Why is it still so hard to come out of the closet in New York politics?

William Alatriste / New York City Council

New York City Councilman Jimmy Vacca revealed that he is a gay man with a 140-character announcement on Twitter in January 2016, throwing in a reference to “The Golden Girls” sitcom for laughs. Responses online from fellow elected officials, family and friends were overwhelmingly supportive – as one might expect in New York City.

Vacca said recently there wasn’t too much rationale to the timing of his announcement. He considered doing it after his current term ends, but finally opted to take the plunge so he could “get on” with his life. He told close family and colleagues in the days leading up to his public announcement, and he said he used Twitter to reach a large audience of his friends and supporters.

Despite being concerned about how it would be received, he didn’t get any negative feedback – and now, as an openly gay man, Vacca said his confidence has increased and he can be even more supportive of the community.

“Before I was an LGBT out person, I didn’t go to so many pride month celebrations – and I love Pride month!” Vacca said.

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Of course, there may be other reasons why the councilman decided to come out when he did. Vacca represents portions of the Bronx, which is not perceived to be as gay friendly as Manhattan, Queens or Brooklyn. It is currently the only borough in New York City without an LGBT pride center – although a colleague, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, is working on that.

New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who is also gay, said he applauds Vacca for his “courage,” especially considering the neighborhoods Vacca represents.

“Jimmy’s community is not Jackson Heights and it’s harder, to a certain extent, for him to have done what he did, than what I did, even though I did it 25 years ago,” said Dromm, who organized the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade and Festival in Jackson Heights 25 years ago.

Many LGBT elected officials in New York said they feel respected and supported by their colleagues and within their districts. However, the fact that Vacca chose to keep his sexual orientation private until late in his career when he couldn’t run again due to term limits is a testament to the fact that there’s still some trepidation surrounding serving the public as an openly LGBT individual.

Despite New York being one of the most progressive states in the nation, the struggle for LGBT rights and acceptance is ongoing. LGBT elected officials still find the gay community’s priorities being blocked or neglected during the policymaking process. Public officials’ fear of being targeted and ostracized is real.

As a result, some elected officials have waited years to reveal their sexual orientation. And according to one well-placed source, even today, other elected officials remain firmly in the closet.

New York City Council LGBT caucus

Members of the New York City Council’s LGBT Caucus, including Carlos Menchaca, Corey Johnson, Daniel Dromm and Ritchie Torres, meet in 2014.. (William Alatriste / New York City Council)

The road to acceptance for LGBT individuals in politics has not been easy. Revealing one’s sexual orientation – or coming out – is a delicate process that should progress on one’s own terms. However, there is a long history of outing people who are closeted and have chosen not to reveal their sexual orientation. The tactic has been used at times to destroy an elected official’s political career. But it has also been used to expose the hypocrisy of closeted gay officials who voted against legislation that would’ve helped the LGBT community. And for some, simply being an openly gay elected official has spurred violent threats – or worse.

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In 1978, the gay rights movement was galvanized by the assassination of Harvey Milk, who was killed nearly one year after he became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. In the 1980s, many believed New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s sluggish reaction to the AIDS crisis was an attempt to avoid speculation about his own sexual orientation, as many in the gay community died. In 2004, a scandal involving an intimate relationship with a male staffer forced New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey to reveal his orientation, making him the nation’s first openly gay governor. He resigned immediately.

Of course, in recent years there has been a steadily growing acceptance of the LGBT community and greater freedom to be open about sexual orientation. But since those gains came only after years of struggle, those who remained closeted during any part of the movement are sometimes frowned upon by others who spent time on the front lines.

“I don’t applaud Jimmy Vacca for coming out at the age of 60,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which is named after his partner who died of AIDS. “He’s not running for office again, and there's no sacrifice.”

“Jimmy Vacca’s community is not Jackson Heights, and it’s harder, to a certain extent, for him to have done what he did, than what I did, even though I did it 25 years ago.” – New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm

Owles described himself as the first openly gay candidate for political office in New York City when he ran to represent Greenwich Village in the City Council in 1973. Roskoff calls himself the first openly gay person appointed to a New York community board and the first to serve in the office of an elected official.

Roskoff and other activists faced plenty of challenges at the time. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association’s board decided to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The New York Taxi and Limousine Commission required gay cab drivers to produce a letter from a psychiatrist to verify they were capable of driving. Openly gay or outed teachers in the city risked losing their jobs. More than half a million people, many of them homosexual, have died of HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

Dromm, who was a public school teacher in the 1990s, came out to voice his support of the “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum guide, which aimed to foster racial harmony and referenced LGBT families. During the media spectacle that ensued, Dromm recalled NY1 reporter Gary Anthony Ramsay asking him, “Mr. Dromm, Mr. Dromm, Why did you do it?”

Dromm remembered thinking at the time: “Gee, almost like a murderer, you know?”

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New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said he weighed the effect his openness about his sexual orientation might have on his electability when he ran for office in Queens in 2009:

“We did have conversations, and wondered would it cost us … would it provoke any strong negative reactions? … But it didn’t change our decision,” Van Bramer said. He has served consecutive terms since 2009 and became majority leader in 2014.

Roskoff said it’s much easier to come out today. “Nobody's making a sacrifice by coming out and deciding this year that it's OK to be honest about who they are,” he said of those who have remained closeted until recently. “People who don't come out because they think it’ll hurt their career probably are mistaken, and are also rather selfish.”

State Sen. Brad Hoylman said he supported Vacca’s decision to come out later in his career, but criticized other LGBT lawmakers who may be keeping it private. “I think a closeted colleague is useless,” he said, “and they’re actually harmful because in many instances they vote against their own best interests in order to cover for their true identity.”

Council Woman Rosie Mendez

Councilwoman Rosie Mendez in her City Hall office. (William Alatriste / New York City Council)

There have been significant gains by LGBT lawmakers in New York. The New York City Council landmarked the Stonewall Inn and other local historic sites that were important to the beginning of the gay rights movement, and the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2011. But there are also signs the nation’s electorate has recently been less friendly toward openly gay candidates or policies that support the LGBT community. That, in turn, may be giving some closeted politicians pause.

In 2012, with President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, 123 LGBT candidates endorsed by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund won their races, including a record seven members of Congress. In 2013, Christine Quinn, the City Council’s first female, openly gay speaker, was the early frontrunner in the mayoral race, although she ultimately came up short. In 2014, New York City had its “gayest City Council ever,” with six individuals out of 51. In 2015, for only the second time in history, every state had at least one openly LGBT elected official serving.

But last year, in an incendiary presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump was supported by many evangelical Christians who perceived him to be supportive of their anti-gay stance. The number of LGBT state legislators elected fell for the second straight year. Of the 135 LGBT candidates endorsed by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, 87 won their elections – results its  Political Director Sean Meloy described as “mixed.” And in New York City, when openly gay City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who chairs the LGBT Caucus, leaves office in 2017 due to term limits, there will be no “out” lesbians in the council for the first time since 1998.

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“There are a bunch of other great folks running for City Council who are honestly running against some really anti-LGBT folks in their primaries or even in their general elections in a city that people think is a liberal bastion,” Meloy said.

In the state Senate, Hoylman is the only openly gay member in a chamber effectively controlled by Republicans. The Democratic lawmaker said he feels no personal animus from colleagues because of his sexual orientation, but is frustrated over having to constantly fight against the marginalization of LGBT individuals during the policymaking process.

“I think a closeted colleague is useless.” – state Sen. Brad Hoylman

Hoylman attributed the Senate Republicans’ refusal to address LGBT legislative priorities to the influence of the state Conservative Party. The third party has sought to block the inclusion of the term “transgender” in the state’s human rights law. Additionally, bills like the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which would codify protections for transgender individuals, and a proposed ban on gay conversion therapy, have stalled.

It’s a pattern of behavior that Hoylman could easily take personally – and which could make other elected officials reluctant to come out.

“The Republicans in the Senate have obviously determined that they don’t need our votes,” Hoylman said. “And we’re going to have to show them otherwise.”

Jimmy Van Bramer

New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer says he weighed the effect his openness about his sexual orientation might have on his electability in 2009. He’s now majority leader. (William Alatriste / New York City Council)

Hoylman is just one openly gay voice in the state Senate, but statistics show that every voice matters.

The mere presence of LGBT members in a legislative body correlates with significant improvements in overall gay rights, according to research published in a 2013 article in the American Political Science Review. The analysis of legislatures in the United States and 95 other countries between 1976 and 2011 found that a nation that has elected openly LGBT legislative members is 14 times more likely to have same-sex marriage or civil partnership laws than one that does not.

All the more reason why Dromm wishes any closeted colleagues would come out, even if they’re Republican – “because I think it brings it home to other Republicans that there are gay Republicans!”

“It’s significant that there are seven of us who are out (in the New York City Council), and there may be another few people in the City Council,” Dromm said. “If I give a number it might give things away. But I have colleagues who are not out, and who I know are gay.”

“And on the state level, an even larger number who are still not out,” he added. “Some of them on the state level come from communities outside of the city.”

“I have colleagues who are not out, and who I know are gay. And on the state level, an even larger number who are still not out.” – New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm

The future holds promise for New York’s LGBT politicians. Paul Feinman was recently confirmed to the state Court of Appeals, making him the first openly gay person on New York’s highest court. Kristen Browde is running for New Castle town supervisor and could be the first elected transgender official in New York. Mel Wymore is running for New York City Council as a transgender individual, although he would have to knock out incumbent Helen Rosenthal.

If the entire cohort of LGBT candidates running for the council won, there would be – for the first time – an openly LGBT representative from every borough, Meloy said. This year, the Victory Fund has seen an “uptick” in LGBT individuals looking to run for office and an increase in the number of people seeking out training through their affiliated Victory Institute, which nurtures and prepares LGBT individuals for careers in public service.

Torres, the councilman, who like Vacca hails from the Bronx, in 2013 became the borough’s first openly gay candidate to be elected to legislative office and is the youngest person serving on the City Council. He said he encounters the occasional bigoted comment, but for the most part his sexual orientation has been well-received. “When I was knocking on doors, most of my constituents were not cultural warriors,” Torres said. “Their main concerns are the bread-and-butter issues.”

Vacca will also stay focused on the issues – perhaps now with even more contentment as an openly gay man: “I’m happy with myself. I’m happy that I did it when I did it. I’m very happy I did it.” 

Note: An earlier version of this story referred to a lawmaker’s sexual orientation as a “lifestyle.” The term has been removed, and we apologize if any readers were offended.