Gay Former Mayor Neil Giuliano Considers a Run for Az. Governor

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Saturday August 25, 2012

Neil Giuliano has seen it all. He moved from a closeted gay man to become the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, Tempe, Az. He changed party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. He served as president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination.

Currently, he heads the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. As he hawks his new book, "The Campaign Within," he is also creating buzz over his possible run for governor of Arizona, the current stronghold of conservative Jan Brewer, famous for her policy requiring Hispanic residents to prove their immigration status.

"What I'm doing now is listening to a lot of folks in Arizona, and there is a need for leadership, especially in the Democratic Party," said Giuliano at a recent event at New York's LGBT Community Center. "We need other voices in Arizona, so it's not a definite yet, but I want to see how I can make a different, further contribution. I have a wonderful life with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the work I'm doing there. I really think that we could be the first city in the U.S. to end the spread of new HIV infections. So it's a significant leadership role I have there."

As part of his book tour, Giuliano joined openly lesbian country singer Chely Wright at the Center on July 31 to discuss "The Campaign Within A Mayor's Private Journey to Public Leadership."

After coming out as a gay man in 1996, Giuliano said that many people encouraged him to write down his experiences. He took their advice, and as Center Executive Director Glennda Testone noted, "Neil doesn't just say he's going to do things, he finishes them."

"Telling our stories is important, and being visible is important; it's what changes hearts and minds," said Giuliano, who worked on the book from 1997 until June, when it was published.

Giuliano believed that the LGBT community's recent advancements toward full equality came about for two reasons: more LGBT people choosing to live openly; and educating their straight friends about gay issues.

"Once I came out, 'openly gay mayor,' was part of my title, because it was such a novelty in Arizona in 1996," said Giuliano. "What I learned is that straight folks need to learn about the journey of someone who was now living openly, that it wasn't always easy or fun, but in fact was very challenging."

Coming Out and Building Trust

"What I’ve learned is that when we think of who we want to follow, trust is a big element of leadership," said Giuliano. His decision to come out as a gay man bolstered this trust.

Wright, who recently wrote her own book, "Like Me," (which spawned an LGBT youth organization of the same name), said that when she decided to come out in 2010, "It struck me that I had 20 years of friendship in Nashville, and nobody knew me. I moved to New York and lived openly, and my relationships became much more satisfying and compelled me to get closer to people."

Giuliano shared a similar tale. Before he came out, when he was just a Tempe City Council member, "People in Washington, D.C., knew me as ’the young gay city councilman,’ but people at home still didn’t know I was gay." He built relationships with other gay people who he trusted to keep his secret, but was relieved when they no longer had to.

"They respected my privacy, and I’m both grateful for that, because it helped me, but I’m also grateful that they didn’t totally let me off the hook, either," said Giuliano.

He remembered the death of a high school friend to AIDS in October 1991 as a milestone toward his coming out, recalling that while he told his co-workers he was going to a funeral, "I was afraid to tell them he died of AIDS." When he went to the funeral in Philadelphia and witnessed the strong sense of community there, he told himself that the day was coming when he too would live openly.

Facing a Recall Election

Five years later, Giuliano came out as a gay man. His constituents took the news well, re-electing him to office three times. But some political adversaries took advantage of his disclosure to attempt to bully him out of office via a recall election.

"One of the political blunders in my tenure was after the Supreme Court ruled five to four that the Boy Scouts of America could legally discriminate," said Giuliano. "I should have followed my peers and dodged the question, but I said, ’It seems pretty clear to me that if they can legally do that, they are not necessarily entitled to public accommodation.’"

When the reporter asked him about the ramifications of this for city employees who wanted to donate funds to the BSA via the city contribution campaign, Giuliano said he thought they probably couldn’t do that anymore.

The response caused a firestorm throughout the conservative area, and unnamed opponents (one of whom, Giuliano said, now serves as chair of the Tempe Republican Party) mounted a recall election that listed eight reasons why he should be fired, the last being "his handling of the Boy Scouts issue."

"So we decided to focus on that. The recall campaign wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about any of those issue, it was about the recall itself," said Giuliano. "So our message to the community was that the recall is wrong, just wrong."

They beat the recall efforts, garnering 68 percent of the vote, and employed savvy politics in printing the blatantly homophobic postcards his opponents were distributing that showed a skinhead and the words, "Don’t let hate and bigotry change the future of Tempe."

He even got support from top-level elected officials. Although U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl’s door was closed, Sen. John McCain stood up for him during the recall, and did robocalls and postcard mailings.

"Obviously, I am very disappointed on his position on LGBT issues, but I’m glad his wife and daughter have come around on those issues," said Giuliano, who met McCain while serving as moderator of his first congressional debate at Arizona State University.

Elections for local office in Arizona are non-partisan, but he always polled well ahead of other Republicans. When he switched parties in 2008, he managed to sidestep partisan politics.

Giuliano had never aligned himself with the Log Cabin Republicans; he attended only one national party convention as an openly gay public official. "I just didn’t want to be in that room any more," he says now of his switch in affiliation. "I know that if push came to shove, most of those people would not have my back and would not be there to support me. So I wanted to be in the room where I felt comfortable."

His political career did not suffer, although he admits that the climate in Arizona today is much more conservative. And coming out as gay only improved his personal relationships, as friends, "didn’t have to cover for me, and were able to be honest and open about the fact that I was now honest and open."

As a high profile, out gay man, his status preceded him, although he did share a funny tale about Elizabeth Dole confusing him with the Mayor of Phoenix, and congratulating him on the birth of his triplets.

"Immediately after it was over, her aide was at my side, saying, ’I’m so sorry; Mrs. Dole wants to apologize in person,’" said Giuliano. "So I go up to her and shake her hand, and she says, ’I’m so sorry. The only person probably more surprised at me saying you have triplets is your wife.’"

After tenures at GLAAD and the SFAF, Giuliano is turning his mind back toward politics. He has intimated that he may run for governor of Arizona, and others have speculated that he may seek a seat in the U.S. Senate if Sen. Kyl retires. For now, however, he is placing his political clout squarely behind the Obama campaign, serving as a delegate to Arizona at the Democratic National Convention.

"When the President gets out on the trail and starts talking about the tremendous accomplishments he’s had in his first term, there will be enough voters in those key swing states of Virginia, Ohio, Nevada and Florida, that will come around, and he will get four more years," said Giuliano, who believes that while President Barack Obama hasn’t accomplished everything we’d like, he has taken tough positions and furthered an agenda critically important for our legal advancement as an LGBT community. In turn, Giuliano will be there to support his commander in chief.

"I will be out there forcefully," he said. "I’ll go wherever he wants me to go, be it Topeka, Kansas, or California, to help get the President re-elected."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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