An Election Pioneer
By Terrance Turner
In November, a wave of historic firsts took place in the 2017 elections. The cities of St. Paul (Minnesota), Georgetown (South Carolina), and Cairo (Georgia) all elected their first-ever black mayors. Charlotte (North Carolina) selected its first black female mayor. Seattle chose its first female mayor since 1928 — and its first lesbian mayor.
Jenny Durkan is the latest figure in what is a very brief history of LGBT representation among mayors. E. Denise Simmons became the first lesbian mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2008. She succeeded Kenneth Reeves, who was the first openly gay black mayor ever in the United States.
Reeves was born in 1951 and grew up in Detroit. In a 2004 interview with PrideSource magazine, he revealed that there were indications of his sexuality early on. “I went to the Thirkell Elementary School in Detroit and I remember they had a fantastic kindergarten room there with huge windows and lots of light and a yellow piano. But they also had a dollhouse corner, and that was supposed to be for the girls, and another corner with teddy bears for the boys. I found out that I was far more interested in the dollhouse corner. So I would say that was some early indication I was different than others.”
In an interview with PBS, he reflected on the possibility of having role models, recalling a black gay state representative who indicated to him that he could be out in politics. “I also had a wonderful, wonderful gay Sunday School teacher for much of my high school time. He also led our church youth group, and I think really if I had a role model, it’s him. Because he made it very clear that you have a special gift, and as long as you lead your life with dignity, and are a human being of your word, and you have good character, the world cannot deny you. I had the best ‘coming out’ I ever heard of,” he recalled.
Reeves took that confidence to Cambridge, where he attended Harvard College. According to the Harvard Crimson, he and his classmates helped found the Kuumba Singers (the university’s oldest existing black organization) in 1970. Reeves also helped found blackCAST, a group established to promote black theater. His class was pivotal in pushing to create a Department of African and African-American Studies at the university.
It was here that he formed one of the most important relationships of his life. According to the Harvard Crimson, Reeves met partner Gregory Allan Johnson at the Eliot House dining hall. He elaborated further on their relationship to PrideSource in 2004: “I’ve had the same partner for 34 years,” he revealed.
“My partner, G. Allan Johnson, was my college roommate. He’s Swedish American. We worked together on some progressive political projects. One summer, he directed a ‘free school’ in a public housing project in Boston and he asked me to work for him. The next summer, he asked me to direct the free school and he worked for me.”
There was resistance to their relationship: “It was the early 70s. There weren’t a lot of blacks at Harvard at the time,” Reeves recalled. “A black/white gay relationship caused quite a bit of chatter among my African-American peers. I lived my life on a high wire between my black student community and the love of my life, who is not black.”
But the couple remained unbothered: “I don’t believe we ever cared about opinions. It was never an issue.”
In fact, Reeves found Cambridge an ideal environment: “I think, if you have to live in America as a gay person, or as any kind of person, Cambridge is the best place I have seen, which is not to say it doesn’t have its homophobia and racism, but I think there is a great deal of live-and-let-live sentiment here. We are determined to be a peoples’ republic where two people who love each other are assured that they will have their love respected.”
When asked by PrideSource how he’d maintained such a lengthy relationship, Reeves responded: “The secret to our longevity? If you find someone you deeply respect and admire, who deeply respects and admires you, and there is a physical attraction, the rest is just hard work. Love doesn’t come in colors. It is made from heartstrings and longings.”
After graduating with a degree in American History and Literature, Reeves went to the University of Michigan Law School, where he graduated in 1976. He became an attorney and was elected to the Cambridge City Council in 1989. In 1992, Reeves was elected Cambridge’s mayor. This made him the first black mayor in the state of Massachusetts and the first black gay American ever to be elected mayor.
During his two-term tenure, which lasted until 1995, Reeves organized the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the city. He also organized its first Caribbean Carnival. Nearly a decade later, Reeves cited that event as one of the highlights of his tenure: “No Afrocentric celebration of this nature had ever taken place here. And now it’s in its tenth year.” A 1994 scandal marked his tenure — the Cambridge Chronicle accused Reeves of misusing a city credit card for personal expenses, and missing income tax returns sparked a Massachusetts Dept. of Revenue investigation.
But Reeves continued to serve as City Councilor after leaving office, and he was elected mayor again in 2006. After that two-year term, he returned to the Council and served until 2013. A 2011 Harvard Crimson profile noted that Reeves focused on education towards the end of his tenure. Establishing a “baby university” to help educate parents on child-rearing and supporting the construction of a public library.
Reeves offered constructive words for LGBT people and other minorities seeking public office: “I think you can be gay and elected and have a wonderful time. Whether you’re white, black, Latin, Asian, gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, what people seek today is effective leadership with integrity,” adding that hopefully, candidates will come to the office “with some creative ability to come to the table to solve problems that seem to elude solutions.”