Bye, Bye, Black Ceiling
Jason Bartlett broke multiple barriers when the black state legislator came out as gay.
By Bryan Ochalla
Connecticut state representative Jason Bartlett is used to being in the minority. In 2006 the African-American politician won the assembly seat in his district -- which is 96% white. This February he officially became one of only six openly gay black elected officials in the United States -- and the first to serve on the state legislature level. While the announcement shocked many people, his family, friends, and even some of his political colleagues weren’t among them.
That’s because the 41-year-old had been having informal conversations over the past few months with people who worked on his campaign, chairmen of the town committees he represents, and other legislators at the state capitol. “I didn’t make an announcement,” says Bartlett, who also serves as cochairman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Connecticut. “I didn’t gather people together. I just started dropping it into casual conversation.”
Bartlett’s constituents, on the other hand, weren’t brought up to speed until they picked up the February 20 issue of The [Danbury] News-Times. The Advocate sat down with Bartlett days later to talk about coming out, raising two teenage boys, and how voters in Connecticut’s 2nd district are taking the news.
You adopted two of your cousins, then ages 9 and 11, after their parents passed away. Did they know you were gay?
I told them after they had been with me for about a year. They had been through a lot already, and I didn’t want to throw more at them right away. Both of them had formed some perceptions about what it meant to be gay, and I had to work on breaking those down and starting over.
Did you have a boyfriend at the time?
I had a partner the entire time I was raising my kids. We were together for 12 years -- we broke up a few years ago. [The boys] were exposed to us as a couple, and now they have a very healthy attitude about gay people and gay parents.
When did you decide to come out publicly?
When I won this last election I knew immediately that I wasn’t going to be in the public eye and not come out -- it was just a matter of deciding when it would be appropriate.
I originally gave myself a deadline of coming out in January, but then I became cochairman of Hillary’s campaign in Connecticut. So I decided to see her through the primary, and then after that I’d go back to dealing with this. After the primary was over I decided I had to come out by [February 20], which I did.
How have your constituents reacted?
Everything has gone well so far. I got an e-mail from someone who said he was a single white heterosexual, and “even though we don’t have a lot in common, I think you have courage, did the right thing, and I’ll be voting for you in the next election.” I also got a call from a Republican leader of one of the towns I represent. She said she supports me and looks forward to continuing to work together on the issues that affect our community. That felt good, because it came from across the aisle.
Do you think your decision to come out as a gay black man will help bridge those two communities?
I hope so. The black community really has to acknowledge and admit that gay people are among them. And we in the gay community have to make sure people of color and people with different backgrounds are part of our infrastructure.
(The Advocate, Apr. 2008)
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