In 2008, E. Denise Simmons became the first black, out lesbian mayor in the country. Today she sits on Cambridge City Council.
To commemorate February as Black History month, we asked three locals—Cambridge City Council’s E. Denise Simmons, Multicultural AIDS Coalition’s Gary Daffin, and Hispanic Black Gay Coalition’s Corey Yarborough—to share what it means to straddle two minority communities
By Sam Baltrusis
When E. Denise Simmons became the first gay, African-American female mayor in the country in 2008, she not only opened the door for an entire generation of young, LGBT politicos … she bulldozed it down with a quiet intensity.
“Not only was I the mayor of the city of Cambridge, but I sort of became the mayor of the citizens across the country who were openly gay and realized that they too could rise to the highest of highest because someone like them has done it before,” she says, recently re-elected for her sixth term on the Cambridge City Council and chatting from her daytime gig as owner of the Cambridgeport Insurance Agency. “I’m proud to be in an elected office. I’m proud to be able serve. But, I’m also proud in that capacity because I’m not just a role model, I’m a real model.”
The 60-year-old politician continues, “Recently, a young lady [who was coming out] came up to me and told me she was proud of me for being out. It was important to her that there was someone that she could reach out to, touch and identify with that was openly gay. I’m proud to be that representative.”
E. Denise Simmons
Cambridge City Council
During her mayoral stint in 2009, Simmons became a national public figure of sorts and was catapulted into the media spotlight due to the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. As the race-and-class debate hit the mainstream, she was the voice of Cambridge appearing on a bevy of news outlets ranging from ABC’s Good Morning America to CNN. Meanwhile, Simmons spearheaded a slew of projects to assist Cambridge’s thriving gay community, including the implementation of the Cambridge Public School system’s first LGBT family liaison, someone who works in the school district to help gay-and-lesbian families find schools that will support them as well as their children.
However, when she was first elected to the City Council in 2001, Simmons says she was navigating through uncharted territory. “Before I came into elected office and during my tenure, there weren’t many role models,” she recalls. “At the time, there was no place to go, particularly for women, to see how to negotiate about being openly gay. It was on-the-job training.”
As she moved forward as a public figure, Simmons learned to embrace and integrate all aspects of her psyche, including her race, orientation, and gender. “If I go into a women’s event, I don’t go in as a woman only. I go in as an African-American, gay woman. If it’s a LGBT function, I go in as an African-American woman who is gay. I don’t play to one or pander to the other. I’m all of those things all of the time.”
Her advice to young LGBTs? “It’s incumbent for us to stand up as much and as often as possible. We do ourselves and no one else a service by being in the closet. The closet is a very dark place,” she says.
Simmons, who ran and came in third for the open state senate seat vacated by Anthony Galluccio last year, plans to continue serving the City of Cambridge and do work on a national level to spearhead change within the federal government’s laws that discriminate against same-sex couples. “When I go forward, all of us do. It opens the door for all of us. Every time one of us runs for public office, whether we win or not, it makes it a viable option for someone else in the LGBT community. Every time we exercise our rights in the non-DOMA states and get married, we open the doors for others to come behind us. Every time I do something for my community, the whole race--which includes people of color, women, and the LGBT community — they enter with me.”
Multicultural AIDS Coalition
Originally from Mobile, Alabama, Gary Daffin came out at an early age and eventually became an outspoken African-American voice from the late 1980s on, co-chairing the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus (MGLPC), the state’s oldest legislative advocacy group, and later heading the Multicultural AIDS Coalition (MAC) in 2000.
In hindsight, he says it was rare to see someone from the African-American gay community taking a public stand. “In the early ‘90s, there were very few people who were out. I think black, LGBT folks didn’t feel safe to be out. I decided I was gay when I was five, so I never had all the baggage of thinking there was something wrong with being gay. For me, it was never really a choice. It was who I am,” Daffin recalls.
“At first, it was challenging to other black, gay people to have a black, gay person out and in public and in the community. It was unusual and rare to see black people actively engaged in the LGBT civil rights movement. There were certainly a few people, but there weren’t many of us. I always thought it was very important for the community to see out, gay-and-lesbian folks from the black community,” the 48-year-old activist continues.
Daffin, who believes there’s a cultural hesitancy within the African-American community to talk about sex and sexuality, says he’s noticed a shift in acceptance over the past two decades. “The rate of progress for the LGBT community in America has been astonishing over the past twenty years. I don’t think anyone thought we would approach the time we would successfully gain marriage rights in America. Back in 1990, many people would say that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime. So, the progress we’ve made has been at an incredibly rapid pace, faster than any other movement, yet there is still a long way for us to go,” he adds.
He believes that open dialogue is important to fuel change. “We need to have black people out there, making the case,” he says. “When people see that folks are being discriminated against and hurt by an injustice, black people, more than anyone, are willing to name it and say that it’s not right. Many people believe marriage is a religious issue. It’s not. It’s a civil issue.”
As far as advice for the younger generation, Daffin says the older demographic could learn a thing or two from America’s youth. “Older people can probably get advice from younger people about how to live their lives. So many older people feel like they have to apologize for being gay or they’re uncomfortable to fully express themselves in society. They want to act straight. They don’t want to hold their partner’s hand in public,” he muses.
Daffin says it’s important to be out and proud. “Always be who you are and be yourself everywhere,” he concludes. “Don’t ever make choices based on what other people think you should do or be.”
Hispanic Black Gay Coalition
When Corey Yarbrough made the trek from Washington D.C. to Boston in 2007, he felt like a fish out of water. “When I moved here, I had this feeling of isolation and exclusion,” he recalls. “I was going to a lot of events in the LGBT community and was the only black, gay man in the room. I felt like a token, or organizations were flat out not trying to cater to my experience.”
After discussing his feelings with his partner and key players within the community, he decided to launch the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (HBGC) with co-founder Quincey Roberts in 2009. “The black community, in particular, has rallied behind us and I feel like they were experiencing the same thing I was experiencing,” he says. “The need is there. Before the HBGC, there was no group out there solely dedicated to the black and Latino LGBT community from a service perspective. If I wanted coming-out support from someone who understood my cultural background as a black or Latino person, there wasn’t a go-to organization for that. So, we’re filling that void.”
The 26-year-old says being a newcomer to Boston and starting a non-profit service organization has been both a blessing and a curse. “It’s been a challenge to unite the black and Latino communities. We chose to work with these two communities specifically because we felt like they’re the major populations here that didn’t have support. In addition, there are a lot of commonalities between the black and Latino LGBT communities. When you look at HIV, education and homeless rates, the statistics mirror each other. For us, it’s important that these two communities come together to address these issues because they’re common problems. When we see two populations struggle, they tend to blame each other. We’re trying to bridge that divide.”
Yarbrough says the first black gay male image he saw on TV was from an In Living Color skit, featuring two effeminate men being the comedic relief of the show. “When we have youth growing up and these are the only images they see, we turn around and wonder why we have a down-low culture or why people don’t care about themselves enough to care about protecting themselves in bed. It’s because they are receiving these negative images from the media,” he remarks.
The HBGC’s executive director, who has been working full-time with the organization since last year, says it’s been his mission to be a “real model” for the young, African-American and Latino communities. “It goes a long way to see positive role models, whether it’s on TV, the news or in the political world representing our community or just being proud and living their life,” he adds. “Part of the role the HBGC and my role as a leader is to fight that stigma. I think by having our organization so alive and present in the community, we’re challenging those stereotypes.”
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