When Dennis Kucinich was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio they called him the “Boy Mayor.” He was 31. This week, a 22-year-old dynamo named Alex Morse was elected mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, an economically challenged old industrial city of about 40,000 citizens. That is a political feat that would be quite enough to bring him on anyone’s radar.
Oh, did I forget to mention Alex Morse is gay?
If I did, it is because Alex won without “gay” ever becoming a campaign issue, pro or con. Yes, there was some trash talk. It was a political campaign after all. His 67-year-old opponent lodged a dismissive “Tell him to graduate college first” comment. Alex punched back with an “Out with the old, in with the new” jab. There was an argument over bringing gambling to Holyoke. (His opponent was for, Alex was against.) And there was talk of what to do about Holyoke having the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the state. There was even a campaign sign stealing fiasco near election day I thought for sure would turn out to be some anti-gay group acting out. But nope. No gay talk. Not a drop.
Alex Morse is a homegrown success story to make the gay community proud. He went through the Holyoke public school system, where at the ripe old age of eleven, he first showed his political bent when joined the city’s Youth Commission, which brought something called “The National Kid’s Vote Program” to Holyoke. In high school, where he faced the usual bigotry, he established a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, then founded “Holyoke for All,” the city’s first LGBT non-profit group, which organized a statewide prom for gay and lesbian teenagers. He did all of this while earning good enough grades to get into Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Even the challenge of life in the Ivy League wasn’t enough to keep Alex from politics. He spent three years of his time in Providence working with that city’s openly gay Mayor David N. Cicilline (Cicilline is now one of four openly gay members of Congress.) Alex made the trip home to Holyoke most weekends so he could work on the Massachusetts Governor’s LGBT Commission. He even managed to find five months to spend in Costa Rica, where he became fluent in Spanish, which incidentally, he regularly used upon encountering Hispanic voters while out knocking on doors during his campaign. Now, with a degree in Urban Studies under his belt, Alex has come home to stay, and he has most definitely shaken things up in Holyoke.
I have heard both pundits and pols suggest that full equality for gays and lesbians is only a generation away; that today’s young adults think of being gay in the same way they think of being left-handed or having a regional accent. It’s just one factor in what makes you, you. Alex Morse may be the vanguard of that new reality. He is gay. He is out. He has worked for the cause. He just won a stunner of a political victory, and as hard as this is to conceptualize; being gay was not a complicating factor in his campaign.
President Obama is not really, as some say, a ‘post-racial” president, and Alex Morse is hardly mayor in a “post sexual equality” world. But in a similar way, both of these men allow us to put our eye to the keyhole of time and catch a glimpse of what that kind of future might look like. I recognize Alex had the well-known tolerance of the Bay State working for him. He also had an opponent who did not raise the gay issue. I wish I knew if that was because polling found it wouldn’t help? Or because his opponent, Mayor Elaine Pluta, the incumbent mayor, held to a personal conviction that sexual identity had no place in a political campaign? Maybe it’s something in the Massachusetts water? If so we need to get some of those tanker planes that put out forest fires and drench America to the skin.
Of course Massachusetts is not Mississippi. I don’t know that I will live long enough to see equality come to those stubbornly homophobic parts of our country. But this week, I got to see what the Promised Land looks like by watching Alex Morse. Make that Mayor-Elect Alex Morse. Remember that name, I have a hunch this will not be the last time he will come On Our Radar.
Jean Ann Esselink is straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
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