by Mike McGraw
Like the true railfan that he is, Maple Heights City Councilman Richard Trojanski keeps chugging along to serve his community.
A lifelong resident of Maple Heights, Trojanski was the first openly gay council president in Ohio, elected to office on November 3, 2015. He was first elected in 2009 and served three consecutive terms on Maple Heights City Council representing District 6. After 8 years in office, he came out as HIV-positive on World AIDS Day in December of 2017. These days, Trojanski is leading at a time of when the twin health crises of a pandemic and racial inequality have disproportionately affected the predominantly Black residents of the Cleveland suburb.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Trojanski about how his community is navigating this tumultuous time, what more we need to do to get LGBTQ+ people elected in Ohio, and how he connects with his constituents.
Recently the City Council in Maple Heights was grappling with a “racism as a public health emergency” declaration. Tell us more about that.
We’re a community that’s about 70% African American. Driven particular by the health disparity issue, my colleague and I felt that it was important to allow ample opportunity to reflect and evaluate ourselves in terms of our policies and practices. [We want to] make sure that our people understand that we value and validate the concerns of racial issues and that whatever wrongs were done in the past were made right today.
What is the bandwidth for the Maple Heights City Council to deal with LGBTQ+ equality issues while also addressing racial equality?
I made a promise to my community—as someone who is proud to call Maple Heights my home and as a member of the LGBTQ+ community—that I would work tirelessly to make my hometown an even more welcoming and inclusive place for all. Since I have taken on leadership, the City amended its ordinances for public employment and housing to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as gender identity, making us the 5th or 6th community in northeast Ohio of less than a dozen across Ohio in 2014 to do that.
When I first ran for City Council in 2009, I was 30 years old and most of my colleagues on Council were retirees and much more conservative. I know for a fact that I was not welcomed because of my sexual orientation. So I had to get through my first term. I ran for reelection in 2011, and I won with 60% of the vote. At the time, the then-Mayor was old school. He had been in office for nearly 30 years. I knew he had an issue with my sexual orientation and he would intentionally run people against me. Fortunately he was not successful.
[Current Maple Heights] Mayor Blackwell has been extremely supportive. In 2021, I’m introducing a resolution to declare the month of June as Pride Month in Maple Heights and I will also put forth a resolution to make sure that we put a Pride flag on City Hall’s flagpole. When you’re looking at the financial data, or you’re looking at homelessness and so forth that our young LGBTQ+ community members go through, there are a lot of hardships. So we’ll also be establishing a scholarship to support LGBTQ+ high school students going on to college.
Here in Ohio, we’ve got a growing number of LGBTQ+ elected officials at the local level, but not so many at the state level. What would LGBTQ+ politicians have to do to succeed at that level?
Allies are important, but LGBTQ+ representation in the halls of power is critical for our movement. For me, I tell people that I’m Richard who happens to be gay, not Gay Richard. There’s a significant difference. I want people to judge me on my merits.
For those running for office who happen to be LGBTQ+, there’s always going to be challenges for us. We represent less than 1% of elected officials. If we want to get more LGBTQ+ candidates elected to office, we need to strategically recruit, mentor and support LGBTQ+ candidates, particularly at the state level. It has to be a conversation with the Democratic Party and other organizations. Maybe we need to have a big pow-wow, and ask “What is the pathway to making sure that we can get someone at the top echelon of our state leadership?”
In a city of 23,000 people, you must have a great up-close relationship with your Ward. Does that help you to be a role model for a younger gay person in your ward?
I actually hand deliver my newsletter to every household in my district, rather than doing a mailer. It allows me the capacity to engage in conversation with my residents. They share with me their issues or concerns or problems, and they get to see me as a human. I want to make sure that when someone speaks my name, they’ve experienced me in a positive light. Then when they see other people who happen to be LGBTQ+, they’ll think, “So that person’s not so scary after all!”
Mike McGraw’s work as a freelance writer has appeared in PRIZM, Wish Cleveland, Freshwater Cleveland, the Cleveland Street Chronicle, and Northeast Ohio Boomer and Beyond. A native of Ohio, he lives in Cleveland Heights