“Out of Ohio” is our interview series featuring notable LGBTQ+ individuals born and raised in Ohio who are now out in the wider world using their voice and talents to make a difference.
Famed progressive politician Franklin Knight Lane once said, “A public office is not a job. It is an opportunity to do something for the public.”
If that’s the case, then John Heilman has racked up a heck of a lot of somethings in his decades spent in public service.
With seven(!) terms as Mayor of West Hollywood and multiple elections to their City Council, Heilman holds the distinction of being the longest-serving openly gay elected official in the United States. Dating back to serving on West Hollywood’s first ever City Council in 1984, Heilman has been front-and-center for decades of history, from the ravages of HIV/AIDS to the fight for equal rights to today’s pandemic.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Heilman about his Cleveland roots, his path to service, and the lessons from the past that will shore up our future.
With so many years spent in West Hollywood, I would imagine you could be a walking advertisement for that part of the country. Sell us on the beauty of where you live.
We’re a really special community. We’re at the heart of the LGBTQ community in Southern California with about 35-40% of our residents identifying as LGBTQ. There’s a lot of entertainment here, a thriving home for furnishing and design, and a lot of restaurants and nightclubs who have been impacted by COVID, but they will come back and they will thrive. And we have a lot of the awards ceremony events here like the Elton John AIDS Party after the Academy Awards.
Why get involved in public office?
I think I was always involved in something politically. I had been involved with some housing issues and also got involved with the lesbian and gay rights chapter of the ACLU. When West Hollywood became a city in 1984, I was involved in the city’s formation. It led to me running for office and being part of a slate won 4 out of 5 of the first seats on the City Council.
What did it mean to be an out gay mayor in 1985?
West Hollywood is different than other parts of the country. We’ve never really had many issues around LGBTQ rights because even the residents who don’t identify that way are very supportive. It’s a progressive community. It wasn’t as monumental locally as it was nationally and globally. We were the first city to have the majority of our council as openly gay. It was pretty incredible at the time.
It still is pretty incredible!
[laughs]I know, I know. But there are other cities like Palm Springs and Key West that either have a majority LGBTQ members, or in some cases, all of the council is LGBTQ. A lot has changed in 36 years. Now we have senators like the great Tammy Baldwin. And out mayors like in Chicago and Berlin and Paris. A lot has changed.
Is there an Ohio sensibility that you bring with you to your public service?
Actually, our current mayor is from Ohio as well! I think the values that I grew up with in Ohio are certainly values I keep with me. There’s a practicality and common sense that I grew up with in Ohio. I certainly try to bring that to our discussions. I do think it’s something that sticks with you.
As welcoming as West Hollywood has been for so long, I would imagine that HIV/AIDS hit the community pretty hard. Talk to us about those times.
It was devastating. People who are younger don’t really understand what it was like when every week you’re losing someone. Back in the days in the late 80s and early 90s it was diagnosis, and then pretty much a year later was death. About 10% of our residents were infected and we lost a number of them along the way.
I played volleyball in one of the gay leagues, and I’m the only one from my team still alive. I lost one of my deputies. We lost numerous employees, the head of our chamber of commerce, several members of the incorporation committee for the city. It really was a devastating experience.
But I will also say that our community rose to the challenge. A lot of organizations were established to provide treatment and advocacy and care. And a lot of leadership came out of our community. Those organizations still exist today to provide services and some have expanded beyond HIV/AIDS work. Even though our community was adversely impacted, we just kept going and kept moving forward. It’s a testament to the strength of our community.
What are the lessons we can carry forward with us from those times into the present day?
One of the lessons that’s really pertinent right now is to listen to the messages we’re getting from health experts. We have to follow that advice, know how the virus is spread, take precautions. And we have to be consistent, not let our guard down, and never shame, blame, or discriminate against those who are infected. We have to take all the steps we can for a healthy community.
How about that label, “the longest serving openly gay official in the United States”?
It may actually be in the world! I don’t know anyone else who has been in office since 1984. It’s been a long, long time.
How are you able to keep going and avoid burnout?
I love it. Look, there are times that I feel a little burnt out. But that goes with any job. This has certainty been a stressful time with business shutting down and residents being infected. But I love this city. I love the people. I love being in service to this community. You have to come visit.
So what I heard you say is that you’re giving me the key to the city.
Finally, what do you think would be the definitive John Heilman campaign slogan?
At this point, it would have to be, “Experience you can trust.”