Detroit Elects Openly Gay City Council President
By Matthew Wolfe
November 6, 2009
On November 3 the citizens of Detroit elected a new city council. The council presidency, awarded to the candidate receiving the most votes, went to Charles Pugh. Pugh is 38, black and a political neophyte, having previously worked as a local TV reporter and radio host. More significant, Pugh will be the first openly gay elected official in Detroit's history.
Detroit is not known for its friendliness to the LGBT community. Local pastors preach that homosexuality is a sin; former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stated that he didn't want his children exposed to "the homosexual lifestyle"; and in 2007 the death of an openly gay resident, in what appeared to be a hate crime, was met with near-silence by officials. A few openly gay candidates had previously run for public office, but none successfully.
Yet, according to local LGBT advocates, most Detroiters don't fear gays so much as what can await those who openly support them. Public defenders of homosexuality face condemnation, ostracization, even charges that they they themselves are gay. "I would call Detroit 'closeted' in their support of LGBT people but not homophobic," says Alicia Skillman, executive director of the Triangle Foundation, a Detroit-based LGBT rights organization. In Detroit, like many places, religiously derived antipathy toward gay people is deeply ingrained and difficult to extricate. While some of Detroit's pastors may countenance homosexuality privately, they hesitate to defend it from the pulpit, fearing the wrath of their flock. "There are pastors who say one thing on Sunday and say something else the rest of the week," said Skillman. "I think it's very hard to move a congregation from a traditional, biblical belief to being welcoming and affirming." This leads to a culture of mutually reinforcing silence.
Pugh's election, however, may signal a shift in sentiment, one with national implications. Once Pugh reached a critical mass of public support, those who might otherwise have attacked him for being gay feared that such criticism would trigger a backlash. And while a whisper campaign against Pugh was anticipated, none developed. Pugh's cascading popularity led to the endorsement of several church groups, including the local Council of Baptist Pastors, lending credence to the hope that his election heralds an era of more open discussion about gays in Detroit. Once the dam of silence has been broken, more and more residents can openly voice their support for LGBT issues.
Detroit's parlous financial situation may also have contributed to Pugh's victory, as the candidate's sexual orientation took a back seat to economic issues. Perhaps more than any other American city, Detroit has been smote by the foreclosure crisis and the slow death of domestic manufacturing. The city's official unemployment rate is approaching 30 percent, and the city faces a $275 million budget deficit, all while its revenues and population continue a seemingly endless decline. Voters appeared more concerned with what the candidates intended to do about crime and the city's acres of abandoned buildings than with whom they were sleeping.
"In another year Pugh would probably have a hard time getting elected," said Adolph Mongo, a Detroit political consultant. "The bleak reality of the city has brought a change. People are just wondering how they're going to survive the next day."
It also helped that Detroiters got to know Pugh as a news anchor for the local Fox affiliate well before he ran for office. In 2004 Pugh came out on the air, giving voters several years to become comfortable with his homosexuality. On the campaign trail, Pugh was straightforward about his sexual orientation but didn't make it a political issue, citing the comparative irrelevance of gay rights in the face of more pressing local problems. His victory offers evidence that if a candidate is open and comfortable about being gay, voters will follow suit.
"I don't think there was anyone in Detroit who didn't know that Charles Pugh was gay," said Denis Dison of the Victory Fund, a Washington, DC-based organization that supports LGBT candidates in local races. "The message is that being matter-of-fact about who you are puts voters at ease and helps them get past it."
Nationally, from a gay rights perspective, November 3 was a mixed bag. Of the seventy-eight candidates, including Pugh, that the Victory Fund supported, more than fifty appear, as of November 4, to have won their races. Joining Detroit in adding their first openly gay elected officials to their city councils were Akron, Ohio, and St. Petersburg, Florida. Residents of Maine, however, voted to repeal a state law that would have allowed same-sex marriage.
"Maine is painful," Dison said, "although there's a silver lining to it. The marriage issue is still a tough nut to crack, but America is not where it was twenty years ago."