect either the first African-American president or the first female president.

But when it comes to equal opportunity politicking, Mayor E. Denise Simmons can claim one better.

When City Council elections gave Simmons the mayorship of Cambridge, Mass. on January 14, she became America's first openly gay, female African-American mayor.

"This is what's great about the City of Cambridge," says Mayor Simmons of the new chapter she has authored in the history books. She sits smiling in her City Hall office, a dignified space that emanates the same characteristic air as the New England City she calls her own: warmth and welcoming combined with aristocratic academia.

Her features are wide and open, her manners gracious and kind, and her eyes crackle with a certain sense of spirit; maybe it's the focus of a maverick woman who has blazed her own trail, or the energetic ambition of a politician who has not only goals, but the will and willingness to realize them.

"It's wonderful to be in a high-profile position, and to be in it as you are," says Simmons, emphasizing the last three words to underscore her comfort as an openly gay mayor.

Indeed, she's happily been herself throughout her rise in the political ranks; during her 10 years on the Cambridge School Committee and four terms on the City Council, Simmons has navigated the tricky gaze of the public eye while running a small, insurance business and raising four children and three grandchildren with her female partner of six years.

What's more, she's done it with strong acceptance from her colleagues and constituents. "My partner is as welcomed and as honored as the spouses of my colleagues," she says of Cambridge's progressive social atmosphere. "My children can go to school feeling that it's OK to refer to their two moms, without people folding up like a fan."

Indeed, Cambridge is a city with world-class universities and a strong GLBT presence; it marked another unique first as the first American city to issue license applications for same-sex marriage.

Cambridge is widely considered a bastion of liberal politics and Simmons' role as the first openly gay female African-American Mayor follows the groundbreaking tenure of her predecessor Kenneth Reeves, who had previously served as the first openly gay male African-American mayor.

Interestingly, it was exactly one week after Mayor Simmons' historic appointment that Senator Barack Obama--himself out to stake his first-in-the-nation claim--commented publicly on a perceived enmity between the gay and African-American communities.

On January 21, Obama commemorated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the steps of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and chose to remark on the dream of fairness and equality imparted by its most famous Pastor:

"For most of this country's history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man's inhumanity to man," insists Obama. "And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community. We have shunned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them."

From her perspective as a member of both the gay and African-American communities, Mayor Simmons' experiences challenge those words.

"I don't think there is a political rift [between the two communities]," says Simmons. "The most I ever saw of that was in the marriage-equality debate and we were on both sides of that rift: the progressive and not-so-progressive African-Americans."

Obama is not the first political leader to acknowledge a sentiment, justified or not, of perceived antagonism between the communities. But Simmons is of the opinion that ideology, not skin color, is the source of whatever conflict may exist.

"Because we're in Cambridge, being gay is not an issue. You can focus on policy issues that are meaningful to all people ... regardless of our gender and who we choose to love."

"I think it's more along the lines of fundamentalist Christian-types [opposed to] non-fundamentalist Christian types," says Simmons. "And some of the fundamental Christian types happen to be African-American."

Simmons is candid speaking on her experiences as a gay woman, as an African-American woman, and how those experiences have informed her ideals.

Yet, as with her nonchalant take on the supposedly dangerous intersection of race and sexuality, she is also quick to note that GLBT concerns are not the only issues at stake in her new role.

"Because we're in Cambridge, being gay is not an issue," says Simmons. "You can focus on policy issues that are meaningful to all people: employment, housing, safety in the streets, issues that affect us all regardless of who we are, regardless of our gender and who we choose to love."

Her "gay is not an issue" sentiment is reinforced by her public persona. Simmons' platforms on employment, housing and public safety are all discussed at length on her City Councilor Web site. Her platform on GLBT issues is absent.

Then again, actions speak louder than words. Simmons has a long history of implementing policy changes for the benefit of the GLBT community.

As City Councilor, she led the formation of Cambridge's GLBT Commission, a four-member group that focuses on advocacy issues, "crafting ordinances, and making it [GLBT issues] an established part of the municipal process," says Simmons.

Among the commission's most recent efforts have been sensitivity training for Cambridge police and oversight of the hiring process for the current Commissioner of Police.

During her 10 years on the Cambridge School Committee, Simmons also worked to establish the LGBT Family Liasion. The intermediary role helps communicate concerns and address relevant matters between schools and LGBT families.

"Being on the school committee and being openly gay, I had every gay parent on the phone," recalls Simmons of advising these parents on various issues. "I said [to myself], 'I'm glad to do this, but this is really a [separate] job!'"

And while Simmons helped enable these conversations, she's struggled to alter the semantics within. "We always said the term 'parents,'" says Simmons of the language that accompanied the years before her arrival. "I said that we needed to stop saying 'parents' and start saying 'families.'"

"'Parents' evoked [the idea of] mom and dad, like Ozzie and Harriet or the Huxtables," elaborates Simmons. "It didn't evoke the idea of my family of two moms, or a family of two dads. So I said, let's stop talking about 'parents,' which is exclusive. And start talking about families."

To that end, Simmons implemented the inclusive language of Cambridge Public Schools' Family Involvement policy, a procedural guide dedicated to keeping families deeply involved in the schooling experience of their children.

Moving forward in her role as Mayor, Simmons has several major initiatives she's eager to pursue, including the cultivation of Green Jobs: a workforce specializing in a new age of environmentally concerned and eco-friendly careers.

She's also eager to find ways to coordinate the City's child services--including those in health care and education, among others--to best provide a suite of fully encompassing programs and attentions aimed at fostering the overall development of the child.

And of course, Simmons is eager to "more hands-on work with the GLBT commission," she says. "I'm looking forward to that... we have a unique opportunity, having someone in the center chair [note: in City Council meetings, the mayor takes the center chair]. How do we use this opportunity to accelerate the GLBT community?"