Article Special Series

Reaching Out to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Residents

Given the rich diversity of California’s residents, local officials increasingly seek strategies to fully involve people from many different cultures in their communities. Interviews in three previous issues of Western City explored effective strategies to involve Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino and African-American residents in the civic and political life of their cities. In this article, Mayor Jeffrey Prang of West Hollywood, Vice Mayor Ellen Ward of Signal Hill and Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Dowling of Hayward discuss how cities can better engage and serve their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) populations. Terry Amsler, program director of the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative, and Jude Hudson, Western City editor-in-chief, conducted the interview.

What can cities do to support the involvement of GLBT residents in the civic and political life of their communities, and how are cities doing in this regard?

Jeffrey Prang: GLBT people are the brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, neighbors and co-workers of every resident in our cities. As city officials, we need to support the involvement of GLBT residents into civic and political life for the same reasons that we engage the community at large. Moreover, as a community, we are each enriched by the diversity and unique perspectives shared by GLBT citizens, and I expect that cities throughout America are coming to that realization. That being said, we have a long way to go toward full inclusion and participation of GLBT people in local government.

Kevin Dowling: Local officials should recognize that in many — if not most — cities, GLBT residents are invisible to local officials and others. People may gather elsewhere, some individuals may not be “out” and there may not be local organizations ready to step up and represent GLBT communities. While this presents challenges, local officials should remember that their constituents do include GLBT residents. The more that a city hall presents a welcoming atmosphere to these residents, the greater the potential there will be for their participation in local civic and political affairs.

Ellen Ward: The City of Signal Hill is such a small community that its local officials have an advantage — we all know people who are part of the GLBT community. In addition, several local groups, including Friends of the Cultural Arts, Friends of the Library and Friends of Parks and Recreation, have representatives from throughout the community. We personally contact people and get GLBT representatives on most of our commissions.

Can you suggest any specific strategies that local governments should consider when seeking to engage GLBT residents?

Kevin Dowling: The GLBT residents of many communities (especially smaller ones), may participate in organizations, festivals, fairs, parades and other activities in neighboring cities in the region. Consider outreach at these events and through these organizations, because your residents may be among the participants. You can also encourage GLBT residents to organize pride-related events in your own city. Support the recognition of this community’s history and their contributions, and this will encourage their involvement in your city’s affairs. Of course, the appointment of GLBT residents to city committees and commissions can be a powerful message to encourage more involvement from this community.

Jeffrey Prang: West Hollywood has been successfully organizing the GLBT community in civic participation since the formation of the city in the early 1980s. Considering that our city council has a gay majority, communicating to GLBT residents that their elected officials care about them and their issues and share a concern for the well-being of the community has been extremely important in supporting civic engagement.

All too often, some of the most important outreach in the GLBT community has been in response to crises, such as the AIDS epidemic. We have successfully organized GLBT forums for those living with HIV, and we confront these issues through a direct and open exchange of ideas, information and experiences. Critical dialogue between city governments and GLBT residents should be ongoing and public, whether that community building takes the form of GLBT pride parades, town hall meetings or public comment at city council meetings. When people know that they are genuinely respected and valued, civic participation goes through the roof.

Ellen Ward: I would recommend contacting the leadership of local groups and organizations, including centers for gays and lesbians and gay churches, to issue a personal invitation to participate in an event or activity. The leaders can get in touch with the people you need to reach.

Are there relevant historical or other factors that local officials should be aware of when seeking to engage GLBT residents?

Kevin Dowling: Prejudice certainly continues to be an issue, and the battles fought by the GLBT community to marry, serve openly in the military, give blood and enter the country on an equal basis with others contributes to the perception that they are not welcome members of the larger community.

Jeffrey Prang: For centuries, gay and lesbian people have been discriminated against and often persecuted. Today, different but no less pernicious vestiges of that sad legacy still exist. I believe that above all else, GLBT people seek dignity and equal recognition — regardless of their sexual orientation — in civic participation. The identification of members of the GLBT community as tokens of the “open-mindedness” of otherwise non-welcoming environments is not representation at all. GLBT people have struggled from time immemorial to reconcile their historic civic contributions and the ire of a community that would not accept the whole of their identity. I believe that GLBT residents stand to continue making tremendous contributions to their communities, as long as civic leaders reach out in an open and honest manner.

Ellen Ward: Discrimination remains an issue, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. There are people who in their professional positions still have to be guarded about their sexual orientation. Having GLBT participation in city organizations certainly helps to counter that situation.

Are there intermediary organizations that local governments should communicate or partner with to more effectively reach out to and engage GLBT communities?

Jeffrey Prang: The reach of digital media has made engaging with the GLBT community a few short mouse-clicks away. Numerous print publications have long served as forums for education on issues of significance to the gay community. Local community centers, service agencies and local programming are fundamental in building a sense of belonging and solidarity for GLBT people, creating spaces where they know that they will not be questioned or marginalized. GLBT advocacy and political associations also play an important role in identifying and cultivating leaders in our community.

Kevin Dowling: Certainly community centers, nonprofit leadership and advocacy groups and GLBT media can be partners in engagement efforts. In some communities there are welcoming churches, such as the Metropolitan Community Church, that can be conduits for information and outreach as well. Again, you may find GLBT organizations in neighboring cities that attract your residents’ participation and through which you may communicate.

Ellen Ward: Churches are a good conduit for outreach, as are publications serving the GLBT communities. Because there are so many of these print publications, it’s a good idea to contact the gay and lesbian centers to find out which ones are read most so that outreach efforts through GLBT print media are as effective as possible. Otherwise, you may be spinning your wheels. In a large community, set up quarterly or regular meetings, and develop an advisory group that can help reach the larger GLBT community.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Kevin Dowling: We as local officials must engage the full community if the problems we face, from local environmental issues to budget challenges, are going to be successfully addressed. This requires reaching out beyond those who are usually involved and in ways that aren’t limited to the typical newspaper notice and a listing on our city website. As a part of this larger strategy, council members, city managers and other staff can increase their awareness of GLBT communities and speak to them directly about the importance of their participation.

Jeffrey Prang: Regrettably, many GLBT residents do not see their interests and priorities represented in their respective city governments, leaving them feeling devalued and shut out. We cannot ignore that although things are improving, bigotry and homophobia still exist and still pose significant barriers to the advancement of the GLBT community in the workplace and in the public decision-making process. We will all be better off when it’s recognized that the addition of diversity and experiences embodied in GLBT communities is an enrichment — not a diminution — of the civic discourse. However, I am increasingly confident that Californians and the American people continue to demonstrate more and more their fundamental belief in fairness and inclusion for all people, no matter their status.

Ellen Ward: Remember that the GLBT community spans a broad range of incomes, beliefs and professions. This can make it challenging to reach. If you’re holding a big event in a large city, advertise in a widely read GLBT publication to make it clear to the community that its members are welcome. Establishing a GLBT advisory committee to help with outreach is always a good idea.

This article appears in the November 2008 issue of Western City
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