HIZZONER! An Interview with Mayor Kenneth Reeves

By Brent Dorian Carpenter

CAMBRIDGE, MA - Kenneth E. Reeves is one of those rare individuals who are seemingly unsatisfied with merely being the first to achieve a lofty goal. He was the first African American to become mayor of a city in the state of Massachusetts (Cambridge, 1992-95), surely enough to secure his place prominently in the history books. Not good enough.

Perhaps revealing the grand diva hidden just below the surface, he also enjoys the singular distinction of concurrently being the first openly gay black mayor in the nation. Try finding that fact in a standard history book.

The 52-year old Reeves, a Detroit native who graduated from Cass Technical High School, left the state at 17 to attend Harvard, where he earned an American History and Literature degree. He is also a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. He has been blazing trails ever since. Taking time out from his busy schedule (he is currently running for his 8th two-year term on the Cambridge City Council,) he sat down for an exclusive phone interview with Between The Lines to talk about the recent explosion of gay politics, his inspiration as a pioneering black gay politician, and his place in history.

BTL: In a previous interview in the '90s, you spoke about being inspired by Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin. When did you realize you were gay?

Reeves: Well, 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. And 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.

BTL: When did you first get elected to the Cambridge City Council?

Reeves: I was elected in November 1989 and began to serve in January 1990. My colleagues elected me vice-mayor, and then in 1992 I was elected the mayor [again, by the City Council] and served until 1995. That was two consecutive terms. That had only happened once before.

BTL: Were you openly gay when you ran for the Council or were elected mayor?

Reeves: I would say that I've been the same person for all these years. This is where we [have] an interesting discussion about what is 'openly gay.' I did not run as a gay person with a pink triangle on my literature, but I've had the same partner now for 34 years, and at that time we had always lived in the same one-bedroom apartment. This was common knowledge in Cambridge.

BTL: Thirty-four years is a long time for a black, gay relationship, something you rarely hear about. What is the secret to your longevity?

Reeves: 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. It was the early 70s. There weren't a lot of blacks at Harvard at that time. It was a socially stratifying situation. An interracial black/white friendship was viewed with suspicion. A black/white gay relationship caused quite a bit of chatter amongst 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.

As G. and I became closer, we began to eat in a private dining room. I don't believe we ever cared about opinions. It was never an issue. I think that was because of who we were. He is just a remarkable man. In these 34 years he has never been dull. There is a depth to him that is difficult to describe. 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.

BTL: What is the general environment for gays in Cambridge?

Reeves: Cambridge today is the epicenter of biotechnology in the world. We believe the future is being invented from here. We are the home of Harvard University and M.I.T.

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.

BTL: Congressmen Gerry Studds and Barney Frank are prominent gay politicians in Massachusetts. Did they play any part in your success or the perception of you?

Reeves: Very little. A gay Boston City Councilor, David Scondras, who was the first one, he may have been the first one nationally, is an extremely smart, wonderful man who, by the end of his political career, got into some very faulty difficulty with a young man, what you and I would call 'rough trade.' He apparently did or didn't touch his leg in a movie theater, and ended up having his jaw broken and ended up having too many people in the gay community kind of snicker about what must have been the fact. Before he descended to that depth, he was a quite wonderful mentor to me and many others about the ins and outs of being a gay politician.

It is he who pointed out to me that both Gerry Studds and Barney Frank had not come out, but had been what he called 'pushed out.' As you'll recall, Gerry Studds had some involvement with some underage [congressional] pages and Barney Frank basically was involved with a hustler who was turning tricks out of his apartment. So I wasn't in either one of those situations, and so I cannot say they were models for me. I don't mean to speak against them. I know them both and I think they are both wonderful men.

BTL: The fact that you've got all these highly visible gay politicians in the state of Massachusetts, does that factor into the gay marriage debate before your State Supreme Court?

Reeves: I'm sure it doesn't detract. This is an activist state. Our entire congressional delegation is Democrat. We have produced Paul Tsongas as a presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis as a presidential candidate, John Kerry as a presidential candidate. We even have Mitt Romney [the current Republican governor]. And they are all supportive of the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court is a white, South African woman with anti-apartheid credentials. She lives in Cambridge and is a friend of mine. The black member of our state Supreme Court is also a respected friend. I believe that the members of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court know that gay people exist, that we have families and that we should be allowed to benefit from civil marriage. I hope that I am right.

BTL: Tell me about your role with the Million Man March.

Reeves: The Million Man March was for me one of the most moving experiences of my life because I went and marched with a group of openly gay black men, including Keith Boykin. Actually I was a board member of the organization that he was executive director of, the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, and it is we who organized this contingent. And we walked in the March chanting that we were "black, gay, and we wouldn't have it any other way."

I would like to add here that black men in America generally have the lowest life expectancy and a plethora of social ills and black gay men are bereft of positive examples, and in too many cases, saddled with issues of hopelessness. It is my belief that we as black gays and lesbians are, in many ways, the brain trust of our larger black community. And the time is now to really be an integral part of the solutions that will save our community. I went to the Million Man March because, in the spirit of Essex Hemphill, I ought to be part of the movement to save myself.

BTL: You are still on the City Council and you have a fellow Councilwoman named Denise Simmons. Talk about her a little bit.

Reeves: With Denise's election to the City Council this term, for particularly black gay Detroiters, it should be of interest that there is a city in the country that has two openly gay members of its City Council, both of whom are black, one of whom is a lesbian, one of whom is a gay man, and we are it for gay people. And for any other kind of people, too. I believe that her election really makes this an interesting first.

BTL: What were the highlights of your tenure as Mayor?

Reeves: I was the first black mayor in the history of Massachusetts, which seemed to resonate, certainly, with the black people and with a fair number of the white people. Cambridge is a city that is about seven percent black, and I organized the first St. Patrick's Parade that ever was in the city. I organized it in opposition to a Boston parade which was cancelled because the court said that the gay people had [the right] to march in the parade. So they cancelled their parade, but as the black mayor of this place I was able to cause us to have a parade that welcomed everybody from Boston that wanted to come to Cambridge.

Subsequent to that, I helped to organize our first Caribbean Carnival. No Afrocentric celebration of this nature had ever taken place here. And now it's in its tenth year. I'm very proud that I organized the Cambridge Community Chorus, which is a group of about 350 voices that just went to Tokyo in December to sing the Messiah. For me, that had been my best 'people organizing' thing.

BTL: Any advice for young gay people considering running for office?

Reeves: 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, and hopefully, with some creative ability to come to the table to solve problems that seem to elude solutions.

BTL: How do you want people to remember you and your place in history?

Reeves: I want to be remembered in the way that people remember James Baldwin or W.E.B. DuBois or even Bayard Rustin; as a substantive person who attempted to, with intelligence and some fun, advance the human condition in the locale I was in.

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