Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Steve Gunderson

In 1996 Steve Gunderson (b. 1951) was the only Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. During debate over this legislation he had been outed on the House floor by the famously homophobic California representative Bob Dornan. In March 1994, during a debate in which Gunderson voiced support for AIDS education in public schools, Dornan rose from his seat. “The gentleman from Wisconsin didn't tell you...he has a revolving door in his closet. He's in, he's out, he's in.” C-SPAN cameras were rolling. Outraged members of the House shouted Dornan down, and his remarks were stricken from the Congressional Record. Thus  Gunderson became the first legislator ever to be outed on the floor of the House of Representatives and the first openly gay Republican member of the House.

Seven months after this incident, Gunderson made his sexual orientation official in a New York Times Magazine profile published in October 1994, just before he was solidly reelected. The piece bore the headline: Fiscal Conservative. Social Moderate. Gay. The article included a quote by Newt Gingrich – "He's not liberal enough for the gay community, and he's not straight enough for the conservative community."

Elected to congress at the age of 29 after abandoning his desire to become a sports broadcaster, Gunderson struggled for many years to come to terms with his attraction to men. In 1983 the 32-year-old Gunderson walked into Badlands, a gay disco near Washington's Dupont Circle and eyed Rob Morris, a 23-year-old architecture student. "For me," Gunderson said, "it was love at first sight." Within a year they were living together in a relationship that lasted more than fifteen years. They co-authored the book House and Home in 1996. Today Morris is owner of a builder/architectural firm based in McLean, Virginia that specializes in Arts & Crafts designs.

In 1991 bad-boy activist Michael Petrelis approached Gunderson in an Alexandria, Virginia gay bar that the Congressman frequented. Upset that Gunderson had refused to co-sponsor the federal gay rights bill, Petrelis loudly and rudely urged Gunderson to come out and support gay rights and federal financing for AIDS research. Gunderson replied, “I am out. I'm in this bar, aren't I?” – brushing Petrelis off. The activist grew angry, threw a drink in Gunderson's face, and called the police on himself in order to garner publicity over the incident. The story appeared in the local press, and the papers back in Milwaukee picked it up and printed it. In spite of the scandal, he kept his House seat and was subsequently reelected.

Gunderson was an influential leader in other human rights causes, as well. His efforts on behalf of the ethnic Asian Hmong people resulted in the overturn of the Clinton administration’s policy of forced repatriation that often led to persecution ; as a result thousands of Hmongs were granted U.S. immigration rights.

Since leaving Congress after serving eight terms, Gunderson has been a vocal supporter of gay rights causes. He once read the names of AIDS victims with his former partner Rob Morris in memorial services on the National Mall in Washington. In January, 2010, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President's Commission on White House Fellows. Gunderson currently lives in Arlington, Virginia, with his partner Jonathan Stevens, director of demographic change for the Bertelsmann Foundation's North American office.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting to me, as I was personally involved in Gunderson's opponent's campaign back in the late 70's...against Al Baldus in Wisconsin. At that time, the Baldus campaign did not divulge the fact that they knew damned well Gunderson was gay, and being apparently sued Billy-Jean King style by his dumped boyfriend. So...Gunderson ran on the lie of being a family man and played that up completely, thus gaining his career based upon a lie. Had I uttered one word of what I knew at that time, he would have been shut down totally. I knew the entire thing at the young age of 9, but figured nobody would believe me. I feel I allowed Gunderson to win based on his lie, but am happy he has finally come to terms with things. All these years later, I do sometimes wonder, since at that time, my mother worked for his opponent, how things would have turned out had I spilled the beans. You can all thank me for not doing so...and today learned from that experience of supporting a person's right to privacy and being whatever persuasion they want to be. You're welcome.