On Dec. 17, 1990, well before passage of civil unions and legal marriage for gay couples, 34-year-old Connecticut State House member Joseph Grabarz did something few other elected officials had done around the country: public identification as gay. He did so at a press conference at the State Capitol that gained national attention at a time few openly gay elected officials discussed their private lives.
For Grabarz, it was about making a public statement in support of basic civil rights protections that had been unavailable. The result of his efforts delivered passage of a gay and lesbian civil rights bill that was backed by then-State Senator Margaret Morton. On Wednesday Grabarz was the keynote speaker at an event at the government building that bears her name with a flag raising commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City that became a flashpoint for the gay liberation movement.
Grabarz praised the leadership of Morton as well as Mayor Joe Ganim for hosting the event with assistance from former City Councilman John Brannelly. Grabarz was introduced by attorney John Stafstrom, former Democratic Town Chair who in 2013 became the first openly gay ringmaster of the Barnum Festival. Addressing the crowd in the plaza of the Morton Government Center Stafstrom described Grabarz as the “gay pride pioneer” of Bridgeport and Connecticut.
Grabarz and Ganim then raised the gay pride flag atop the government center that is now sandwiched by the flags of the United States and State of Connecticut.
Grabarz won his State House seat in 1988 defeating incumbent Mario Testa in a primary. Yes, that Mario Testa who is now Democratic Town Chair. Grabarz won reelection two years later. Grabarz went on to become head of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union for a time. He is currently a state lobbyist who continues to have a pulse on things political in Connecticut.
What follows is an interview I conducted with Grabarz that appeared in the March 3, 1991 edition of The New York Times. Grabarz sat down with me in his Bridgeport home to share observations a few months after he made national news. The interview also appears in my book Connecticut Characters, Personalities Spicing Up The Nutmeg State.
Q. Why did you publicly announce your homosexuality?
A. It was important for my own personal growth and development. In order to feel the kind of pride and self-esteem I was beginning to feel about myself. It was important to begin discussing everything about myself with other people. There are a couple of reasons that were important for me doing it. I’ve become increasingly involved in the gay rights movement. I’ve been increasingly aware of how my being gay has formed me as a person, and it was more important for me to be open now.
One of the other reasons was that this year Connecticut has probably one of the best opportunities to pass a gay-lesbian civil rights bill. We have for the first time a Governor (Lowell Weicker) who supports it and who will actively lobby for it and who will say right up front that he will sign it.
I think that my coming out and being openly gay within the legislature will help perhaps some of my colleagues who might have a problem with the issue to understand it a little bit more.
The third reason is that I’m seeing an incredible rise in intolerance in the country, and in particular Connecticut, that makes it imperative that more people speak out. It’s an intolerance against difference and against a diversity in general.
Q. What has been the response from colleagues in Hartford and your constituents in Bridgeport?
A. The response from my colleagues has been absolutely phenomenal. The Speaker of the House, Richard Balducci, came to the press conference. He called me into his office later and said if anyone in the building was treating me differently that I was to speak to him about it, and he would personally intercede.
My legislative colleagues, some people who I’ve been on opposite sides with on many issues, have said that they have had renewed or increased respect for me. One, because I was open, and two, they felt I had the guts to do it.
There have been some snickers and stares, but the general overall atmosphere, particularly that has permeated down from leadership on both sides of the aisle has put that at a minimum and helped some people in the legislature overcome their personal biases.
I have heard from many constituents. A few of the responses have been disappointing, but most of the responses have been very positive and from some corners that I would not have expected, Republicans, conservatives, older people, people from every ethnic and racial group.
I don’t think in the long run it’s going to have a major impact on my constituency. People in Bridgeport really feel like the situation has gotten desperate, and that the problems they face every day in life are very serious. If they see that someone is working on those problems and is trying as hard as they can to address what their concerns are, then I think they are willing to overlook whatever personal differences they might have.
If there’s somebody in Bridgeport who thinks that it’s more important to vote for somebody because of their sexual orientation rather than their approach to crime, rather than how we solve the budget problem, rather than how we get Bridgeport out of the mess that it’s in, then those people probably aren’t rational enough to be voting.
Q. Ridicule is arguably a politician’s most dangerous enemy. How are you prepared to deal with it?
A. Quite often ridicule is dangerous when it comes from people in the community who are generally respected. When it comes from people who are being negative or mean-spirited or hateful, then it can become a positive tool. The small amount of ridicule that I’ve received has been from people who fall into those categories. In some ways that can engender more support from people who otherwise might not necessarily have been supportive.
I got a death threat. I got a call from someone who said, “I hope you gets AIDS and die.” I got a call from someone who said that they hoped that I die, and if I don’t, that they have some friends who are willing to make that happen. One person commented that if his son grew up to be gay, that he’d kill him. These are very bizarre, violent and hateful remarks.
Q. How have your gay and heterosexual friends reacted?
A. It represented something perhaps that I did not accurately judge ahead of time. I had come out to my family, I had come out to my friends, but they had not come out to their friends and associates as being somebody who is a friend of someone who is gay.
While I had no problem, and they had no problem with the relationship with me, a lot of my friends and family members did find that they had to deal with it with their friends and relatives, and that represented a step that I should have been more aware of beforehand.
I emphasized in the press conference that this was a purely personal decision. To highlight that, I made a point of not discussing this before it with anyone. I had discussions for several years with people about how far out I was or whether there was even a need to do a press conference. But I did not discuss having this particular press conference or making this particular announcement with anyone.
There was some negative reaction from political associates, friends and family members for not notifying them. Some felt I deprived them of the opportunity to be able to stand with me when I did it. In many ways, I regret not discussing it with more people.
Q. Have any of your political associates expressed concern about you possibly forcing them out of the closet?
A. There are a lot people who are gay and in the closet and need to overcome their own self-hatred. We as a society train people who are gay to hate themselves. I wish and pray for their own personal well-being that all of these politicians who are in the closet think about their own self hatred and homophobia come out.
We could overcome a lot of the problems that gay people face if gay people in positions of power begin discussing it more openly. However, I do not believe, because it is such an issue of personal importance, that outing a public official is in either that person’s best interest or the community’s best interest, with perhaps one exception, and that is if there is a public official who is gay, who is in the closet, who is being hurtful to the gay community, who is voting and working against the gay community’s interest, which there are a few. I believe those people should be outed.
Q. What public contribution do you want your decision to have?
A. I want society, particularly people in Connecticut, to understand more what it is to be gay. I would like to see the state pass legislation that guarantees the civil rights of gays and lesbians in housing and employment, in credit and in accommodations. It is very possible this year in Connecticut. There are two states that have done that already. Connecticut has come very close on two occasions. Now is the time to pass it.
Q. You defeated your Democratic primary opponent by 30 votes. Do you expect to be re-elected in 1992.
A. I expect to be state representative for as long as I want to be. People voted for me because they felt I represented their interests and I worked hard for the City of Bridgeport.
There have been perhaps a dozen people in the country who have done what I’ve done at the state level, who have come out publicly. All of those people who have wanted to run for reelection have been re-elected. They represent areas of rural Maine, small towns in Vermont, they represent places in Minneapolis, the State of Washington, large cities like New York and San Francisco.
Q. It is lonely to be the only openly gay state lawmaker?
A. It’s difficult being the only identifiable gay elected official in Connecticut, because on every issue that affects the gay community, people look at me as the resource for what the reaction of the entire gay community is, and of course the gay community is just as diverse as any other community.
Sometimes that’s a big burden for me to carry, and sometimes I wish I had other people to share that with. Sometimes, it’s lonely. I have a message to all of those people who are elected officials who might be in the closet; come on in, the water’s fine.