The past few days have been a whirlwind here in sunny South Florida for my husband Anthony Niedwiecki and me. Hopefully you've heard by now that Anthony was elected to the City Commission in Oakland Park, a part of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Area, in a resounding victory with over 65% of the vote cast. Even more exciting, as the top vote getter in the three open seats, Anthony will become Vice Mayor in 2010 and Mayor of the city in 2011 (it's a rotating mayorship based on votes).
It was a long, tough campaign against a well-established opponent who has previously run for State Senate, and had the support of some of the current (and not always LGBT friendly) commissioners.
I am so proud of Anthony and the campaign we ran. We made our family (our marriage, foster son, and extended family) a strong part of our campaign and challenged people to face their ideas about what family and "family values" really means. We were out, proud, and passionate about our community. I think by the overwhelming vote for Anthony, we see that many people got the message.
I wanted to talk about some of the decision we made about being so open and why I think it worked for us, as well as the impact it had in changing minds and hearts about our community in general.
Of course, this is all just our experience and not a blueprint for anyone else. But I will say that I am proud and humbled by the response to our personal story from voters and supporters. Even if we hadn't won, it would have been a huge victory in visibility.
And remember, I'm focusing on the LGBT angle here, but we ran a broad, issues driven campaign about what mattered to everyone in the city, while weaving in a strong message of equality for all residents.
So let's run through some of the "advice" we got and how we responded to it.
You're a little "too Gay"
This was some of the advice we got early on in the process. We had both been longtime activists for the community here in South Florida, from the startling incident at the Fort Lauderdale Airport where a worker played a death threat aimed at gay people over the intercom system, to the ensuing harassment when we fought back against it, to organizing the massive response to the bigoted words of Mayor Naugle of Fort Lauderdale.
Being "less open" isn't who we are.
We decided early on that we would embrace our activist nature and use it as positive part of Anthony's campaign. He's always fought for what he believes in, which is what would make him such an amazing leader for our city.
We actually used Anthony's work against Naugle as an example of how small-minded, divisive actions can distract from other issues in a city and how it can have serious and chilling effects on the atmosphere of a city.
We made his work for the equality of all residents one of the five main points of the campaign and people responded with respect and support.
It was so amazing to see the newspapers reporting the results and identifying Anthony as both the top winner and a gay activist. It sent a strong message to South Florida.
Forget the "Family Values" Voters
Many people told us to not even bother with large parts of the voter pool, especially those "value voters."
Again, that's not who we are.
We decided to take the "family values" argument and make it our own. In fact, it was another one of our five main campaign points- dedicated to family.
We refused to accept that our relationship and the family we had built with our foster son was not a family. We never shied away from talking about our life. We attended events together, met voters, answered questions, invited people to our home, and made our life an open book.
In the week before the election, during the televised public comments at the last commission meeting before voters went to the polls, Anthony stood up and thanked "his husband Waymon for all his support", moving many (including me) to tears.
I think this had some of the most profound effects on people. It was amazing to hear from extremely conservative people who told us how moved they were by our family and how we had forced them to think about their biases and beliefs. One of the city's most notorious former candidates who had run an extremely anti-gay campaign in past years even became an avid supporter of Anthony, knocking on doors and encouraging people to vote for Anthony.
That's change I can believe in.
Stay Away from "Controversial" LGBT Issues
Obviously this little gem of advice didn't sink in with us.
During Anthony's 18 month campaign, we decided to show people the kind of leader Anthony would be and how he would use the platform of his office to create change for all people.
Anthony spoke out and lobbied against the Florida adoption ban, talking about our life with our foster son. He pushed the current city commission to pass a resolution against Amendment 2, the horrific amendment that looked to dismantle relationship recognition in Florida, and spoke about it everywhere he went. He even made the public promise to fight against the Amendment after it passed and preserve our domestic partnership rights in South Florida.
He was a leader in Oakland Park and Broward County in fighting for the expansion of non-discrimination policies to include both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
He even issued statements and calls directly from his campaign when Westboro Baptist Church announced they where coming to Oakland Park to picket a local gay-owned theater.
We didn't shy away from going to California and getting married. The local papers even ran stories and pictures about it, which we happily linked to from his campaign site.
Running for office didn't mean he had to tone down his activism- it gave him another platform from which to fight and do the right thing.
Give up the Minority Vote
We all heard the horrific, racist blame game that happened after Prop 8 and Amendment 2 passed. It was no different in Florida.
Many people thought we shouldn't even try to make in roads with the African-American community, especially the religious community. Once again, that view proved wrong.
Anthony had already been a regular part of the speakers with the Urban League that traveled to talk about Amendment 2, and we continued to reach out to all voters in the city for his campaign. We went, together as a family, to African American churches and community picnics, and just shared our lives with them.
The response was amazing and moving. It showed the blindness many in our community have when it comes to other minorities. We all want the same things for our cities and neighborhoods, for our families and homes.
And we all want someone who will fight for our rights, which is what everyone saw in Anthony.
Out and Proud
I think what we saw in this campaign was that you can be an out and proud activist for our community and still be viable as a candidate. It might even give you the advantage of being known as a fighter and someone with strong beliefs and values.
By taking what could be used as a negative against us and making it our part of our own campaign, we took away the some of the power of anti-gay bias.
Did we lose some voters for being so out? Perhaps. But with over 65% of the vote, it's clear that the vision of the campaign, which included a strong equality messages, was approved by large numbers of voters.
When made part of a larger progressive agenda (we talked about environmental stewardship, taxes, smart growth, community involvement, etc), LGBT issues made sense to many people that had never really gotten it before.
By seeing that families come in all shapes and sizes, voters got to know the humanity of LGBT people and not just see the "scary" idea of those that are "different" from them pushed down their throats from other sources.
And that's a victory in my book no matter what the election results were.