This past Friday evening I found myself staring at a burning log in a fireplace, shaking like a leaf. Not shaking from the temperatures, but shaking out of nerves. Here I was sitting in the living room of a woman who ran for President against the big dogs - a woman who fought hard for LGBTQ Americans while serving as the first and only African American woman ever in the Senate - and she was pouring me a cup of homemade organic mint tea.
Last week I was overjoyed to meet and interview one of my personal heroes, former Ambassador and US Senator, Carol Moseley Braun, who is currently running for mayor of Chicago in a field that also includes Rahm Emanuel (listen to part of the interview on SSS this week). The Senator has been asked many questions during this election cycle, but one thing we haven't heard her discuss much are LGBT issues.
We know she's in favor of marriage equality, and we know she's fought for our community even when it wasn't very popular to do so, but how would a Mayor Moseley Braun Chicago look to the LGBT world? Sitting down in her Hyde Park home, I got a glimpse into what Carol is eager to do for our community.
PR: Thanks again for joining me Senator my first question: because you know this race is making headlines around the country, why should a mayoral race in Chicago matter to America especially LGBT America?
Senator: Well, because Chicago is one of the premier cities of the world. Chicago sits at the epicenter of America. We are a transportation hub and a hub for financial services. We are right in the center of the country. We have a vibrant LGBT community here in Chicago that really stands as a model for the rest of America. What happens in Chicago matters to the rest of America. I submit that what happens in Chicago matters to the rest of the world.
PR: Absolutely. So that Saturday back in December when you found out that your former colleagues in the Senate had repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell that you were against in 1993. How did you feel when you learned that? That they had done the right thing?
Senator: Well that they had finally done the right thing. It was unnecessary pain and anguish it seems to me because the military did not have a formalized Don't Ask Don't tell policy before that. Why it was put in and frankly who came up with this as a policy idea really needed to be castigated and called out for causing the LGBT community, and people in the military, a lot more contentiousness and anguish and problems and trouble then was necessary. So it was a bad deal a bad move done for a unnecessary reasons and frankly it was high time it was repealed.
PR: Right. Now you fought DOMA when you were in the Senate and you gave a fantastic floor speech and your colleagues went in the other direction. But as they have evolved on Don't Ask Don't Tell do you think that someday soon we will see the Senate and the House, um - obviously not in the next two years but very soon - evolve on DOMA as well?
Senator: Yes, I do believe it will evolve on DOMA and that is a function of the fact that our society is evolving in regards to the issue of marriage for same sex couples. The fact of the matter is politics follow popular opinion not the other way around. When the politics precede popular opinion then there is another societal shift that occurs. In the majority of cases it is public opinion that drives political decision making. And as the LGBT community organizes and is organized as it speaks to these issues, not just where they live but as they speak to these issues with family, friends and religious institutions and in social settings as the climate of opinion moves in regards to this issues so will the politicians in regards to this issue.
PR: Excellent. Let's talk about the tone of political discourse in America today. As you know the vitriol is on both sides of the aisle. So what do you want to say--
Senator: Now, wait a minute, it is more one side of the aisle than another. I'm sorry.
PR: Yeah, especially in talk [radio] we differently see that, but we do see bad behavior all over the place.
Senator: That is correct.
PR : What do you want to say to the nation? Especially, you know, folks who want to engage in baser discourse and want to debate with anger rather than intellect. What would you say to those people in America?
Senator: Well, I think the coarsening of our public discourse across the board, not just in politics, is frankly not only regrettable, but something I think we have to pay real attention to and work to change. We are living in a time where there really is a culture of violence there is a culture of anger there is a culture of ad hominem attacks on people of the whole cult of personality and celebrity. All of these things lend themselves to the kind of conversation that we are getting in political circles to the diminution of civility and to the continual pushing of the envelope to make the comments edgier and edgier. This is something to be resisted by everyone in society because the loss of civility means the more we lose civility the more we lose our ability to resolve conflicts and reach policy decisions in a civil way. You know one of the great things about this country is that we are able to transition administrations we are able to pass legislation were able to make great changes and do great things without people killing each other.
Senator: I mean other countries have witnessed revolutions and civil and internal civil wars and we--
PR: Sometimes, in some political situations that is the only way they can change things.
Senator: Well, that's right. But you know the prospect of that happening in America is frankly is too horrible to contemplate.
Senator: So I think that we need to be sure that we encourage more civil discourse. But I am going to put a caveat in that politics has always been a blood sport. Politics has always has a level of contest to it much like a boxing match. I mean, it's called the gentlemen's sport on one hand but it's really two guys bloodying each other up. I mean you got women in it now but you know what I am saying it's pretty raw. Politics has always been that way....
The point is, that's been with us a long time and that is not likely to change because it is that kind of a sport that lends people coming at each other and make expressions that are less than and would not be considered appropriate for polite society. But, having said that I think it is important that we all weigh in to try and lift the level of discourse and it really is about substance and issues and about policies and not just about personalities.
PR: Thank you. I want to move into some more local questions now. They are very LGBT focused. Chicago schools are lucky to be protected by anti-bullying rules that explicitly include LGBT kids. However, the law lacks teeth and will you follow, as mayor, the leads of Massachusetts, New York and Minneapolis and develop a role within CPS that helps implement protocol and policy that includes mandatory reporting and training around anti-bullying rules.
[Update: The Senator has published her LGBTQ platform since this interview, and has made clear how she intends to give the anti-bullying rules in Chicago more clout, as well as throws her support behind the work of a great organization, the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.]
Senator: Absolutely. We've seen too many tragedies from young people who were questioning who were not clear and winding up with their lives turned upside-down by bullies in regards to the issues of sexuality. I think particularly for high schools where it is such an issue for everybody. They are trying to figure out issues of sexuality and to subject one group of kids to the kind of jeopardy that bullying entails--more than any other group of kids - is the problem. I mean lots of kids get bullied you look at some of these teens and how they will decide how one person will be the target and just horrible things have happened. Hazing happens and happily we have been able to abate some of that but not all and again LGBT teenagers are particularly susceptible to that kind of conduct. And we have to be vigilant to make sure there is enforcement and I agree with you about mandatory reporting and on the front end prevention. You see I am a great believer in prevention as well as enforcement. And making sure we do everything we can to raise consciousness, to provide counseling not just to the victims but the bullies because there is something behind that behavior. I think we should take it seriously as not acceptable behavior and something we can work against.
PR: Our transgender community needs special consideration as they experience far disproportionate discrimination in employment, health care and police protection than the LGB community does. The Chicago transgender community has been concerned about being marginalized for some time. For example, police in Lakeview have been accused of unfairly targeting transgender women of color and charging them with solicitation without just cause. How will you begin to unravel the problem as mayor and establish new standards for safety and treatment in this community?
Senator: Well let me say this, I think we as city have happily done more than most cities in terms of sensitizing and educating our law enforcement personal in terms of LGBT issues. I think we need to add the transgender issues to that education and sensitivity training if you will. So it's also a matter of dealing with how the police deal with people of different races. Anytime you are the other it is much easier to target you. I think that it is important our law enforcement community be specifically trained that just because someone is different doesn't mean they are breaking the law and your job is to enforce the law fairly and equally without regard to any of these differentiations among people.
PR: Excellent. We are in dire economic straits right now and the LGBT community of Chicago wants to be sure that Mayor Moseley Braun will protect funding for key programs: housing, health, social services which are a priority for special populations. How will you make this work with the massive budget shortfalls the city is facing?
Senator: Well, this is a time for austerity. This is a time for being smart about the way that we handle our budget. This is a time to make better use of what resources we have in the city. Issues of housing affect everybody. Issues of programs in terms of city programs affect everybody. And so I am determined to do what we can without raising taxes. I'm against any tax increases. But without raising taxes, to take the resources we have and do a better job in using them to have administrative efficiencies, to apply the best practices from the private sector in terms of how we run government, and to eliminate some of the wasteful activities that are currently going on. As we do that, that will free up resources to be able to make sure that we don't eliminate the kinds of functions that matter to us as a matter of policy.
PR: Two final questions. Will you look beyond North Halsted? The Southside the Westside and underrepresented racial, gender and religious constituents of our LGBT community in making decisions about allocation of resources and in seeking inclusive policy input.
Senator: Well, that is a great question and to me that is exactly what my candidacy is about. This is a city of neighborhoods and the sum of all of its parts is greater than the whole. That is what creates Chicago. And so I am committed to see to it that the neighborhoods, all of them, get the same allocation, get the same kind of attention, the same kind of support from city hall as we can manage to give them. Right now there is an imbalance and what we are seeking is balance. What we are seeking is fairness and equity and make certain that our responses to the community to the neighborhoods are appropriate for the neighborhoods. We want to respond to people's needs not just a one size fits all kind of solution. But one that prioritizes and respects the interests of people in the neighborhoods where they live. And that will change from one neighborhood to the other of necessity but if we are balanced and even handed in our approach then I think we can achieve the best result for everybody.
PR: One final question. When the city first begin reaching out to the LGBT community under Mayor Washington the body existed under the mayor's office. So the access to the mayor was quite direct from the first liaison Kit Duffy. Later as the Advisory Council grew it was folded into the department of Human Relations though Chicago's LGBT community has seen many advances in the past 20 years. There are many issues still plaguing the community from violence problems, to problems with the police department as we discussed earlier. The community would be better served by an Advisory Council under the mayor's office. Would you consider doing this? And if so how quickly could you make this change happen?
Senator: Well to begin with I am a member of the [Chicago] LGBT Hall of Fame and that came about through the advisory council. But, it is just that an advisory council. I think the mayor's office itself has to have direct connections and direct contact with leadership in the various communities and that is going to be an issue - that's something right out of the gate that would have to be attended to in the first 100 days as they say. To make certain that we have representatives so that every community feels like it is connected. No, not feels like. So that every connected community is connected to the mayor's office, has communications with the mayor's office, and has a liaison that can actually can be the communications bridge.
PR: And that includes the LGBT community?
Senator: Oh of course, I am sorry yes, of course including the LGBT community. But there are a number of different constituents - I was with ministers yesterday they asked the exact same question. I've been with some of the social action groups. Same question. So, I think that if we are thoughtful in the way that we approach this to make sure that every constituency, every stakeholder to use a term, has a direct connection and I think that is not only possible to be done; but that is what Mayor Washington set out to do and he was successful at it and I don't see why we don't go back and try to recapture that.
PR: Thank you so much Senator, I really appreciate it, and it has been a pleasure to meet you.