Nick Benton's Corner: Two Posts

all posts from Falls Church News Press by permission of Nicholas Benton owner/editor.

F.C. Makes Virginia History by Electing Gay Afro-American

Written by Nicholas F. Benton

Virginia history was made in the Falls Church city election Tuesday. By being elected to the City Council, Lawrence Webb has become the first openly gay Afro-American elected official in the history of the commonwealth.

Webb, 33, an assistant dean of admissions at Mary Washington University, ran on a slate endorsed by the City’s venerable civic organization, the Citizens for a Better City (CBC) along with Incumbent Mayor Robin Gardner, Incumbent Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry and three School Board candidates.

He wound up with 1,215 votes, 39 ahead of Hockenberry, to win one of the three seats up for grabs in the election, along with Gardner and independent Nader Baroukh.

In a statement to the News-Press following his victory, Webb said, “My sexuality is one aspect of my life and it has not or does not hinder me from completing my job. I hope my election opens the door for others to get involved in public service. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or black or both. What matters is your dedication to building a better community, and your willingness to work hard at it.”

Since moving to the City of Falls Church four years ago, Webb has been involved in volunteer service as a City Council appointee to the City’s Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee, and with the CBC and Village Preservation Society. He notified the News-Press of his decision to run for City Council last fall, and received the nod from the CBC at its nominating convention in February.

Webb said he informed the CBC leadership that he is gay prior to the convention and that they were supportive. But he chose not to make an issue about it as a member of the six-candidate CBC slate until just two weeks before the election.

On April 23, he notified the News-Press that he’d sought and received the financial backing and support of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund in Washington, D.C., an advocacy group that works for the election of openly-gay candidates at all levels of government.

Webb later said he’d also approached the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Club, based in Arlington. Monday, the board of directors of the Partisans formally endorsed Webb, and a widely-disseminated e-mail was sent out to Partisan supporters and friends in Falls Church and elsewhere reporting the news.

On Election Day, the Victory Fund delivered with five young adult volunteers who arrived in Falls Church from Washington, D.C., before the polls opened at 6 a.m. to work for Webb at the five voting precincts in the City.

Led by the Fund’s political manager, Shawn Werner, and Adam Martin, they stayed until the polls closed, and then joined Webb and the other CBC-backed candidates and their supporters at a victory party in the social hall at the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment.

Yesterday, the Victory Fund reported, “Lawrence ran a fantastic campaign, our donors stepped up, and the Victory Fund staff was on the ground before the sun rose Tuesday morning to help turn out our voters. In the end, Lawrence won by just 39 votes.”

In remarks at the party, Webb not only thanked the CBC and its supporters, and promised a hard-working, productive four years on the City Council, but he singled out the Victory Fund volunteers who were standing to the side with his partner, Clifton. They received a thunderous applause.

Other openly-gay elected officials in Virginia include Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette and State Delegate Adam Ebbin. But Webb is the first who is also Afro-American.

Webb will be sworn into formal duties on the Council, where he will serve a four-year term, on July 1. At that time, the seven-member Council will also elect a mayor for the next two years and a new vice-mayor.

In his victory statement, Webb said, “Since moving to the City of Falls Church I have been involved civically and as I gained further knowledge about the city and its leadership, I felt that I could serve on the governing body. I am grateful that the citizens of Falls Church have entrusted me with the responsibility to help guide the direction of our City’s future, and I thank them.

“Growing up in Southern Virginia, I have always had an interest in public service. I became the first African American Student Government Association president at Shenandoah University, which helped me to feel confident in my role in politics. I wanted to seek public office but was unsure of how my sexuality would impact my electability. As I grew socially in Falls Church and met residents, I figured I would run, because my sexuality is one aspect of my life and it has not or does not hinder me from completing my job.”

A Bishop in the Eye of the Storm
Written by Nicholas F. Benton
Thursday, 08 May 2008

The man in the eye of the storm has written a book entitled, “In the Eye of the Storm.” The Rev. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Church Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, was in Washington, D.C. this week, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign to pitch his new book that includes a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The subtitle of the new volume is “Swept to the Center by God.”

Bishop Robinson is a bespectacled, diminutive, soft-spoken but articulate, and gentle man, just the type of devout person you’d expect a bishop to be. His discourse is laced with constant references to God and love and a puckish sense of humor.

It’s hard to imagine that this person is, indeed, at the proverbial center of the storm, the man that has convulsed the entire global Anglican Communion, and led to an ugly rift within the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.

Bishop Gene Robinson is, you see, gay. That is, he is openly gay. As he was introduced prior to making remarks Monday, he is “far from being the first or only gay bishop,” only the first to publicly affirm his sexual orientation.

Since he was elevated to standing as a bishop in 2003, there have been dozens of so-called “breakaway” congregations in the U.S. Episcopal Church led by conservatives and homophobic reactionaries. Most of these defectors have aligned under a new umbrella association led by the bigoted right-wing Bishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, a man who thinks that gays are an “abomination” and any gay behavior should be punishable by stiff prison sentences.

The mild-mannered Robinson said that he’s heard his detractors say they wished he wasn’t such a nice guy. “It would be a lot easier for us if he wasn’t,” they’ve said.

Tongue in cheek, he said he first knew he was gay when, as a youth, he discerned that a painting of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus knocking on a heart-shaped door printed on the back of fans handed out during open-air summertime religious revivals was “tacky.”

But then he went on to affirm the truth behind that “tacky” painting, noting that Jesus does knock at the heart, and that there is only one door knob, which is on the inside. “You have to open that door. He won’t open it for you,” he said.

He talked about his prison ministry, and what it was like to spend Christmas Eve with hardened women convicts. “It’s a terrible night to be in a prison,” he said. “But it’s where the church should be, because these people know they’re in need of God.”

He also told of his travels around the Pacific Rim to learn more about the lives and oppression of lesbians and gays in the Anglican Communion. In Hong Kong, he said, gays met to worship in secret due to the harsh oppression there. But he realized that all of those assembled there were paying very close attention via the Internet to the struggles for equality and affirmation within the Episcopal Church in the U.S. “They’re all following our debate. They know their liberation is tied to ours.”

“Everyone around the world is paying attention to us,” he said. “We are animated by hope, which is better than optimism, because it affirms what the outcome will be in the long haul. We have to toughen up as a community and not let setbacks discourage us.”

Citing the positive reception he got from speaking to the Black Justice Coalition days before, and Bishop Tutu’s foreword to his book, he said that as “a child of the civil rights movement of the 60s,” he knows the key to progress is to “connect the dots.”

By that he meant to imbue with the same hope all the “discounted, despised and marginalized” people of the world. He cited one prisoner, a straight person who’d committed a heinous crime, who chose to worship with a lesbian group. “This is the only community that could love me despite what I’ve done,” she said.

That involves a resolve not to walk away from our enemies, he said. “Don’t just go home. The truth will prevail if you just hang around long enough.” There are parts of the world, he said, where they’ve never sat with unashamedly gay people.

“They want to leave the table, and we can’t make them stay. But we have to have the courage to stay at the table of our enemies. God won’t end his work until everyone’s in.”

He cited the transformative effect of Bishop Tutu’s foreword, where Tutu wrote, “May I wholly inadequately apologize to my sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered for the cruelty and injustice that you have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of us, your fellow Anglicans; I am sorry. Forgive us for all the pain we have caused you and which we continue to inflict on you.”

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