Municipal Government and Publicly Out LGBTQ Employees

Does it matter if local and regional government employers hire and appoint openly LGBTQ people to leadership roles?

This question has launched many a Facebook chats, unleashing discussions on everything from outing people to privacy concerns to dislike of being labeled as “the gay <insert title>.” These are valid points to consider. In my mind, they reinforce my personal belief that it does matter – if we live in a world where being labeled “gay” is an issue, we live in a world where identity shapes many of our everyday decisions.

I am going to explore this issue in much more depth using my blog as a resource. I’ll be talking with LGBTQ people about their opinions. I’ll explore the history of “outing” with some national leaders. I’ll revisit the public “coming out” stories of people like former State Rep Mike Fleck and Reverend Janet Edwards in this context. I’ll also explore legislation on the issue, dating back to 2004 here in Pittsburgh and what that means for Pittsburgh.

Let me start with some terminology.

Being an openly LGBTQ person is not easy to define as there are degrees of disclosure that we all experience. I’m not interested in forcing anyone to share information they prefer to keep discrete or private. I’m interested in the impact of hiring or appointing people who are comfortable publicly identifying as LGBTQ. There’s a lot of gray in there.

As an example, I am often considered to be publicly out – I have over ten years of documentation to that effect. But I don’t always come out in every situation. Sometimes, it doesn’t come up. Sometimes, it isn’t safe or prudent. Sometimes, I make that decision consciously and sometimes it is more covert. When someone hires me to tutor their mother about Facebook, I mention it because Mom is going to see LGBTQ content on my Facebook and there’s no need to make anyone uncomfortable if it is a barrier. When I’m in someone’s home as a guest and their older parent is ranting about “the gays” – that’s a different situation. I’ll more likely talk with my host about it later and ask not to be included in future invitations where I have to bite my lip like that.

The oft cited defense “I don’t wear a billboard on my head” is patently absurd and drenched in the privilege of “passing” as straight or cis gender which is another issue altogether. I am not asking people to assess who passes and who doesn’t. If you don’t know if someone is LGBTQ, don’t speculate for Pete’s sake. That’s not helpful.

What is helpful for me is using the terms “quietly out LGBTQ person” and “publicly out LGBTQ person.” People choose to be quietly out for all sorts of reasons, some having to do with their own personality and temperament as much as their environment, family life, relationships, etc. It is not my place (or in my interest) to judge them for that decision to maintain a level of discretion about their identity. But it is my place to assess their effectiveness in creating municipal equality. Effectiveness is not just about being publicly out, but it is a factor.

City, county, state and federal government is filled with “quietly out” LGBTQ staffers and elected officials, as well as those serving on commissions or authorities. These are some great people who do important and valuable work and certainly deserve to have their privacy respected. But this model of bringing “quietly out” people to the table hasn’t been effective in creating a government culture that’s responsive to the needs of the LGBTQ community in this region. “Quietly out” people do amazing things, but they are not able to generate the change that’s needed to build a more equal society.

“Publicly out” individuals have the luxury of talking freely about LGBTQ issues. When we elected Bruce Kraus as the City’s first openly gay member of City Council, we saw the first LGBTQ reform work in over a decade – but even so, that’s only been 3 pieces of legislation (domestic partner registry, updating the non-discrimination classes to include gender identity and a bill about contracts.) One openly gay man – even serving as City Council President – can’t do all the work.

I might simply point out that we recently mourned the death of Pittsburgh first and only female Mayor as well as Pittsburgh’s first and only Jewish Mayor – Sophie Masloff. It has been over 20 years since she left office and every Mayor since then has been a white, heterosexual, cisgender Christian man. Change is slow.

I’m not asking the City to name names. I’m asking them to expand their candidate pools to include publicly out LGBTQ people. When I met with a Deputy Director in the Peduto Administration, she told me that 40% of the hires and appointments have been LGBTQ people. But she has no way to confirm that statement. 40% is a very impressive number especially if you start to look at the residency rates and other qualifications that are obviously important. 40% is so high, in fact, that I am a little surprised that I don’t recognize anyone’s names. I’ve read the list of appointments and the hiring announcements.

While it is certainly possible that they hired and appointed this many people who are publicly LGBTQ and that I simply don’t know them personally, it is a bit improbable. I know several quietly LGBTQ employees and appointees, but certainly not 40%. Frankly, I have a hard time believing that 40% of the hires and appointments have been any combination of openly or quietly LGBTQ people. That’s a really significant number. So I’m puzzled why they wouldn’t offer me a more realistic estimate?

I hope she was being honest with me and that perhaps this time a potent combination of many quietly LGBTQ employees and appointees with the leadership of Mayor Peduto will generate meaningful reform and change. One year in office is far too soon to tell.

But I also hope that reform includes greater visibility of publicly LGBTQ employees and appointees. As the work culture changes so to will this balance between quietly and publicly out people.

To those of you who will inevitably tell me that you personally know X number of LGBTQ employees at the City, that’s great. I know at least one, too – my partner. Let’s hope your acquaintances will be part of the change we need, by all means. And I would definitely like to hear about people who identity as bisexual, queer, trans and /or as people of color. I mostly know young white gay men and lesbians in these roles.

But, let’s be clear – telling me privately that you know queer folks working for the City is the same old way of doing business that has kept us stuck in the 1990’s in terms of municipal equality. And, yes, I’ve read the Municipal Equality Index and will be further exploring that measurement – I did ask the Peduto Administration to explain some of the indicators, but the person I met with was unable to tell me how/when things changed between 2013 and 2014.

It isn’t just the Peduto Administration. I am unaware of many publicly LGBTQ persons in leadership roles or serving as appointees for the County or in local State offices. I’m not aware of any publicly LGBTQ staffers among our State elected officials. And knowing how hostile those work environments can be, I understand.

Telling me that being publicly or quietly LGBTQ doesn’t matter is the same thing as saying “I don’t see color” in reference to race. These things exist. The continuum of discretion exists and will continue to exist because not all LGBTQ people have the same personalities and life circumstances. It would be great to get to the point where publicly LGBTQ this or that are par for course. That requires hard work, a willingness to have difficult conversations and push through that gut reaction about “outing” people.

This is a giant Pandora’s box.

However, when Pandora closed the lid, what remained was hope. It is fair to hope that moving forward we can actively ensure that publicly LGBTQ people have access to employment opportunities as well as being asked to serve in advisory roles.

In conclusion, I am interested in having more publicly LGBTQ people serving in leadership roles in government, both as employees and through appointments to board and commissions. I believe it is necessary to help our region flourish and to protect vulnerable communities. It is the fair thing to do, the just thing to do and the right thing to do. If you think that hiring people who are quietly out as LGBTQ is an effective way to achieve these goals, please by all means bring me your evidence.

Let’s start the conversation.

This is an excerpt from the Harvey Milk speech about hope. He’s referencing electing people who are gay (LGBTQ), but I think the sentiments apply to appointments as well as hiring senior level managers and decision-makers.



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