Born February 21, 1949
Died November 6, 2008
City Council Member, District 8
New York City, New York
Elected November 1997
Reed has been HIV positive since 1981 and was in one of the first study groups working to identify what the disease was.
Interview with Phil Reed for Out and Elected in the USA
Q: Tell me about your district.
A: This is actually a rather interesting district. It was drawn when the Council was enlarged and the Charter of the City of New York was changed to give the Council significantly more powers. In 1991, they drew new districts, one of which was drawn with the understanding that it was sort of the “gay” seat, the seat Tom Duane captured. Now whether or not this is good government, that’s a whole ‘nutha issue! But they surely queered up that district! A district was also drawn in East Harlem, which has traditionally been the seat of the Puerto Rican community. Sixty percent of my district is East Harlem, which is not just Latino. There is a huge number of African Americans and not an insignificant number of White people who live here. There is also a piece of the South Bronx attached to the district, which is right across the river. Then also a piece of the West Side of Manhattan, which has a majority of Latino people living there, and there is a much higher concentration of middle-income people, and you probably have more out gay people living there – it’s about thirty percent of the district.
I first ran for this seat when it was a brand new seat. I challenged Adam Clayton Powell’s son, Adam Clayton Powell the 4th, who was new to politics. We ran a very strong race, almost won the seat, but lost essentially because we were running against a legend, or the son of a legend, who happened to look exactly like his father, is half Black and half Puerto Rican, and speaks Spanish. So, it was like, how are you going to beat this game? Adam left office in 1997 to seek higher office – let’s not even talk about the level of the job he did while he was here, we won’t discuss that. When he chose to run for higher office, he had to vacate this office and I decided to run again. So, you have a strange circumstance where I don’t live in East Harlem, I live in the West Side. We are separated by Central Park. When you look at it on a map, it doesn’t even touch. We were successful in winning this election partly because there were three other Latino candidates in the race. I got the overwhelming amount of votes on the West Side, although I am pleased to say that I actually won the East Harlem portion of the district by about 200 votes – which people forget all the time and I have to keep reminding them (chuckling). I actually won this election in East Harlem. So, you have a situation where it is a district that was drawn very specifically to be represented by a Latino, and probably by a Latino from East Harlem. You have a person who won this election with a huge plurality that does not live in East Harlem, is not Puerto Rican, and also happens to be gay.
Q: How has your HIV status affected how you set priorities in your life?
A: My overriding passion in life has always been politics and social justice. It’s the things I’ve just found the most interesting to work on. As a biracial, African American gay man who is 50 years old, it seems to me that all of the Titanic social issues over the last 40 years have impacted my life. My very first recollection is in the ‘50s walking with my family in the demonstration in support of the sit-ins; the people in the south who were sitting in at the lunch counters in Woolworth’s. When I say my family was involved with it, they were involved up to their eyeballs. I turned 18 around the time of the Viet Nam war and was the first person in the state to get non-religious-grounds conscientious objector status. Then as a gay man living in San Francisco in the ‘70’s I saw the whole gay rights movement just explode. I’ve sort of been, as a reality of my life, right there in the forefront of all of the social issues and battles. I was “it.” I was “The Issue,” whether it was the civil rights movement, whether you should be drafted into the military, whether you should be a gay man, and then in the early ‘80’s when the issue was HIV, I mean, here I was HIV positive. I haven’t had a lot of choices. And where some of this is fleetingly glamorous, there are very few of these I would have chosen myself. Certainly HIV has presented an urgency in terms of what am I doing with the rest of my life, what kind of contribution do I want to make – not settling for jobs that weren’t really what I wanted to do when I had no idea how long I’d be alive. I had an opportunity in 1989 to leave the corporate world – I left my suit because after 15 years of being the only African American in management you have to sort of question what the problem is here. I finished up some graduate work and changed direction – I ran an HIV program and decided I was never going back. I had management skills, I had political skills, and I thought maybe what I’d want to do is to put them to good use before I died.
For information on a touring exhibit version of Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, contact Ron Schlittler at email@example.com.