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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Mayor-elect Bruce Harris
Meet Bruce Harris.

He's Black. He's openly gay. He's Republican.

And, he's the Mayor-elect of Chatham Borough, NJ.

With a total turn-out, including mail-in ballots, of 36.89 percent, Harris was elected mayor with 1,211 votes to incumbent Democrat Mayor Nelson Vaughan's 889.

Folks in town are calling this mayor "one-of-a-kind": Black, openly gay, AND Republican. Some are scratching their heads trying to find someone in all three categories in a similar post.

Black? Yes. Openly gay? Yes. Republican? Not so much.

Then again, one of the terms of endearment for Chatham (admittedly, by most Democrats and a few Republicans) is "Republicanville". One of the members of my former church used to lovingly call it "MayberryUSA" because it is almost stereotypically "Small Town USA".

And, that's just the way folks there like it, thank you very much. Indeed, it is one of the platforms on which Harris based his campaign. He promised to keep the "small town" nature of Chatham Borough intact.

I personally think it's pretty remarkable that a person of color - specifically, an African-American - was elected in a town which, according to the 2010 Census, counts 89 black residents in a total population of 8,962.

Did I mention that he's a Republican?

He's also 30 year resident of "Republicanville" who is has also worked tirelessly as a member of the Borough Council.

Harris is an attorney who also holds an MBA and has 15 years of corporate experience. He began volunteering in municipal government more than a decade ago, and was selected to fill a vacant seat on the council after a mayoral election. Harris was re-elected to the council in 2005 and again in 2008. This was his first mayoral campaign.

Most folk in town are pooh-poohing the fact that he's gay. "Openly" gay.

Indeed, Leanna Brown, a borough resident and former state senator, was quick to note,
"I think it speaks very well of the borough," she said.

"I think we've gone through an interesting time," she said. "There've always been people who have made their sexual preferences known, and people didn't care. If 30 years ago people were making a big deal about [sexuality], Bruce wouldn't have made it."
Well, there it is, then. Big deal or not, make of that what you will.

Oh, and Mrs. Brown, it's "sexual orientation". Not "sexual preference". No big deal, except, well, it is, actually. I don't mean to upset or bother you, but allow me just a few seconds to explain.

One has to do with the way your are born. The other connotes a choice. Like, you know, you could, but you won't because of your preference, instead of you can't (or, won't) because of your orientation.

Anyway, where was I? (Isn't it amazing that we still, after all these years, have to do this wee bit of education? Especially since it's no longer such a 'big deal'.)

Oh, yes. Here's what really amazes me: I'm amazed that this "news" hasn't made it "out" in the Press. Especially the gay press.

I've talked with several of my colleagues and friends in surrounding towns and no one - not one person - was aware of the results of the election. One - an African-American LGBT person - knows the man and his family and was astounded to hear the news. Which, I should point out, is almost a month old.

Okay, okay. With a population of only 8,962 residents, maybe it's not exactly headline news. Besides, people in Chatham like their small-town and want to keep it that way, remember?

So, maybe the spotlight wouldn't exactly be welcomed - especially since we don't want to make a "big deal" about sexuality, remember?

Well, it's a big deal to me and lots of other LGBT people who don't want our sexuality to be a big deal, either, but it is a "big deal" when one of us is elected to public office.

Denis Dison, the vice president of communications for The Victory Fund, believes Harris is likely the first openly gay, black Republican to be elected mayor in the country.
"We could not think of another," Dison said. "There have been a few openly gay African Americans who have been elected mayors in their town, but not Republicans.

"We have a very knowledgeable board, and they could not think of another example where this has happened," Dison said.

"When you see someone who can speak not just to the gay community, but the African American community and the Republican Party, that's a powerful thing," Dison said. "It speaks of the acceptance of gays and lesbians in public life."
It's a real cause for celebration when "one of us" is recognized and valued for our intelligence and commitment and skills and abilities because, as we've been saying all along, our sexual orientation isn't a "big deal". It's just one aspect of the totality of our humanity - which some people would like to make a "big deal" - and the defining quality of our existence.

It's not. Neither is the color of a person's skin. Or, I hasten to add, one's gender. This is a victory not only for Chatham but for all socially progressive people of whatever political party everywhere.

So, I guess if someone has to toot our own horn, I might as well be the one.

Let me also sound a note of caution and a request for prayer for this brother.

Less than twenty-four hours after his defeat, Mayor Vaughan abruptly resigned from office - clearing off his desk and handing in is resignation at 3 PM on the Wednesday after the Tuesday, November 8th, election.

During his campaign, Mayor Vaughn was asked his opinion about his opponent. He reportedly said, "Isn't it nice that Chatham has gotten so tolerant." I can't find a link to anything online, but I have it on good authority from more than a hand-full of Chatham residents that this is what the man said.

He's gotten a great deal of flack for that statement, as well as his abrupt resignation, as he should.

Note: This is Mr. Vaughn's letter of resignation as printed in The Independent.  He writes: "Chatham has broken historic boundaries in electing Bruce Harris, and demonstrated tremendous tolerance."

The man has resigned but he just won't quit.

The Borough Council is now in turmoil, trying to appoint an Interim Mayor.  They heard from three candidates last night who were willing to step into the little more than two month position but couldn't come to a decision. There is now a special Council Meeting called for next week to make that decision.

None of this bodes well, despite the predictable "positive spin" everyone is trying to put on it - and Chatham is residence to more spin-masters than Michigan has lakes or Georgia has peanut farms. Like most affluent suburbs, presentation is very important. There are property values to consider.

Admittedly, the former Mayor's words and behavior do not cast him in the best light, but it also must be said that he has, most unfortunately and inadvertently, tarnished the borough's name in doing so.

I hope Denis Dison of the Victory Fund is right about acceptance. I fear it speaks more of 'tolerance' - especially when one doesn't 'make a big deal' of one's sexual orientation.

Tolerant? Who wants to be "tolerated"? I know only too well what that feels like, and I can tell you from personal experience - as well as those of others who are "other" - that those who say they are "tolerant" will be the first to try to cut you off at your knees because of the color of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, or your class status.

Oh, they'll say it's because of you - because you aren't always "nice", perhaps because you made a "big deal" of something they'd rather not look at or own or admit or do - but when you are "tolerated" and not "accepted", you know. You understand.

Tolerance is the lowest minimum standard for life in community - at least, as I know it as a Christian who is also an American. I 'tolerate' people I dislike because I know that, even though I don't like them, Jesus loves them. (I know. Go figure.).

Because I'm an American, I know that everyone is "endowed with certain inalienable rights". I am compelled to treat others as I would have them treat me - with respect for the dignity of every human being - whether I like it - or them - or not.

Tolerance is hard work, but it's even harder not to let people know that they are being "tolerated" but respected for who or what they are.

And yet, the conundrum is that unless you make your "otherness" at least "a deal" (albeit not a "big deal"), you aren't ever going to get passed "tolerance" and onto "acceptance".  I'm still working that out for myself.  I can say this much: it ain't easy. Still not. After 35 years.

I think that's called "micro-oppression". It's like the death of your soul by a thousand paper cuts of tiny acts of oppression - some of which are self-inflicted.

Significantly, a little more than a third of the residents of the borough voted for the man.  That's not a resounding mandate but, then again, the man they voted for was a thirty-year resident with a proven record of service and leadership and an impeccable set of skills and abilities and credentials who promised to work to keep the "small town" nature the same.
"I am not doing this to be a trailblazer. ... I never think of it that way," he said. "I just remember that when I first moved [to Chatham], I woke up and I thought, 'Oh, it's so nice and quiet here.'"

Harris was raised in Iowa, the oldest of 12 siblings. He moved to the borough from Boston in 1981, into an Elmwood Avenue home that he continues to make changes to and improvements.

"People ask me, 'Why do you do that? Why don't you just move?' I say, 'Well, I love where I live. I love Chatham, and I love my neighborhood,'" Harris said.
No "hope-y-changey" thing for that Republican, even though his election gives many of us hope for change.

My hope is that there will be, one day soon, dear Lord, less and less "one-of-a-kind" mayors - and governors and Presidents of The United States.

Change comes slowly, but when it does, it's a real cause for celebration and joy.

And, hope.

And, not just for a one-of-a-kind change, but the change that brings us closer to living into the image of the one-of-a-kind Realm of God, which is our sure and certain hope.


DeanB said...

This reminded me of Tom Lehrer's song "Natonal Brotherhood Week"

...Step up and shake the hand
Of someone you can't stand
You can tolerate him if you try

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Love Tom Lehrer. Thanks for the memory.