The Comfort Zone
I grew up in Portland before it became the progressive haven people now believe it to be. For people of color there has always been, and continues to be, fewer opportunities, limited access to basic services, and risk of displacement. I came out as a gay man in my early 20s, although to be honest, I was never actually in the closet. As a child and young adult, I wasn’t bullied, harassed or mocked for being gay. But what did happen was exclusion, implicit bias, presumption of ill will, unjustified fear, and otherness. Yes, growing up in Oregon was uncomfortable.
My first job in politics and public policy was in the Oregon Legislature. With the exception of one state senator and his legislative assistant, there were no other Black people in the state capitol. None. By my third legislative session, there were two Black legislators, their staff, but only me on the policy staff. Just me. Transportation was my focus and I managed a committee that was chaired by a conservative Democrat from Coos Bay who trusted me and gave me considerable authority over the committee’s operations. The transportation lobby consisting of and representing – truckers, loggers, farmers, ranchers, boaters – are among the most conservative constituencies in the capitol and are instrumental in Oregon’s unique racial history. Often when I made a decision they didn’t like, they appealed to the committee chairman or the speaker of the house for an answer rather than negotiate a resolution with me, the Black gay man designated with that authority. That was certainly within their rights, but it did not go unnoticed that these types of appeals occurred far less frequently with other white and presumably straight committee administrators. Their cavalier and dismissive attitude spoke volumes about their implicit bias against me as either Black, gay or both.
Later in my career, I worked in the White House HIV/AIDS Policy Office. This was the first time I was hired to manage a specific constituency – Black people, gay people, and Black gay people. This was a role I was proud to take on again and again; walking the fine line of politics between these two constituencies who often fail to truly understand one another. While working as a senior policy advisor busy with leveling the playing field for big city government contracts. I was asked to manage a request from the gay chamber of commerce. They wanted me to add gay-owned businesses to the minority contract program. In a meeting the chamber director implored me to adjust the policy and appease her members she said, the current system puts an unfair burden on gay owned business, they need two sets of business cards – a gay one and a not gay one. Barely stifling a smirk, I looked at her and said the program exists because, as a Black man I can’t do that. She’d failed to understand that when a Black person offers a business card, the skin on the outstretched hand is Black and there is no hiding that with a quick trip to Kinkos. On that note the conversation ended.
When I took on these roles I knew what I signed up for: complicity in the structural racism of the electoral system. If the system allowed more leaders of color to the table in the first place it is unlikely they would need someone like me to represent the government to the public. Ideally, I should be working myself out of a job. Setting race and sexuality aside, my career has evolved because I care deeply about good governance and the well-being of all people. And during more than twenty-five years of living in Washington, D.C. and New York City, I experienced the richness of diverse communities with greater diversity in the local leadership. And there was comfort is that, for a while.
However, I chose to come back to Oregon where I knew things are still not as progressive as people believe it is. I have chosen to find comfort with discomfort. At this point in my life, I have worked in every branch and at every level of government and I am still in the world of politics and policy. I am keenly aware of the tremendous responsibility and opportunity that brings. And there have been unexpected benefits from me being an out and proud Black gay man in government both to myself and the communities I’ve been tasked to represent. In 1999, after I left the Oregon legislature and the state, a bill prohibiting local governments from enacting anti-gay laws was one vote shy of passing. At the last minute, my former boss, the conservative Democrat from Coos Bay, agreed to deliver the winning vote on the bill. He said he voted for the bill because he would hate to see his friend, Steve Lee, face discrimination because of his sexuality. After his death, his son shared that his dad was most proud of that vote over any other in his 30-year political career. I too, am proud of his vote. It turns out those early years of finding comfort in discomfort in Oregon paid dividends I’d never imagined.
Steve Lee is a Portland resident and Governor Kate Brown’s Affirmative Action Manager.