City Councilman Marcus Brown will enter the state legislature as an openly gay black man when he is sworn in in January representing Connecticut’s 127th district in the northern tip of the state.
State Rep. Jack Hennessy’s operatives fanned the flames of race and sexual orientation with suggestive remarks in front of voters that were some subtle and some less so.
“Look Who He’s Engaged To,” showed a photo of Brown and his white partner, Tom Gaudet, Mayor Joe Ghanim’s deputy chief of staff.
It was a MAGA type of divisive message in the Democratic primary, proving that paranoid effervescence can infect a wider range of people’s emotions. Brown defeated a nearly 20-year incumbent.
More than 30 years ago, whispers could have turned to roars, just ask Joe Grabarz, who defeated incumbent state Rep. Mario Testa in 1988, the Future town president when the old European race wielded significant influence in the election when the Democratic primary was close. Grabarz love playful fantasies. His mail and signs are embroidered in the Italian flag’s tricolor: green, white and green, a subtle jab at his opponents.
In those days, many voters weren’t that nuanced about their sexual orientation. Opponents changed Grabarz’s name to “Gaybarz” and “Gaybarz in Gay Bars.”
Grabarz again defeated Testa in a close primary in 1990 to win re-election. Then, he did something revolutionary.
On Dec. 17, 1990, before same-sex couples were granted civil unions and legal marriages, Grabarz, 34, did something few other elected officials across the country had done: publicly identified himself as gay. He did so at a news conference at the state Capitol that drew national attention at a time when few openly gay elected officials discussed their private lives.
For Grabarz, it’s about making a public statement in support of basic civil rights protections that were previously unavailable. The result of his efforts was the passage of the gay and lesbian civil rights bill, which was supported by then-state Senator Margaret Morton.
In 2019, Grabarz was the keynote speaker at a flag-raising ceremony at the government building that bears her name, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City that sparked the gay liberation movement.
Grabarz, currently a state lobbyist, continues to focus on Connecticut politics.
The following is my interview with Grabarz that appeared in the March 3, 1991 edition of The New York Times. Grabarz sat down with me at his Bridgeport home to share his observations a few months after he made the national news.The interview also appears in my book Connecticut characters, personalities spice up the Nutmeg State.
Q. Why did you come out as gay?
A. This is important to my personal growth and development. In order to feel that pride and self-esteem, I started feeling that way about myself. It was important to start talking about myself with other people. It’s important to me for several reasons. I am increasingly involved in the gay rights movement. I’ve become more aware of how my gay identity has shaped who I am, and it’s even more important for me to open up now.
Another reason is that Connecticut may have one of the best chances of passing a gay civil rights bill this year. For the first time we have a Governor (Lowell Weicker) supporting it, he’s going to lobby it aggressively, he’s going to say straight up that he’s going to sign it.
I thought that my coming out as gay in the legislature might help some of my colleagues who might have questions about the issue learn more about it.
The third reason is that I see intolerance rising at an incredible rate in this country, especially in Connecticut, making it imperative that more people speak out. This is an intolerance of difference and diversity in general.
Q: How have colleagues in Hartford and voters in Bridgeport reacted?
A: The response from my colleagues has been very good. House Speaker Richard Balducci (Richard Balducci) attended the news conference. He later called me into his office and said that if anyone in the building treated me differently, I would talk to him and he would mediate himself.
My legislative colleagues, some of whom I have opposed on many issues, say they have renewed or increased their respect for me. One is because I am open, and two is that they think I have the courage to do it.
There have been some snickers and stares, but the general atmosphere, especially one seeping in from leadership on both sides of the aisle, has kept that to a minimum and helped some in the legislature overcome their personal biases.
I’ve heard it from many voters. Some of the responses have been disappointing, but most have been overwhelmingly positive, and come from corners I didn’t expect, Republicans, conservatives, seniors, and people from every ethnic and racial group.
I don’t think it will have a significant impact on my constituency in the long run. People in Bridgeport really feel like it’s a desperate situation, and the problems they face on a daily basis are very serious. If they see that someone is addressing these issues and is doing their best to address their concerns, then I think they are willing to ignore any personal differences they may have.
If someone in Bridgeport thinks it’s more important to vote for someone because of their sexuality than how they commit crimes than how we fix the budget than how we get Bridgeport out of what it is If the situation is chaotic, then these people may not be rational enough to vote.
Q: Ridicule is arguably a politician’s most dangerous enemy. How are you going to deal with it?
A: Ridicule is often dangerous when it comes from someone who is generally respected in the community. When it comes from negative, mean or hateful people, it can be a positive tool. The small amount of ridicule I’ve received has come from people who fall into these categories. In some ways, this can draw more support from those who wouldn’t necessarily otherwise.
I have received death threats. I got a call from a guy who said, “I hope you get AIDS and die.” I got a call from a guy who said they wanted me dead, and if I didn’t die, they had some friends who would let this happen something happens. One person commented that if his son grew up to be gay he would kill him. These are very bizarre, violent and hateful remarks.
Q: How have your gay and straight friends reacted?
A. It may represent something that I did not accurately judge in advance. I came out to my family, I came out to my friends, but they didn’t come out to their friends and co-workers because they were friends of gay people.
While I don’t have a problem and they have a relationship with me, a lot of my friends and family do find that they have to deal with this with their friends and relatives, and that’s a step I should have made to be more clear beforehand.
I emphasized at the press conference that this is a purely personal decision. To emphasize the point, I purposely didn’t discuss this with anyone before it. For several years now, I’ve been talking to people about how far I’ve come from myself, or whether a press conference was necessary. But I haven’t discussed this particular press conference or making this particular statement with anyone.
There have been some negative reactions from political partners, friends and family to the failure to inform them. Some people feel that by doing this I deprive them of the opportunity to stand with me. In many ways, I regret not discussing it with more people.
Q: Have any of your political partners expressed concern that you might force them to come out?
A. There are many gay and gay people out there who need to overcome self-hate. As a society, we train gay people to hate themselves. I hope and pray for their own personal happiness that all these politicians who are in the closet thinking about their own self-hatred and homophobia will come out.
We could overcome many of the problems gay people face if gay people in positions of power started discussing it more openly. However, I don’t believe that because this is such an important personal issue, it is in the best interest of that person or the best interest of the community for a public official to go out, with perhaps one exception, and that would be if there is a public official who is gay, comes out , harming the gay community, people who vote and oppose the interests of the gay community, and some more. I believe those people should be eliminated.
Q: What public contribution would you like your decision to make?
A: I wish society, especially people in Connecticut, would learn more about what it means to be gay. I would like to see the country pass legislation that guarantees civil rights for gay people in terms of housing and employment, credit and accommodation. Possibly this year in Connecticut. Two states have already done so. Connecticut got very close twice. Now is the time to get through it.
Q: You beat your Democratic primary opponent by 30 votes. Do you expect to be re-elected in 1992.
A: I hope to remain a state representative for as long as I want. People voted for me because they felt I represented their interests and I worked hard for the city of Bridgeport.
There were probably a dozen people across the country who did what I did at the state level and they came out openly. All those people who wanted to run for re-election have already been re-elected. They represent rural areas in Maine, small towns in Vermont, and large cities such as Minneapolis, Washington State, New York, and San Francisco.
Q: Is it lonely being the only openly gay state legislator?
A: It’s hard to be the only identifiably gay elected official in Connecticut, because on every issue that affects the gay community, people look to me as a resource for responses from the entire gay community, which of course is only as diverse as any other change.
Sometimes it’s a heavy burden for me, and sometimes I wish I had someone else to share it with. Sometimes, it is lonely. I have a message to all of those people who are elected officials who might be in the closet; come in, the water is fine.