Content Note: death by suicide, peer rejection, climate change
I say all the time that I’m just fighting the future, i.e. doing everything I can to mitigate the effects of climate change. Working for LGBTQIA+ rights feels the same. No minority group in history has gotten rights without a fight, and no group will keep them without vigilance. I’ve been involved with this for a long time now, going back to college and grad school working the the ‘gay/straight’ alliance clubs where I went to school. I seem to be unable to turn down the chance to advocate for equality or work to fight our climate future… just ask my husband.
A few days after Election Day 2019, the Victory Fund released a list of known openly LGBTQ (self-identified, of course) candidates who won their offices. They identified two in Western Pennsylvania. After I published that information, I found three more for a total of five (so far) and who knows how many others who weren’t registered with the Victory Fund. If you know someone who should be on this list, please message them to message me privately. Loosely speaking, I’m interested in openly LGBTQ candidates who won their office in the Western portion of Pennsylvania.
So I created a political Q&A for these specific candidates who are mostly brand new to municipal politics. Four of the five have agreed to participate so far. And we’ll be using their responses as a launch pad to explore equality issues in their municipalities. Keep your eyes out for our rural LGBTQ organizing Q&A’s rolling out in this same time frame. It is all exciting stuff and worth diving into, I promise.
This is Jonathan Warnock who is an openly gay climate scientist joining the Indiana Borough Council in Indiana, Pennsylvania. That is not a sentence I expected to type in this blog anytime soon. I’m glad to be wrong.
Your Name: Jonathan Warnock
Your Age: 35
Your Pronouns: he/him
How do you describe your identity? My gut response is that I’m a paleontologist and climate scientist, but I bet the answer you’re looking for is gay, cis male.
You recently won election to Indiana Borough Council Tell us about your district and the communities you will represent. I’ll be representing the fourth ward. It is a big mix of university and non-university folks, since we’re a college town. Many of the people of the fourth ward are PA natives, but there are many transplants as well.
Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district, the public schools, and the region. Recently there has been a movement to connect the LGBTQIA+ community in Indiana. We’ve started a monthly happy hour and have had Pride celebrations the last two summers. There is a big queer community in Indiana that it has been exciting to get to meet. Mostly, we’ve met adults, but at the Pride picnic in 2019 my husband and I were able to meet some students from the public schools and their parents. It felt good to be able to help organize and hold that celebration, because I know those students felt better about living in a conservative area having seen an active community. It was also great for parents of LGBTQIA+ kids to be able to meet and talk. I do know that young people, even the college students, are worried about harassment, discrimination and even violence.
Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for your office? How will you respond to those priorities? I am looking forward to continuing the work that was started in the borough before I ran. The council has already begun working on antidiscrimination policies. The work that other LGBTQIA+ people have done in organizing the happy hour events provides a nice opportunity for me to be able to hear concerns that the community in Indiana has.
Why did you decide to run for this office? I was approached by a member of council who will be stepping down at the end of his term. He wanted to pass the torch, but only if he knew there would be a democrat running in his place. I had become somewhat known in the local community for organizing a solar co-op (a low cost way to bring home solar to households within the county) and he approached me because of that activism. I decided it was a good opportunity to continue the work I had started bringing renewable energy to Indiana and to help the council promote equality.
Tell me about your endorsements and supporters.I have had a lot of support from democrats in the borough and the county; there is an active group that helps to get liberals elected within the borough and county. It was particularly helpful to have a friend and neighbor on the council who could help me to understand what the position would be like. I don’t think I picked up any official endorsements from any organizations.
What are your top legislative priorities for your first months in office? I want to identify grants to help municipalities go solar and install panels on borough buildings. This will help reduce expenses in the borough and free up budget for other projects while reducing our overall carbon footprint.
How did your identity as an openly LGBTQ person impact and inform your campaign? How will it impact and inform your tenure in office? I don’t think it did impact my campaign, really. It was never an issue; I found nothing but support along the way. As for my time in office, nondiscrimination and equality will be big issues. I want to be able to work with the local police on things like sensitivity training.
How does intersectionality inform your work? In a way, intersectionality has come to define my work and my day to day. As a climate scientist who mainly studies Antarctica, I think about climate change all the time. That has led me to become co-director of the Sustainability Studies program at IUP, to join the Indiana County Sustainable Economic Development Taskforce, and to spearhead the Indiana County Solar Co-op efforts. I say all the time that I’m just fighting the future, i.e. doing everything I can to mitigate the effects of climate change. Working for LGBTQIA+ rights feels the same. No minority group in history has gotten rights without a fight, and no group will keep them without vigilance. I’ve been involved with this for a long time now, going back to college and grad school working the the ‘gay/straight’ alliance clubs where I went to school. I seem to be unable to turn down the chance to advocate for equality or work to fight our climate future… just ask my husband.
Being open in public office is an extension of that and a very visible way to be out. It also helps young people to see that, to borrow a phrase, It Gets Better.
The threats of ‘religious liberty’ laws and exemptions target both LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. How do municipal councils navigate personal religious freedom while resisting systemic oppression and control of underserved people? That’s a heavy question. I think that it is important to realize that we have freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It is important that people are allowed to practice their religion, but that no group, religious or otherwise, can be allowed to infringe upon the rights of others. Similarly, we have the right to not participate in religion or have the religious ideals of others forced on us. Thankfully, even before I ran for office Indiana borough was already taking steps to insure LGBTQIA+ people of Indiana have the same rights as others.
How does open and visible representation of different LGBTQ identities in elected office change the world? Harvey Milk told us that we have to come out. Minorities don’t win civil rights fights without allies. Coming out creates allies, by showing the people who care about you that they have a stake in the fight, even if they themselves are not part of the minority. Being open in public office is an extension of that and a very visible way to be out. It also helps young people to see that, to borrow a phrase, It Gets Better.
Please tell us about your very first impression of Pittsburgh: It is definitely not Chicago.
What Pittsburghers have influenced your life and work? Probably my only answer, and it is likely a common one, is Fred Rogers. What person my age hasn’t been? Perhaps if I was being more reasonable I would also acknowledge those people from IUP’s Department of Geoscience who happen to be Pittsburghers. We call it a department family and we’re pretty good about acting that way. They have been hugely supportive. Really though, I’m a Chicago boy and while I’ve lived in PA for 4.5ish years now, I make it to Pittsburgh very rarely.
Please tell us about the first LGBTQ person that you knew and what impact they had on your life. I first met (open/out) LGBTQIA+ people sophomore year in high school (I didn’t come out to myself, let alone anyone else until college). I met a lot of people all at once, but one friend sticks out in my mind. He was unequivocally himself, open and unashamed to be bi. This was before the boy scouts and eagle scouts had decided to accept gay/bi/trans/etc people. When the eagle scouts learned about him and kicked him out, he killed himself. He wanted to be and was still buried in that uniform, though. I think about him all the time, almost 20 years after he died. He is an inspiration to be yourself, despite opposition, and a reminder to seek help, because we all need it sometimes.
What is your message to the LGBTQ youth who may not realize that people like them hold elected office? On the long arc of things, even if sometimes we take steps back, it does get better. Insist on being treated with respect. Be proactive; no one is going to do the work of social change for you. Vote like your life depends on it (it does). Run for office if it fits you.
Where can readers find you on social media? I’m not particularly active but my Facebook profile is just my name. You can find me on Instagram by searching @Asteromphalus. Instagram is mostly posts about science and farming (my husband is an up and coming urban farmer). So if you like plants and dinosaurs and whales and climate science, that’s where to find me.
Is there anything you’d like to add? I’m nervous but excited to serve. I hope I can contribute to positive change in Indiana. Climate change is real and is already affecting the lives of everyone on Earth; fight the future.
Thank you, Jonathan.
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