PA's first out lawmaker, one year later

PA's first out lawmaker, one year later

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In his first interview with the LGBT press, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Fleck (R-81st Dist.) spoke to PGN about the professional and personal whirlwind he found himself in after Dec. 1, 2012, when he became Pennsylvania’s first openly LGBT state lawmaker, and the first out sitting Republican state legislator in the nation.

Fleck, who hails from and represents a rural area of Central Pennsylvania, came out in an interview with his local newspaper last year, making state and national history, and taking the next step in his own storied journey to self-acceptance.

Fleck, 40, was raised in Cromwell Township, about 80 miles west of Harrisburg, and still lives on the farm once owned by his ancestors.

“My farm here belonged to my grandfather and his grandfather before that,” Fleck said. “Family was always important to me, traditions and different things like that. I heard stories from all of my ancestors and it all just became family folklore.”

The area where he was raised is in the heart of Pennsylvania’s farm country, with the closest neighbors a mile away.

“It wasn’t like even in a small town where you have neighbors alongside you and everyone knows each other,” Fleck said. “It was a very rural community.”

Fleck said he came up in a time when the social stigma surrounding LGBT identity was pervasive.

“As a child in the ’70s and ’80s, socially [being gay] was just considered wrong. You didn’t see great, positive, prominent gay men and women out there, especially not in rural communities. The locals here didn’t even think Liberace was gay. My version of gay in the early years was more of the flamboyance and drag queens — not that there’s anything wrong with drag queens, God bless ’em — but what I thought it meant to be gay wasn’t anything I could relate to.”

Religion also played a role in his suppressing his burgeoning sexual identity as an adolescent.

Fleck was raised in an evangelical Christian family, and said he was exposed to pervasive antigay messages rooted in religion.

“I grew up in a home where I was taught gay people burn in hell,” he said. “No one wants to burn in hell.”

The lack of exposure to positive LGBT images, Fleck said, made his own recognition of his sexual orientation itself a struggle.

“I always knew I was different, I just certainly couldn’t identify my version of different as gay,” he said. “I grew up where you get married and you have kids. That’s what you did. When it came to homosexuality, I didn’t know that I was not not gay, if that makes sense. Whatever I felt, I just thought, you get married and you keep it in check and it goes away.”

So Fleck embarked on that journey.

He attended the evangelical Christian Liberty University, where he studied history and youth ministry. Upon his 1995 graduation, he went on to become a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America.

Fleck’s family had deep roots in the local Republican Party, and he recalled his interest in public office germinating from as young as age 9, when he would read the newspaper, especially the political section, to his grandfather, who was nearly blind.

Fleck was elected in 2006 after the retirement of his predecessor and took office the following January. He went on be re-elected three times, most recently in November 2012.

But, during that time, he continued to struggle with his sexual identity, a fight that nearly overtook him.

Fleck married in 2002 but, after several years, still wasn’t able to quell his same-sex attraction.

“I thought that it would be OK as long as I didn’t act on it, that it would go away. I made great strides professionally, I married my best friend and it was just always like that gnat in my ear: I knew it was there. I don’t think being gay is a choice but I chose not to act on it and thought that, as long as I suppressed it with work and family and didn’t have to face facts, it would be OK. But after I got married, it was like, OK, this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It didn’t go away. I like to tackle problems head-on. So it was like, OK, this is a problem. And it wasn’t fair to my ex, nor to me. I became increasingly depressed and even suicidal.”

Fleck sought counseling from a number of sources over several years.

In a “last-ditch effort,” he attended a week-long intensive-therapy program several years ago that he likened to reparative therapy.

“I went in with an open mind and thought, At the end of the week, I’m going to decide if I’m gay or straight. That’s how I decide a lot of things: I want to make a decision and stick with it, live with it and move on. Deep down, I wanted to believe it was a choice and I could figure out how to continue as I was and choose not to be gay.”

But his initial encounters with fellow participants weren’t very encouraging.

“The first several people I met in my group-therapy sessions the very first day were like, ‘Oh, you’ll love this, it’s really helpful,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait, you’ve done this before?’ and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is my second time.’ But I was like, ‘I’m only doing this once, girlfriend.’”

Much of the week was spent in reflection on past experiences, Fleck said, which functioned the opposite of how it was intended.

“You spent a lot of time going back. Something that desperately helped me was remembering things like when I was at the county fair when I was 12, I asked for a photo of Burt Reynolds instead of Farrah Fawcett, like my friends did, as my prize. That didn’t make sense to me back then, nor did I at the time remotely think that made me gay. But thinking back and remembering all of those experiences, I came out of that week finally seeing, ‘OK, I’m gay. Now what?’”

Among the next things to consider, Fleck said, was the effect of his realization on his religious life.

“Reconciling my faith and my sexuality has, I think, been the biggest hurdle for me,” Fleck said. “You start questioning this one part of yourself, and then you’re stuck questioning everything you know. Right down to, Is God real? I had been to the point where I had hit rock bottom and wanted to do myself in because I couldn’t come up with answers. But I finally got to the point where I saw that I never chose this, it was always a part of me.”

Once he acknowledged his orientation, he began to tell his loved ones. While he said he long expected rejection from his family, he was surprised by their acceptance.

He and his wife divorced in 2011.

“That was very painful,” he said. “You’re divorcing your best friend and not because you don’t love each other, but because it’s no longer practical to stay married. It wasn’t your typical divorce with the, ‘I want out of this and I hate your guts.’ Not that that’s not painful, because divorce is painful no matter what.”

Although he came out in his personal life, to friends and family, in other ways he was immersed in his newfound closet.

“It wasn’t until I really accepted I was gay that I became a closet case, because before then, I didn’t know I was really gay.”

He began dating his current partner and, while the pair would attend family events as a couple, he kept his sexual identity separate from his professional life, although he did tell some staffers.

However, in May 2012, Fleck said, he began to have the first stirrings toward his public coming-out.

“I was happy where I was in life; I had a great partner, a job I loved. I didn’t want to be some big poster boy for gay rights, especially in a district where 80 percent of the people are opposed to same-sex marriage. I thought I’d choose my battles carefully, finish out my term and let it go at that,” he said. “But then, President Obama came out for marriage equality. There were a lot of talking heads on TV at that time and I was watching Piers Morgan one night and he had Tony Perkins of Family Research Council on, who’s also a Liberty University grad. Piers asked him what he’d do if his son came home and said he was gay, and Perkins said that would never happen because he raised him right. That was the first time I really got this pit in my stomach; it just made me sick. I saw that I wasn’t helping anyone by being in the closet. I’ve always been very private in my private life, even though I’m on stage every day, but this just made me sick and it was the first time I had this recognition that I had evolved from, ‘Why me?’ to ‘How dare you? I have rights too.’”

That weekend, he read a story about Obama’s evolution on the Altoona Mirror’s website that featured comments by a local gay man. When he got into work Monday morning, however, he said he saw the hard copy of the publication and noticed it was accompanied by a photo of a drag queen cloaked in a pink boa.

“That really ticked me off,” Fleck said. “That’s the only ‘gay’ this area sees; it looks like gay people are the go-go boys at Pride parades. They don’t see the people like me and the thousands, millions, of regular Joes who put on a suit and tie, go to work and come home to their partner. This was the first time I started to look at things and say, ‘Can I keep my job? Is it that important to me?’ And it was.”

Fleck reached out to Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who came out in 2010. The two met for coffee several times last year, Fleck said, and discussed the implications of his public coming-out.

Mehlman connected him with several other sources, and he eventually met with officials at Victory Fund, which backs LGBT political candidates.

While Fleck was ready to come out last summer, prior to his November re-election race, the organization advised him to wait.

“I was running unopposed, so I didn’t see what the fallout would be. It’s a simple announcement of, ‘I’m gay,’ and those who didn’t want to vote for me because of that didn’t have to. But Victory Fund frowned upon that and said, ‘No, no, you’ve got a lot of people in tough races, your colleagues, and this isn’t an issue in their race. You can’t come out and put them like a deer in headlights, have them be asked things like, “Your best friend just came out, where are you on equality legislation?” and have them make any bad choices.’”

But once he had decided to go public, Fleck said, the wait was tough.

“It was difficult because it’s like, once you’re ready to come out, you’re just ready. So it got to be the week after the election, and I didn’t want it to look like I’d waited until the day after, but by mid-November, I was like, ‘Ok, it’s time, let’s do it.’ And I still got, ‘No, the timing’s not right, are you sure?’ All late summer and early fall, I’d put the whole election date as what I was aiming for, so when it passed, each day was tougher. But I finally wanted to do it on my own terms, and tell my story to my local press and leave it at that.”

So the last week of November, Fleck sat down with a reporter friend of his from the Huntingdon Daily News. He then personally contacted a list of about 60 people — extended family, friends and campaign volunteers — to tell them the news before the publication of the story Dec. 1.

Once the article hit the Web that day, it quickly went viral.

Fleck said he was unsurprised that the story took off as it did — with details such as his background with the Boy Scouts, his education at a Jerry Falwell-founded college and his status as the nation’s only out Republican state lawmaker.

Responses came rolling in quickly, and were largely positive.

“I heard from more Republican legislators than from Democratic legislators and that’s OK because those are the people I’m in caucus with,” he said. “I heard from all the female legislators with the exception of one, and she and I are not close. I heard from everyone under age 45. I heard from everyone in progressive districts. And the people I didn’t hear from were people like Daryl Metcalfe, but we know where he stands. We weren’t that close prior to my coming-out. But the negatives were minimal, surprisingly. Most of the fear I had was from myself, built up in my head. It was like my coming-out in my personal life; I didn’t think my evangelical family would accept me and they did. It’s that internalized fear that wasn’t valid.”

After his coming-out, a constituent wrote a letter to the editor of his local paper using Fleck’s story to discuss the state’s lack of an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law, noting he could be evicted from an apartment for his admission.

“I had so many people ask me if that was true, and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re not a recognized class,’ and that surprised so many people. Whether people agree with your so-called lifestyle — I don’t care for that terminology because it’s not a choice — but even those people who don’t approve don’t feel it’s right to discriminate,” Fleck said, noting that he has already seen the effect of his coming-out on the level of attention to LGBT issues in his district. “I’m out there but I’m not waving a flag. I’m just living my life. People know I’m gay and they’re seeing it doesn’t define who I am; I’m still the same person and I think they’re coming to grips with that.”

He said he also believes his coming-out can be used as an example — especially if he is re-elected next year — to his colleagues whose districts are traditionally conservative that they can support LGBT-rights issues without political repercussions. However, he said he doesn’t see HB 300 advancing until Metcalfe, who had pledged to block the measure, no longer chairs the House State Government Committee.

Fleck has been a strong supporter of LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying legislation, although he noted it has been “pigeonholed” as a gay-rights measure, which he said has made some lawmakers squeamish about getting onboard.

Relationship recognition for same-sex couples, Fleck said, will likely be achieved through the courts, unless the state elects a governor who makes the issue a priority.

Fleck asserted that, while his coming-out has not swayed his allegiance to the Republican Party or to his rural district, both have work to do to fall in line with the rest of the country on LGBT issues.

“The Republican Party has to get past this. Otherwise, I fear for the future of our party. The younger generation is certainly very supportive, and to be attractive to the 20- and 30-year-olds, you can’t discriminate. The Republican Party has had as its platform for decades small government, and I look at this as the number-one issue when it comes to small government: You may not agree with it, but stay out of my bedroom life. Saying you’re for smaller government but that you’re perfectly fine with me not having the same rights doesn’t make sense. But I think people are starting to see how hypocritical that sounds and are beginning to evolve.”

Next November’s election will be telling as to how far Fleck’s district has evolved.

Even if he isn’t re-elected, Fleck said, he would continue to press for LGBT reform.

“I think as far as civil rights go, I could even have a much bigger impact if I wasn’t in office. I would have a platform, given my unique background and my resume and where I come from. I think I could have a broader impact,” he said. “But I’ve always wanted to be in politics since I was a kid. Now I’m here, it’s different than what I envisioned. But I’m taking it one term at a time. If I get re-elected, I’ll decide where I go from there.”

While Fleck acknowledged the history-making nature of his pronouncement, and said he is eager to have an impact on the state’s LGBT-rights movement, he wants to make his political mark based on more than the LGBT title.

“I hope that when my obituary is written someday, they’ll focus on the fact that I brought about sweeping education reform or massive development in Central Pennsylvania. I’m a proud gay man. I know that’ll be in there, that I’m Pennsylvania’s first openly gay legislator, and I’m OK with that. But for me the title’s not important. Yes, I’ll have a footnote in history because of it, but I also want to be remembered for what I’ve done.”

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