When former Chicagoan Steven Bigden-Russell moved to Illinois' northernmost town, Winthrop Harbor, to pursue a teaching job some 12 years ago, he probably never anticipated entering local politics. Today, that's exactly where he finds himselfone of 14 candidates running for four open positions on the Winthrop Harbor District 1 School Board.
In such a crowded field, it might seem difficult for any candidate to set oneself apart from other challengers. But as an openly gay man, married with three children in a somewhat conservative Lake County town with a population of slightly more than 6,500, standing outor "being the square peg in the round hole," as he put itis something Bigden-Russell has grown somewhat accustomed to by now.
While he and many of his friends and family members were initially concerned his sexual orientation could be a point of concern for the town's voters, he recently told Windy City Times the district's financial challenges have, by and large, overshadowed his somewhat unique family structure. He said he is optimistic regarding his chances for success in the town's April 5 election.
"I didn't initially believe the community would accept me and here, for the most part, it is," Bigden-Russell said. "I think, in a way, because this is such a crisis moment for so many families here, my being an openly gay man has gone into the background, but I'm not sure it would be that way if everything else was perfect."
He said the voters' largest concerns are avoiding any further increases in taxes as well as avoiding cutssuch as bus servicewithin the school district. He added his reputation within the community as a well-liked teacher, currently leading a third-grade classroom, has also helped him gain support. For the most part, everyone either "already knows or doesn't care."
Bigden-Russell's experience as an educator wasn't always such an asset, however. He said that when he first began teaching, he remained in the closet, fearful that his sexual orientation may be discovered and potentially lead to his firing. However, when he and husband Bob, whom he began dating nearly 20 years ago, initiated the process to become adoptive parents and underwent required training sessions, he was convinced that leading an open life would set a better example for their future child.
"One of the things they taught is how kids look to their parents for cues on how to act and feel," he said. "And they said you have to always make sure that when your kids are around you, you hold your head up tall and proud and that was it. From that day forward, I talked more about Bob and about my family and it just was what it was."
Also, while there are few families quite like theirs in Winthrop Harbor, the Bigden-Russells have turned to Internet groups like Rainbow Families to connect with other gay and lesbian parents. During Steven's summers off from school, they frequently go on camping trips to meet with other gay and lesbian-led families in places like Saugatuck, Mich., or Provincetown, Mass. It is on a Colorado-bound road trip, going on two years ago, where they decided to stop over in Iowa and apply for a marriage license.
Through living their lives more openly, Bigden-Russell said he has watched as colleagues, both at school and in the school board race, have seen their somewhat negative opinions of LGBT peoples' lives change for the better. Most notably, he referenced his alliance of sorts forged with another board candidate, Misty Bestler. They've brought their campaigns together under the slogan "A win for our kids in Winthrop Harbor" and pledged to bring the board's focus back to the students in the district.
Although Bestler's politics tend to be more conservative, he said their ideologies for the district's priorities moving forward are largely the same. In the end, that commonality is far more important, he said.
"We've become very close over the last eight weeks," Bigden-Russell said. "She's told me that she didn't understand gay people before we started working together and she said the other day that she wondered if I was sent here to help change peoples' views and lives."
"I think we've changed peoples' perceptions of the gay community just by being us and who we are, by living our lives and showing them that we're regular people just like everyone else," he added.