Robert Szwajkos' resume is a short history of LGBTQ achievements. He's been a participant in the Gay Games, a guest conductor for Philadelphia Gay Men's Chorus and, as an attorney, counsel for LGBTQ organizations and HIV/AIDS groups. He's also practiced bankruptcy law in the U.S. and internationally.
Szwajkos served as an advisor to Equality PA in its efforts to have anti-discrimination laws passed by Pennsylvania municipalities, including Newtown Borough, where he serves on the Human Relations Committee.
Now Szwajkos, who said he is "an attorney by profession and a community activist by avocation," is running as a Democrat for the Newtown Borough Council in Newtown, Pennsylvania. He would be the first openly gay person elected in Newtown since 1684, when William Penn founded the borough.
Newtown is a historic enclave in Bucks County, about 35 miles outside Philadelphia. Beautiful and quaint, it is a hub for business and transit that lures residents from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York with its charm, historical district and dynamic architecture.
Szwajkos explained that Newtown is a "unique community where people take care of each other." During a series of gruesome health challenges a few years ago, members of the local town watch visited Szwajkos daily to be sure he was on the mend. That, he explained, is the kind of place Newtown is.
So when he was asked to run for the Borough Council, he agreed. The call to service, he said, is not to be ignored. Szwajkos balances being known as "Bob, the gay guy," who made sure rainbow flags adorned Newtown, with being the fix-it guy, who saw firsthand how bad the sidewalks are when he was recovering from back surgery. Experiencing the inaccessibility for elders and disabled residents, he wants to change that.
Like other LGBTQ candidates who have run on bread-and-butter issues across the country in what the Victory Fund calls a rainbow wave, Szwajkos is deeply invested in his communities — Newtown and LGBTQ — and is running with both in mind.
"We're Quaker-based here [in Newtown]," he explained. "So gay or straight, as long as you are a good neighbor, you will be a part of this community."
Working with the "concept of acceptance" has been Szwajkos' approach to everything throughout his career. He said he wants every individual to feel valued and welcomed. When he ran Team Philadelphia — the umbrella organization for 11 LGBT sports organizations with more than 1,200 participants — the network of teams walked away with 75 medals (including 50 gold) at the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland/Akron.
Szwajkos said when he was first doing that work, he saw a lot of inter-team tension. But he managed to get everyone talking. "I increased participation by 20 percent," he said with pride, adding, "We shouldn't be fighting with each other."
A Democrat through and through, Szwajkos is committed to building bridges between communities and generations. He spoke passionately about "passing the baton" to the next generation of LGBTQ politicians. He is working hard to get elected. He and his volunteers have stuffed hundreds of envelopes to get his message out before the election. But Szwajkos said, "It's not about me, it's about us. We have a very strong young Democrats group here. So you bring wisdom to energy." He added, "We have to train them to reach across the aisle — you have to get to the finish line."
Szwajkos knows his long history of community and professional work makes him uniquely qualified for the position he seeks.
"As a leader of for-profit and nonprofit organizations for nearly 50 years, my first goal as a member of Newtown Borough Council will be to listen to fellow citizens and business owners to identify the important issues and needs facing our community."
Some of those issues seem quotidian — "the need for safe and passable sidewalks and streets, as well as the need for safe bicycle paths and parking areas. Working to solve longstanding traffic and parking issues is also a high priority for me, as is continuing ongoing efforts to save the Borough's ash trees."
But then he added, "Throughout all of its work, I believe, Council must be sensitive to the changing demographics of the Borough."
Szwajkos is proud of being an openly gay candidate and that LGBTQ candidates are becoming more common. "We have our people in significant positions," he said. "We are diligent, and we pursue excellence. We have had to prove we are the best because of how gay people have been perceived as not good enough. We have to teach the next generation."
Szwajkos said, "The fear of the other guy is what is being promoted. We have to fight that. We have to teach the next generation that."
He said, "I tell people I don't fight for equality, because we are all already equal. What I do is I fight against intolerance. I'm going to keep doing that."