Sherry Harris, Washington, 1991
Born February 27
Seattle City Council Member, At-Large
Elected November 1991
Essay by Sherry Harris for Out and Elected in the USA
In 1991 I made history by becoming the first openly gay African American lesbian to be elected to public office in the country. I won a citywide, at-large non-partisan election in a mid-size American city when everyone had told me it would be impossible to win because of my triple minority status. During my tenure I became involved locally, as well as nationally. I traveled around the country speaking and raising money for the lesbian and gay civil rights movement which was under attack through out the nation during that time period. I was honored to be in a position to contribute toward the advancement of lesbian and gay civil rights. My triple minority status proved to be controversial while I was in office, but it gave me a unique perspective on civil rights. As an African American and a woman, I had spent my life working toward equality and justice for all. I observed that lesbians and gay men were asking for the same equality of treatment and opportunity that African Americans, women and Native Americans had sought through the law. Yet, none of these groups saw a connection in their pursuits; nor were they working together, generally, toward common goals. Discrimination is discrimination. It only affects different groups and individuals within those groups by degrees depending upon who you are and the severity of maltreatment that the current societal trend allows.
I began to speak about strength in numbers by the promotion of joining each other in a common cause. I observed that one could pass progressive law, but that law could be reversed with the next election. I observed that passage of laws helped oppressed people in some ways, but did absolutely nothing to end prejudice and discrimination, such as in the case of African Americans. I observed that when our nation pointed to inequities of opportunity and treatment, it was easy for leaders to wear blinders and do nothing, as in the case of the women’s movement. I observed a country in total denial of genocide perpetrated against Native Americans. Frustrated by the amount of work I saw myself and others putting into the civil rights movement to no avail and without lasting results, I began to ask deeper questions. What creates lasting change in our culture? What can we all work on, and what problem can we solve which will address all issues of discrimination and oppression against anyone forever more? The answer I received is that we believe in and have a sense of separation from one another. We have adopted a cultural existence based on disconnection — that there is not enough – that only the fittest will survive. I realized that our political salvation lies in adopting and living a new principal: We are all one. We are all connected on a level we have yet to even begin grappling with. Recognition of our oneness will solve all problems we have personally, politically and globally. If you believe that you are connected to the person next to you, you will not pick up a hammer and hit that person, as you will realize you are, in fact, hitting yourself. We will all stop playing the game hammers hurt. Midterm in office, I changed my message to one of unity. That message did not fit the paradigm of politics as it existed at the time. I am happy to be back in the private sector where I can be involved in public issues with my eye on the highest ideal and action we can all embrace which will have a domino effect ultimately giving up desired results across multiple issues. I am currently writing a book called “Politics For The New Millennium: Changing The World From The Inside Out.” I also give lectures and talks on consciousness as a political strategy.
Being a triple minority in public office also proved to be politically challenging. The media and the community places all of its elected officials in a box. A stereotype if you will, so that people can predict you. Was I from the left or from the right? People couldn’t figure me out. There was no history of black lesbian elected officials from which to draw a conclusion. My independent streak and unique perspective on issues didn’t help. To make matters more challenging, the gay community demanded that I present myself only as “gay” and focus my attention on the gay community. The black community demanded I present myself only as “black” and focus exclusively on issues of concern to African Americans. I am more than my race, more than my gender and more than my sexual orientation. All of this intense energy was directed at a woman who ran for City Council on a neighborhood platform because of her love of land use and transportation issues. The pressures were incredible but I’m very glad I did it. It is always difficult to be first. Someone has to forge the way. If there is a lesson for the gay community as well as the black community, which can be gleamed from my election, it is that we begin to honor and embrace our diversity. We are not a homogeneous species—each human is complex and multi-faceted. If we don’t learn to celebrate our differences we won’t be able to make a difference. I believe that every human being has come here to contribute to making a difference in his or her own unique way. Let us all learn to work together toward a shared vision, locally, nationally and globally.