With the sea change of leadership that is about to hit Cleveland as the new mayoral and council administration takes office, a number of LGBTQ+ leaders will find themselves not only sitting at the table, but also holding positions of great influence.
Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, was named co-chair of Mayor Elect Bibb’s transition team. Lawyer and community advocate Rebecca Maurer defeated a 16-year incumbent to win a seat on Cleveland City Council for Ward 12, becoming the first out LGBTQ+ woman elected to the council in the city’s history.
And not only did Ward 3’s Kerry McCormack win his reelection, but he was thought by many to be in line to take over the gavel as City Council President. Instead, it was announced this week that McCormack would be assuming the role of majority leader of the legislative body, the first out LGBTQ+ individual known to hold that title.
We spoke with McCormack about what this new title means, how City Council can make the city safer for all of its LGBTQ+ citizenry, and what responsibility Cleveland has to role-model inclusivity to the rest of the state.
First, congratulations on your reelection.
Thank you very much! I appreciate that.
Exciting times here in Cleveland, no?
I was born and raised in the city of Cleveland and I don’t remember the last time that the community had the level of hope for change as we do now.
And how excited are we to have Rebecca Maurer, our first out LGBTQ+ woman on City Council?
Isn’t that awesome? It is very cool. I met with Rebecca a week or two ago. She is a hard working, really smart person, so I think she will be a great addition to council.
Many in Cleveland thought you would be our first out LGBTQ+ City Council President. Why do we not now have our first out LGBTQ+ City Council President?
<laughs> Nine members of City Council had to come together to make a decision on who their next Council President was going to be. Nine of them wanted Blaine Griffin to be the next Council President. So that’s how that happened.
Tell everyone what the “Majority Leader of the Legislative Body” actually does.
The way I see this moving forward is that I will be a true number two to the Council President. So anytime—in an official or unofficial role—he cannot attend or run a meeting, the majority leader will take over to do that. Truly like a vice-president would.
The other part of it is to help set the legislative policy agenda with the Council President, to better understand with the members of Council what we want our policy initiatives to be. One of the objectives of myself and Council President-elect Griffin is to create a policy document of what we want to see over the next four years.
Councilmembers do a lot of work on constituent services and are liaisons to our community. But we need to do a lot more policy creation for the city of Cleveland. That will mean working a lot more with each other, the mayor, and with folks outside of City Hall to develop policies that will help Clevelanders.
Cleveland received another perfect score on HRC’s Municipality Equality Index (MEI) measuring LGBTQ+ equality regarding municipal policies, laws, and services. But we know there are still so many struggles here in Cleveland, in particular for our trans siblings who are experiencing disproportionate levels of violence. How can City Council make things better for the entire LGBTQ+ community?
What we know is that the issues that our trans community members face are intersectional. We know that systemic racism impacts our trans community as it impacts our entire community. So we have to continue to ensure that the LGBTQ+ perspective is present at the table, whether that’s in our Task Force for Racism as a Public Health Crisis or our economic development work.
But even though we’ve made progress with full protections for the trans community and the MEI score, I think one of the things that we need to do a better job of is the soft touch things. Laws are laws, and they are good and important, but what are the things that are going make the lives of people in the LGBTQ+ people in Cleveland better? Is that more resources in our rec centers for LGBTQ+ youth? Is that working with school districts on an inclusive curriculum? Is that working with the business community working more effectively to embrace the LGBTQ+ community? Is that working with Destination Cleveland on marketing?
Legislation is good. But the everyday experience always needs to be looked at. We have to really listen to advocates, listen to the trans community, and work with the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, Equality Ohio, and others who are doing this work.
What about the rest of the state? Cleveland, and Columbus, and Cincinnati are these perfect-score oases in this state that doesn’t have statewide protections for the LGBTQ+ community in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations. What is Cleveland’s power and Cleveland’s responsibility to help change the rest of the state?
First, we need to do a better job at getting people to vote in Cleveland. This is one of the things that I’m really excited about with Mayor Bibb coming in. He’s really interested in proactively engaging folks to increase voter turnout. You can’t just go every four years to voters and expect a high turnout. You have to really engage with residents all year long. If we can increase our power and turnout here in Cleveland and in Northeast Ohio, I bet you will see a translation of that into influence in the statehouse and the Governor’s office.
The other part of this is really supporting the work of organizations like Equality Ohio and pressuring the state government where they are going to feel it. For example, it will make a difference if major corporations across the state stand up and say, “Hey, Ohio government! We’re paying your bills and we’re employing your people. And we want you to do better at these issues.”
It is tragic that the state government doesn’t understand that by not passing statewide LGBTQ+ protections, we are a less competitive state for business jobs. The Governor and Speaker are out there saying, “Ohio is a business-friendly state, and we’re competitive” and running ads across the country about our tax rate or whatever they’re doing. At the end of the day, businesses want to go where they can attract talent. And when they look at Ohio—outside of those bigger cities that have LGBTQ+ protections—as a state, this is a terrible stain on our ability to grow jobs. People may not want to move here if these protections are not in place.
Are these protections the right thing to do? Are they the moral thing to do? Will it put us on the right side of history? Yes. However, the state policymakers don’t care. So we have to frame it to them in a way they can understand and that frame is business, money, and jobs.
Finally, how does the laurel of “first out LGBTQ+ person in this leadership role” sit with you?
I’m good with it. When I was sitting in my grade school, high school, and college seats, I never saw out people in leadership.
I absolutely believe that representation matters. To be a queer person representing what I think is the best ward in the city and being in a role of leadership in Council is important. We’re seeing across the state—Shannon Hardin in Columbus and Chris Seelbach in Cincinnati—queer people ascending to these positions of leadership where we can have larger influence and ability to push for change that makes our communities a better place.
So I embrace it. Although my portfolio is broad, I don’t shy away from being a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m proud of it. I spent 24 years of my life closeted. I know the agony of that.
I go into CMSD [Cleveland Metropolitan School District] schools a lot, and I don’t wear a rainbow shirt when I walk in, but I talk about my husband and I talk about things where young LGBTQ+ people can see me and know that they can do this too. And that visibility makes a real difference. 🔥
- Because representation truly does matter, the Victory Institute is always looking to identify out LGBTQ+ leaders to run for public office. Check out their next available training.
This story was co-published with The Land, a local news startup that reports on Cleveland’s neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. They deliver in-depth stories that foster accountability, inform the community, and inspire people to take action.