Post by Andrew Shultz – Photos by Shawn McGinniss
Last Tuesday, July 31, the third floor of the Center was packed to the brim as volunteers brought in extra seats to accommodate all of the audience members for the highly anticipated conversation, QA, and book signing with Neil Giuliano. Among his many accolades, Giuliano can count himself as the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city after coming out publicly in 1996, a journey poignantly chronicled in his recent autobiography, The Campaign Within. Moderated by the lovely Chely Wright—impressive in her own right as the first artist in country music to come out as gay—it is no surprise that late-comers were left standing in the room.
Giuliano’s lifetime of public service is truly noteworthy. His career spans four terms as the mayor of Tempe, Arizona, where he ran three successful re-election campaigns and won an anti-gay recall election with 68% of the vote. He also served as the former president of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), is the current CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and will represent Arizona in the Democratic National Convention this fall.
Given the long list of accomplishments throughout his career as a public servant, one would expect the usual aloofness characteristic of so many successful, high profile public figures. However, what came through in the conversation and QA was a grounded, humble, approachable, and human side to Mr. Giuliano. As he opened up to the audience with personal stories about his journey from a closeted politician living a double life to an outspoken advocate for LGBT issues, we were able to see the great amount of courage and empathy for others that have defined his professional and personal life.
Although the Neil Giuliano speaking at this event came off as calm, confident, and comfortable in his own skin, this has not always been the case. Reading an excerpt from his autobiography, he shared a passage about being a confused and isolated adolescent—a “loner” in the suburban home of his Italian Catholic family in Bloomfield, New Jersey. “I carved ‘Neil’ on the overhang to the basement entrance [of my childhood home]. Perhaps I was already beginning the long process of trying to carve out some type of clarity and identity for myself in a world that was beginning to make less and less sense to me. But I couldn’t have explained it that way at the time.”
Another facet of Neil’s personality that makes him such a magnetic figure is his unique ability to mix humor and heartache into his stories. After candidly sharing with the audience his experience of surviving sexual abuse as a child, he went on to lighten the air in the room. After coming out, he jokes that in nearly every press conference from that point on he was referred to not as Mayor Giuliano, but as the “openly-gay-Mayor” Giuliano. He also told a story about a particularly rough time during his process of coming out in the middle of mayoral term when he left Tempe to attend the men’s gymnastics finals of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. “I know,” he laughs. “What could be gayer than that?”
Neil Giuliano’s story is at once remarkable and universal. Many of us can relate to his feelings of being marked different, of feeling at one time or another like an outsider in our families and communities. At the same time, the courage of his coming out story – in spite of all the circumstances of living constantly in the public eye – inspires us to live out our own truth daily.
In this era of bullying and increasing homophobia, it seems that we find stories of gay teen suicides and vicious hate crimes filling the headlines every other week. For this reason it is more important now than ever that we have positive role models in our community such as Neil Giuliano and Chely Wright. When asked why he decided to write the book, he replies with conviction, “I came out in 1996 and since then I have been on a journey. I have realized that telling our coming out stories is important; that being visible is important.”