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Albany Councilman was the first Openly Gay Black Person Elected to Public Office in the US

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Keith St. John

It's no secret that the Hudson Valley has rich history. One historical claim to fame that New York's state capital has is that, in 1989, the first openly gay Black person in the country was elected to public office. That person's name is Keith St. John and he was elected to represent the city of Albany's South End. This was an elected position he held for two terms in the 1990s.

“As it turned out, [I was] the first openly gay black person, male or female, elected to public office not just in Albany, not just in Albany County or even the state of New York, but in the entire country," said St. John on how he unintentionally made history in the fall of 1989.

In WMHT's 2015 documentary Out in Albany, St. John goes on to talk about when he first told his mom he was gay while in law school at Cornell in 1983. He was seeing someone at the time and was at his place often. So, when St. John's mother was upfront and asked if her son was a homosexual, he took the opportunity to be honest with his mother. St. John said that while he and his mother continued to communicate, their relationship was never quite the same. Still, he said he owes much of his successful career to his mother.

St. John was raised in Westchester County and went to undergraduate college at Yale and Vassar, earning a B.A. in Economics. He did his graduate work in Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Duke's Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs. He then went to Cornell Law School.

After graduating from law school in 1985, he moved to Albany, where he got a job with the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York.

The following year, he saw an ad to help work on a campaign and he went thinking he would help by volunteering. But he was encouraged to run for Albany's Common Council.

The night before his primary election against the incumbent, however, he recalls in an article for Vassar College, “Flyers appeared on car windshields throughout the ward, saying, basically, ‘If Keith is elected, he’ll turn the city gay.’ It was a ridiculous caricature of a gay man, and I was mortified. But my campaign manager saw an opportunity for it to boomerang, and called the press.”

On primary night, absentee ballots resulted in St. John winning by seven votes.

“I heard from people all over the country. I was in parades in Columbus and in San Francisco, and spoke at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with RuPaul on the same stage. I mean, who gets to do that?” he told Vassar.

His representation of the South End and advocacy of quality of life issues earned him a second term. He even considered running for mayor but instead ran for re-election unopposed in 1993.

Along with this LGBTQ history, Albany is also home to the Pride Center of the Capital Region, the oldest continuously operating LGBTQ Center in the country which was founded in 1970.

WMHT SpecialsKeith St. John | Coming Out to His Mother
Rating: NR

Keith St. John Came Out to His Mother Over the Phone.

WMHT SpecialsKeith St. John Responded to an Ad that Changed US History
Rating: NR

Keith St. John was elected as an Albany Alderman in 1989.