When Connecticut State Rep. Jason Bartlett recently came out to the public, he did more than make a declaration about his life—he made history. According to The Victory Fund—an organization that supports LGBT elected officials—Bartlett is now the first openly gay, Black state legislator in the country's history.
Bartlett, 41, recently talked with Windy City Times about his reasons for coming out as well as the feedback he has gotten from the public and his family ( including his college-age sons ) .
Windy City Times: Why did you decide to come out at this point?
Jason Bartlett: I ran three times, and I always knew that I could be outed during my campaigns. I talked with one of my best friends—who's gay and political—and I decided that if I ever won, I'd come out because I didn't want that distance between myself and the voters. And I didn't want someone else try to define me by twisting the fact that I am gay for their own political motivation.
So I knew that I was going to come out after I won. Somebody on my campaign [ team ] said, 'Come out now,' ... but the whole conversation is a struggle. I didn't want people to think I was hiding something from them.
People felt after I came out that I shouldn't have [ done it ] , saying 'You shouldn't have to.' Other people hugged me and cried because they were so happy, and [ coming out ] was affirming to them. So people had different reactions.
My struggle was that, well, I'm 41 and I hadn't come out and, quite frankly, I was doing what I wanted to do. Like I told a local paper, I raised two kids, I went to PTA meetings, I coached basketball, I went to all the games and got to know the other parents, I had my own business and ran for office. So when you get into a comfort zone, why upset the apple cart? I was achieving my goals and living my life.
Looking back, if I had come out [ sooner ] , would some of my personal relationships have been better? Yes. Would I have been closer to some friends? I don't know. However, I would say my biggest regret of not coming out is not sharing your partner with the larger family—the voters. I was in a relationship for over 10 years and [ not coming out sooner ] was a regret.
As a politician, you want people to not look at you personally—not to look at your lifestyle, your [ race ] or if you've put on some weight. You want people to say, 'Wow. You went up to the capital and you took a strong stand on taxes.' You want to develop a record and be able to stand on that record [ without ] your personal life distracting voters. [ Coming out ] was a balance I had to strike and I hope that I did it well and right. Hopefully, the voters will see that I'm proud of my record and will not [ refuse ] to vote for me because I'm gay or Black.
WCT: Besides the media knocking on your door, what would you say is the biggest change in your life?
JB: [ Pauses. ] I guess the biggest change is actually being introspective about what you're asking me—asking and answering questions I'd put in the back of my mind on a daily basis. I didn't care why I wasn't out and I didn't think about the social dynamics of it all. I don't think about the fact that I'm Black and that my district is 96 percent white—I don't think about these things. I'm very goal-driven and I'm about being me and enjoying life, so coming out is like, 'OK. You're African-American, you're gay...' I think the biggest difference is just thinking about where I am in my life. I've closed a chapter and turned a page; I'm looking forward to being in my 40s and being out.
WCT: When you decided to come out, did you have any idea you'd be making history?
JB: No. [ Laughs. ] The Victory Fund had mentioned to me the day before that they were continuing to research that I was the openly gay African-American state lawmaker, and that would capture people's attention. They thought that I'd give a local interview, I'd tell the state paper and that I'd never talk about it again—and that was my plan. [ But ] by the time I drove from my district to the capital, I had already begun to receive e-mails. I happen to love [ the Web site ] Towleroad and when I checked it, there I was. I was like, 'Oh, my God.'
I had also reached out to the National Black Justice Coalition because I wanted to do what I'm doing now—I wanted to allow myself to be more open with the coalition because I'm African-American. I wanted to be able to talk about those issues a little more intimately, and I knew it wasn't applicable with my district because it's white.
I did the Human Rights Campaign dinner in New York. I was asked that Thursday to attend and give a speech. I also got to meet [ actress/singer ] Vanessa Williams.
WCT: Wow—you're like a celebrity now.
JB: [ Laughs. ] Yeah, and I'm waiting for the video. I put the speech together and I was able to say things to 1,000 gay men that I thought I'd never have the opportunity to say. I talked about coming out, like if you don't come out to your family, you create oppression for yourself. [ That's why ] I decided to come out to my larger family, the voters; I removed that [ self-imposed ] construct. I also talked about Clinton, [ Obama ] and how it's a historic year—and that, as a community, we need to make it historic for our own agenda. We need to have an inclusive agenda, and people of color have different issues than our white brothers and sisters—and that there are resources for everyone.
Then, I spoke of a challenge to myself regarding the transgender issue; last year, I openly admitted that I didn't know much about the issue and that I didn't stop the Republicans when they started their potty talk about whose going to use what bathroom, which went on for about an hour. I pledged to not be silent this year and to educate myself—which is what we need to know to advance our community.
WCT: How long have you been out to your family?
JB: Right after college—in my early 20s. I was in my first relationship and we broke up; it's hard to have a relationship if you don't tell your family. So I did address that right away because I really wasn't a happy person.
WCT: How have your sons dealt with all of this newfound attention?
JB: I just spoke with my older son. I didn't know what was going to happen and I guess they [ didn't know ] that it would be bigger for them. I warned them that this would be in the paper but they said that it wouldn't be an issue for them; [ however, ] it sounds like the oldest son has gotten more phone calls than I did. People he played football with and who know him... yeah, they got a lot of phone calls. [ My older son ] got phone calls from people he hadn't heard from in years; there was a fairly intense reaction from younger kids—not that there was anything negative. I guess they all wanted to verify for themselves. [ Laughs. ]
WCT: You said that you would approve a same-sex marriage bill—but with one caveat, regarding religious institutions.
JB: Basically, the marriage bill doesn't force religious institutions to marry anybody. So I think it's totally appropriate to pass a bill that doesn't force [ such institutions ] to act any differently than they do now. The benefits gained through a marriage license are government and societal benefits; they're spiritual [ only ] among the two parties. Religious folk who oppose same-sex marriage are trying to incite fear in people that their institutions are going to be affected, and that's just not the case.
Photo by Jeffrey Holmes/HRC.