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Governing 101: gay politicians are going back to school to learn how to be more effective public officials.

Robert Fyrst represents the bright future of gay polities. In 1999 he became the first openly gay and only African-American member of the 37-member Dane County, Wis., board of supervisor. This year the single father testified before the state legislature against a bill that would ban same-sex marriage.

"A lot of people are invested in marriage being defined as 'one man, one woman,'" Fyrst says, describing his testimony. "But then I tried to bring the argument back to the reality that a lot of people are being denied benefits and rights that everyone else takes for granted. We have to get beyond the days when we go to public hearings and shout and raise hell. We're not going to get everything at once, even though we should."

Fyrst credits the fine-tuning of his argument to a fellowship to the executive management program al Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Thanks to the fellowships, granted by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation, three gay public servants graduated front the three-week program last year and seven graduated this June, including Fyrst. The foundation hopes to sponsor 10 fellows next year.

"One thing I learned [in the program] is that if we are going to keep moving into, the political mainstream, we have to listen very carefully to what others are telling us," Fyrst says. "This is not easy to for a political to say, but we have to consider the possibility that we are wrong once in a while. And we have to think a lot about bread-and-butter politics--education, taxes, and health care--if we are going to enlarge our base."

Gay people have a long way to go in electoral politics. Only three of Congress's 535 members are openly gay. Of the nation's 511,000 slate and other elected officials, 248 are public about their homosexuality, according to the Victory Foundation, an arm of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports gay candidates nationwide.

These numbers make gays and lesbians among the nation's most underrepresented minority groups at an inopportune time. Federal gay rights legislation remains bottled up in a Republican-controlled Congress, and gay politics have taken on an increasingly local bent. For instance, should Congress pass the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, the battle would shift to the states, where gay officials would play a critical role. (Three quarters of state legislatures must approve the amendment for it to become law.)

No one is more aware of this political reality than Fred Hochberg, who dreamed up the fellowship while an openly gay political appointee in the Clinton administration, "Like African-Americans and Latinos, we have a long way to go," says Hochberg, a businessman and philanthropist who underwrites one of the $10,000 fellowships each year. "We have an even smaller base from which to draw. You can't be elected to Congress until you've been elected to local office. This is just one way to identify and support promising leaders at the local level."

Jeffrey Gattas is another leaders who benefited from the program, "Like all public servants, one of the biggest problems I face is having the time to get perspective," says Gattas, chief of staff for San Diego city councilwoman Toni Atkins. "We spend so much time responding to constituents that we forget the larger picture. Some of the main issues are getting trees planted, filling potholes, and taking care of the parks. This is a chance to strategize for the future." Gattas's future may include a run for the city council or the California legislature.

As president of the Atlanta city council, Cathy Woolard is the city's second-most powerful elected official, after the mayor. "The biggest obstacle we face is ourselves: Not enough of us run for office. You can't win if you don't run," says Woolard, another of this year's fellows. "You have to have a high personal comfort level with having your sexual orientation discussed publicly. A lot of gay people are not there quite yet."

Woolard, who is considering running for mayor in 2006, says she was well-prepared for the rigors of electoral politics by seven years as an executive at the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based national gay rights group. "Lesbian was slathered all over my resume already, she says. "There was no getting around it. Dealing with it was old hat to me."

Yet even Woolard occasionally grows weary of the label. "Sometimes it seems like my first name is 'openly gay,' as in 'openly gay Woolard,'" she says. "The local papers seem to affix that label to me all the of course, I don't object. But most of my time is spent on other issues, and I have to make sure my constituents realize that."

Robert Fyrst believes gay officials and voters can combat misperceptions by increasing their involvement in nongay causes. "We need to do more to support our allies in non-gay-specific ways," he says. "We need to go to the PTA meeting and talk about what a great job a legislator did getting trading for a new library. We can't just talk about marriage and domestic-partner benefits."

As the father of an 11-year-old, Fyrst finds that the assimilation process comes naturally. "A few years back," he says, "a friend of my son came over and asked him, 'Is your father getting married?' My son said, 'No, Dad's gay.' They shrugged and went back to playing. So it's a culture shock to go to the state legislature, where adults are concerned about gay marriage. Some day it will be the generation of my son running the legislature. They'll laugh about what a big issue this all was back in the early days of the 21st century."
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Title Annotation:Politics
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 28, 2003
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