By Joel P. Engardio
Twenty years ago this month, I was a 20-year-old cub reporter. I left Michigan State junior year to spend fall semester on a professional journalism internship at a newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Born and raised in Michigan, my adventure to the Keystone state didnâ€™t take me far enough to leave the rust belt or the closet. Only an internship two years later at the Boston Globe would put me in a city where I could comfortably step out. In 1992, homophobia was a convenient distraction from the economic woes of Billy Joelâ€™s Allentown.
It was a busy fall covering politics in a swing state where Bill Clinton, the young Democrat from Hope, Arkansas, was trying to unseat Republican incumbent George Bush, Sr., in the middle of a recession. 1992 was also a tough year to be gay. The GOP convention demonized me in primetime speeches. Ellen and Glee, even Will & Grace, couldnâ€™t yet be imagined on TV.
Earlier in the year, my friend Jeff jumped to his death from a six-story parking garage near campus. He lived across the hall from me at Michigan State. Like me, Jeff wrestled with being gay. We played tennis the day before he died.
In 1992, Fleetwood Macâ€™s classic â€śDonâ€™t Stop (thinking about tomorrow)â€ť played incessantly on the radio. It was Clintonâ€™s campaign theme song. But it didnâ€™t inspire much hope about my gay future.
In Allentown, I proved myself as a young reporter and the editors let me cover a local election. They assigned me to a nasty fight over a state house seat where the Republican challenger was accusing the Democratic incumbent of participating in a â€śmilitant homosexual agenda.â€ť
Iâ€™ll never forget the press conference where the candidate spewed all kinds of hateful things about gays and everyone in the media dutifully wrote it down without question. Reluctantly and agitated, I did, too.
The headline on my story, written by the editors, declared that the incumbentâ€™s legislation â€śfavors homosexuals.â€ť The challenging candidate was tapping into peopleâ€™s deep-seated prejudices to scare votes his way. Weâ€™ve seen this tactic many times, continuing today. It was just
more blatant in 1992. Now, the scare-tactics are wrapped in code words like â€śvalues.â€ť
Exactly 20 years after I covered that troubling election in Allentown, I am running for office â€“ as an openly gay supervisor candidate in San Francisco. I would have never imagined it in 1992. I have come a long way. Yet, I couldnâ€™t help but bristle when one of my opponents in 2012 attacked another candidate for not sharing District Sevenâ€™s â€ścore values.â€ť
District Seven is in the western part of San Francisco thatâ€™s home to actual Republicans and where half the voters in some precincts supported Californiaâ€™s ban on gay marriage. Iâ€™m the first openly gay candidate to run for supervisor in District Seven. Tom Ammiano lost his bid to become San Franciscoâ€™s first openly gay mayor in 1999 because he couldnâ€™t get enough votes on the cityâ€™s Westside. His policies were too progressive for Westside tastes, but homophobic attacks like the flyers distributed at District Sevenâ€™s Catholic churches picturing Ammiano alongside drag queen nuns were added for good measure.
To be clear, there is nothing homophobic about Mike Garciaâ€™s attacks on Norman Yee in this yearâ€™s District Seven supervisor race. Garcia took issue with Yeeâ€™s spending history on the school board and stands on issues like legalizing prostitution (the San Francisco Chronicle would later say Garciaâ€™s attacks â€śdisplayed a recklessness with the factsâ€ť).
The only gay mention in Garciaâ€™s attack was his diligence to cite the venue where Yee spoke â€“ the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club candidate forum. I wonder if the venue would have been as prominently mentioned if Yee had spoken at the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association.
I also wonder if there is a subtle connection, a wink to a voting base, between â€śHarvey Milk LGBTâ€ť and the question of who represents the districtâ€™s â€ścore valuesâ€ť? But I let it go, questioning whether I was just being too sensitive about it. And yet, the â€śvaluesâ€ť attack nags at me. It appeared again, as a negative Yee piece mailed to thousands of homes by one of the local super PACs supporting Garcia.
Throughout my campaign I met remnants of the old District Seven, people who liked my fiscal policies when I talked to them at the door but would withdraw from the conversation when they discovered Iâ€™m gay.
But more often, I found longtime residents transitioning into a newfound acceptance of gays. Like the woman who told me: â€śYouâ€™re that gay candidate I heard about. Your people know how to decorate houses and improve property values. Iâ€™ll vote for that!â€ť
District Seven is experiencing rapid demographic shifts, with younger, more socially liberal (if still fiscally conservative) residents buying the homes of elderly widows who have passed on. That includes many gay and lesbian couples who never lived in District Seven before. One woman sent me this note: â€śI really appreciate you being out in San Franciscoâ€™s non-gay neighborhood â€“ even though thereâ€™s a lot of us out here.â€ť
If I had to pick any favorites among my volunteers, they would have to be Alex and Maddie, a lesbian couple that studies at San Francisco State, works at Macyâ€™s and lives together in Parkmerced. Theyâ€™re just 20, the same age I was in 1992, when being gay meant losing my friend, Jeff, and surviving intolerance from the closet. What a different world Alex and Maddie enjoy. They are the new face of District Seven. How proud Iâ€™ll be to serve as their supervisor.
Engardio is the only candidate for District Seven Supervisor endorsed by the San Francisco Chronicle. The election is November 6. His website is www.engardio.com