Tuesday, August 28, 2007
BRANDON SHAWN TATE:
Rising Star Heads Stonewall Young Democrats
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
You don’t get to be president of an organization just two months after you joined it unless you have something on the ball. Energetic 20-something Brandon Shawn Tate joined the Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego (SYDSD) in April 2007 and was elected its president two months later. On August 8, his group attracted over 60 people to Trolley Barn Park in Normal Heights for “Still Proud,” a follow-up to the Pride events including a full dinner, courtesy of Pat and Oscar’s restaurant, and speeches by the statewide Young Democrats chair, current City Councilmember Toni Atkins, and the man SYDSD unanimously endorsed to replace her, former San Diego Democratic Club president Stephen Whitburn.
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana — who explains the lack of any discernible Southern accent in his voice by smiling and saying, “I’m an English major” — Tate was in New Orleans the day Hurricane Katrina hit. Though he didn’t lose his home or suffer the kind of crippling damage other victims faced, Katrina cost Tate his job and his scholarship to Louisiana State University. He decided to pick up the pieces of his life somewhere else, and chose San Diego because a woman friend lived here and could put him and his then-boyfriend up until he could get a job and a place of his own. After sitting out a year of college to avoid having to pay out-of-state fees, Tate went back to school at San Diego State and is now going to school, working full-time and running SYDSD.
At the July 26 meeting of the San Diego Democratic Club, Tate gave a presentation challenging the conventional image of his generation as either too conservative or too apathetic to be interested in building a progressive future in U.S. politics. In our interview, he discussed these issues, compared living as a Gay man in Louisiana and California (the differences aren’t always what you’d think!), talked about living through Katrina and explained SYDSD’s evolution from the youth caucus of the San Diego Democratic Club to an independent, but still affiliated, organization in its own right.
Zenger’s: First of all, would you tell me a little of your background and how you got involved in politics?
Brandon Shawn Tate: I’m from Louisiana. I was there during Hurricane Katrina. I was actually in New Orleans the morning that the alarms, the sirens, were going off for them to be evacuated. I volunteered in New Orleans after the hurricane. I sometimes get emotional talking about that, and I don’t want to; I’ll try not to. I was the general manager of a restaurant, and a lot of our restaurants in New Orleans were shut down because they were either damaged or had no access to water, sewage and such things. They weren’t usable.
So a lot of managers and employees were shifted to our city in Baton Rouge. Because I had worked for the corporate office, I then decided — it wasn’t like I was sent there, but I agreed — to go help to reopen those restaurants in New Orleans. So I was sacrificing my time waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning, driving to New Orleans, helping open these restaurants. There were curfews in place. I was there, I was doing this extra work, I was giving to my community and to my job, and also going to school at the time.
In that process, I got very sick and very worn out. I had to leave school. I caught pertussis — whooping cough, which wasn’t a very common disease in someone my age, but there was an outbreak of that after the hurricane. I got sick with that, and it took the doctors three months to diagnose me. I was very, very sick for three months. During that time, I had to leave school, and when I left school I didn’t have any support from LSU. I wasn’t refunded any of the money. I was actually billed for a lot of the money that my scholarship had paid for. My scholarship was revoked, and then I ended up having to pay the tuition that the scholarship was going to pay for. I’m still paying a bill to Louisiana State University because of that.
That was minor, compared to what happened with my employer. Within a matter of less than 24 hours — not 24 hours after the hurricane, but 24 hours after I’d helped reopen all but one of the restaurants in New Orleans — I moved back to Baton Rouge. After all of that, they then gave me a 24-hour notice that my salary was being cut back by 33.3 percent, with the explanation that there was lack of revenue and things. It was just difficult. It wasn’t enough for me really to survive on in the situation that I was at. I was completely independent, not having support from my family. They live in St. Joseph, Mississippi, and I was completely out of contact with them for a week.
So with the social stuff going on with my school, my education, and my health, that created a lack of opportunity. I really couldn’t be there in Baton Rouge anymore. I had a friend who lived in San Diego, and she asked me to fly out here to see if I liked it. My partner at the time and I decided to come out here together. I found a job, he found a job, things worked out. So I’ve been in San Diego since April 2006.
You can imagine how being involved in a crisis where I found that there was no protection for me with my school, with my state, with my government, would definitely affect the way that I thought. I’d always been very interested in politics. I registered to vote when I was 17, just to make sure I got to vote when I turned 18. I always kept up with races and issues and was very informed. But not until I got to San Diego did I actually get, in terms of leadership of a political organization, get very actively involved.
I found the Stonewall Young Democrats information on line through the San Diego County Democratic Party’s Web site, and got in touch with Melanie Potter. She was the acting president of the club at that time. The club was founded by Jonathan Getz, who is Melanie’s brother, along with a few other people. By the time I got involved, it was going through a transition because the former president, founding president, had left. I was still very eager to get involved, and when I first met with Melanie to see what the club was doing and what it was all about, there wasn’t a whole lot of direction other than that she really wanted to register voters, and for their club to be a club that, at a grass-roots level, got people engaged in voting and supported rights of LGBT [Queer] youth at a local level in San Diego. And those things were definitely things that I was interested in.
I have a passion to teach. I’m going to school right now for an English degree. I had three years at LSU and now I’ll be finishing at San Diego State. I sat out a year so I could get residency status, so I wouldn’t be paying $20,000 extra in tuition. I had applied for financial assistance to get an in-state residency because I went through Hurricane Katrina, I was a victim of that, but I was approved to get in the school but denied that kind of assistance. So I waited a year, but now I’ll be finishing my degree at San Diego State, and I want to teach English.
My career goals are to teach or to be full-time in politics or a combination of the two. They go together a lot for me. The two are very well related. What I love about teaching is the ability to impact or affect the way people think. Teaching, for me, is not about facts. It’s not about teaching one plus one, but it’s about teaching the concept of how to arrive at that result. Politics is that way for me too. It’s about teaching people acceptance and tolerance and issues, and fighting for equality. Gay rights, equality for the LGBT community, is something that I fight firmly for, but it’s not the only thing that I do. I strongly work for workers’ rights, and students and education.
Zenger’s: Can you tell me exactly what the Stonewall Young Democrats is, and what its relation is to the San Diego Democratic Club? Is it simply the San Diego Democratic Club’s youth caucus, or is it separate?
Tate: The original Stonewall Young Democrats group was formed in Los Angeles by Jon Cleary. The vision was that it would cater to the youth LGBT population that the older club was not effectively reaching. The leadership of the older club, such as the SDDC [San Diego Democratic Club], has traditionally not included a very diverse group of younger people. So we wanted to start something that was more connected to young Democrats, something that was more connected to CYD, which is California Young Democrats, and YDA, Young Democrats of America.
Originally SDDC started a youth caucus. The idea was to find youth people within the SDDC to start reaching out to other youth. Eventually we realized that for the youth club to be effective, it needed to be more of an independent club with an association with SDDC, not just a caucus. The way it stands now, SYDSD, Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego, co-exists as its own independent organization, chartered with CYD, chartered with YDA, as a Democratic organization consisting of young members who are LGBT or allies. The age limit, as set by Young Democrats of America, is from 14 to 35 to be a voting member of the club. The relationship that we have to SDDC is because we are a caucus, we have a voting member on their board. The leader of our club, whom we elect, is also chair of the youth caucus of the SDDC.
Zenger’s: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was your presentation at the July San Diego Democratic Club meeting, where you talked about young voters and youth in politics generally, and offered some statistics that kind of challenged the conventional wisdom that since the baby boomers of the 1960’s, each young generation has been progressively more conservative than the previous one. Could you go over some of those numbers with me, and talk about them?
Tate: There are actually two things challenging our generation: one, as you just mentioned, the “conservative” theory, but also the “apathetic” theory, the theory that our generation would be slackers and more apathetic in general in terms of making decisions or getting involved at all. I actually see those as closely related. In general what I have observed is that issues that were polarizing to some generations have not been to ours, precisely because of our apathetic approach to things.
For example, on Gay rights, in other generations, even generations that are still functioning in the electorate, Gay rights is something that polarizes the voters. On one side you have people who are very liberal, that are also pro-choice. On the other side, a lot of people who oppose Gay rights — not necessarily the majority but a lot of them — do so because of Christianity or some other ethical or moral bass for that stance
In our generation, there’s been created a safer environment for Gay rights. It’s not where we want to be or where we want to get as our final goal, but it’s definitely a huge improvement. It’s safer for younger people to come out at an earlier age, mainly because there’s been more education for parents on how to deal with Gay and Lesbian children, or Bisexual or Transgender children. There’s been more education for teachers in educational institutions. There’s been more openness.
Zenger’s: You link that to the apathetic reputation of your generation. Are you saying that it’s just that people your age have a more live-and-let-live attitude?
Tate: It’s that, and it’s also because there’s been a safer environment for people to be open. Because of that, virtually everyone my age either are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender themselves or know either a friend or a family member, or somehow they are related to someone, who came out either earlier or later in life. Because there are so many people who are so much more accepting of it, it’s not something candidates can use as a platform issue to get young people to vote against us.
So when you take away issues like abortion or Gay rights, you get down to the core of what being liberal or being conservative is about. A lot of people are able to look at the more fiscal side of things. Rather than viewing the social side of being liberal as “the Gay agenda,” they’re viewing it as a way to help the environment, a way to help elderly people, a way to help health care. They’re seeing it as issues that aren’t necessarily polarizing, issues that actually affect a broader group of people, instead of using a minority group as a divisive wedge to make people want to vote conservatively just because of that.
It’s weird; it’s almost counter-intuitive to say that apathy would make people more politically engaged. But it’s made us less concerned with things that we don’t see as having a direct effect on our lives in a negative way. Does that make sense? Whereas Christians would Gay rights as something they have to stand up against, and they feel very strongly about that, our generation, being apathetic and more accepting, doesn’t see a lot of issues as something they have to fight for just “because.” We are fighting for things that actually matter. The environment, for instance, is a big thing that our generation is taking into their own hands in a way that other generations have not.
Zenger’s: Is that simply because someone my age might miss the global-warming apocalypse that’s been predicted, but someone your age is likely to meet it head-on?
Tate: Yes, in combination with the technological advancements that are occurring right now. There are a lot of jobs for our generation. Our generation is technologically inclined, more so than other generations, I would say. Because of that, we are conditioned to think about things like that. We think more about the future and technology and the environment being brought to our attention at an early age, hybrid vehicles and solar energy and things like that. They just make sense.
If solar energy and wind energy and these other forms of energy are so abundant, for us not to tap into those more, and for us to continue to harm the environment, would be pointless. And if we have the technology to do it now, then we no longer have that excuse. So our generation wants to hold people more accountable for things that they’re going to be affected by in turn.
Young people actually will vote if they’re asked to. For the first time since 1972, youth turnout has increased in two consecutive elections, 2004 and 2006. Young people make up a larger share of the electorate than voters over the age of 65. And by 2016, according to a study done at George Washington University, it’s estimated that our generation will make up one-third of the electorate.
Members of our generation are not only more likely to vote, but also more likely to vote Democratic. In California, young voters vote 2 to 1 for Democratic candidates. Of course, that statistic is actually much higher for California than in the nation as a whole. But if young voters had been the only group voting in 2004, John Kerry would have won by more than Bill Clinton’s margin in 1996.
Zenger’s: One thing that’s often said is that support for marriage equality for same-sex couples tends to increase in the younger sectors of the electorate, and it’s been suggested that one reason you’ve got pushes for constitutional amendments at the state and federal level to ban same-sex marriage once and for all is that time is running out for them, and this is the last electorate that would actually support something like that, and as older people die off or drop out and younger people take their places in the voting booth, it’s going to be much harder to pass those things. Do you agree with that?
Tate: I agree with that, but recently some statistics came out that were shocking to me, because, based on what I’ve said here and based on what I’ve experienced in California, I thought the percentage of my generation who would support Gay marriage would be in the high 60’s or 70’s, based on my own instinct. But the poll that I actually read — a national poll, not a state poll — showed that it was more or less in the high 40’s/low 50’s.
A lot of times, even for Gay youth sometimes, you have to separate Gay equality from Gay marriage. When you look at statistics from my generation that say, “Is it O.K. to be Gay? Is it O.K. to have domestic partnerships? Should there be civil unions? Should there be rights?,” on all of those issues, we will overwhelmingly support those things. But for some reason, for the specific issue of Gay marriage, it doesn’t get the exact support as the same people that would support overall general equality.
I’ve have that challenge personally, with some of my straight friends. They’re completely O.K. with my sexual orientation and my life, and they’re completely O.K. with equality, and they’re O.K. with all that. I don’t currently have a domestic partner, but if I did I would get the same benefits that they do with their wife or husband, and they’re not angry about that. They’re supportive of it, but they don’t know what they would do with Gay marriage. So I do agree with you, but there’s still a challenge there and there’s still a way to go.
Zenger’s: Do you think you’ll live to see a day when Gay marriage is broadly accepted in the United States? Not getting into the morals of it, but whatever has to happen for it to become legally recognized throughout the U.S.
Tate: I think I’ll see that day. I don’t think I’ll ever see the day when people do not oppose Gay marriage, Gay people, and homosexuality in general, on a personal or moral level. I mean, we still see racism today. We still see people who do not respect women. Yet women are able to vote, and women are able to have equal rights. We still see people who do not respect African-Americans or Hispanics. Yet they have the right to vote, and they have the right to get married. We see people who frown upon interracial marriages, yet they are able to get married. The day will come, I believe, when Gay couples will be able to be married; and they will be accepted by the government and by their employers.
Will the day come when every American is O.K. with it? Probably not. But that’s not what we need. I don’t care if people don’t accept me. What I care is that I actually have the same rights as those people. If I’m awarded the same rights, and I’m not persecuted in a way that actually affects me in terms of my job, my education, my marriage, my finances, then it’s O.K. for them to hold that stance. I do think the day will come when Gay marriage will be legal and the psyche of the general American public will be way more accepting. In fact, I think we’ve already started to see that happen, especially at local and state levels.
Zenger’s: At the event you guys held at Trolley Barn Park [San Diego City Councilmember] Toni Atkins burst your balloon a little where she said that turnout in the last election was 41 percent among the general population and 24 percent among youth. So it seems like you still have a long way to go in terms of getting more members of your generation to participate in the political process.
Tate: She and I were quoting two different sets of statistics. She was talking about what percentage of each generation votes, and I was talking about what percentage each generation is of the total electorate. We do have a challenge in terms of getting more members of our generation to vote, It’s a difficult challenge, actually, because our generation is very apathetic about a lot of different issues. A lot of people in our generation care about things, but they don’t vote, or they are afraid of politics in general. A lot of us identify as independent, probably more so than most generations. They want to be seen as moderate, as in the middle, even though a lot of times their version of “moderate” is actually way to the Left and the’re more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans when there’s a partisan race.
But as a whole, yes, they’re not voting. Only 24 percent of them voted. That’s not uncommon in past generations. What she didn’t say is it has increased. It was less than that in 2000, in 1994, in 1996 it was less than that. It has been increasing, and I think it will increase [more].
Zenger’s: What sorts of issues should candidates talk about, and what things do they need to say, to attract people in your generation first to vote at all, and then to vote for them?
Tate: One thing that obviously affects us directly is the cost of college, not just rising tuition but other costs like textbooks, for instance. In California, for example, there’s actually legislation right now to regulate the process by which publishers are able to do new editions of books. Often new editions come out with very few changes, just to make more money for the publishers. We’re also concerned about the student loan program, not just the big scandals but the overall issue of how much people are paying in interest. We don’t really understand where we’re at in terms of how much we’re borrowing and how much we’re actually going to end up paying back.
Also many of our generation are independent at 16, 17, 18, 19 years old, but can’t claim independence on a Federal Application for Student Financial Aid (FASFA) form until we’re 25 years old or married. That’s very frustrating to me personally, because I get no financial support from my parents, and haven’t since I was a senior in high school. Yet, according to FASFA, because I’m not married or 25, they assume that my parents are still supporting me and count their income level towards my eligibility. A lot of people in our generation, especially LGBT people, don’t live with or get money from their parents. So FASFA’s policy, which controls eligibility for virtually all student financial aid, is really unfair.
The environment is another big issue our generation wants to hear about. We want to know what are you really doing; what are your goals and standards for how much of the nation’s energy is going to come from renewable sources. How much are you going to continue to give tax incentives and tax breaks to people who are harming the environment? Obviously I’m speaking of the oil companies. There are ways that the government could spark the whole movement for renewable energy by helping to create a market for it. If the government would mandate that new construction homes in certain areas have to be equipped with certain kinds of solar energy, that would help create a market and bring the cost down.
Health care is also an issue of concern to our generation. I know it doesn’t seem to be, the way that it’s talked about right now: Social Security and everything isn’t something that our generation actually is particularly interested in. But a lot of people in our generation don’t have health care for the same reason that they don’t have the financial support that I’m talking about with the financial aid, because they’re independent, and a lot of companies do not respect young people as people who deserve benefits, or who deserve health care. A lot of 20-somethings are in that transition phase where we’re going to school and working a full-time job, but we don’t have health benefits, so when we get sick, we’re racking up medical bills.
I personally have thousands of dollars in medical debt because of what happened in Hurricane Katrina, and I did not have adequate health care to compensate for a lot of the bills I had. So it wouldn’t necessarily be health care in the traditional, conventional sense, those kinds of discussions, but it should employers provide for you if you’re working, and how are young people going to get access to health care if they don’t have it? That would be the issue, and that would be something we would be willing to listen to.
Zenger’s: You mentioned having grown up in Louisiana and only recently moving to California. How would you compare the two in terms of attitudes towards homosexuality, Gay rights, freedom in general, and the “moral” issues that we talked about earlier? How would you compare Louisiana and California as environments for someone like you?
Tate: When I first arrived and spoke to other Gay people in San Diego they assumed that because I was from “the South” as a whole, that I had received a lot of persecution; that I was not used to people being accepting. But it’s actually not that way. In Baton Rouge and in New Orleans, we have a very accepting culture of Gay people. Granted, we also have a very strong Christian population. But Louisiana is a Democratic state — a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators — and decently liberal or progressive compared to other surrounding states in that south region. I was not uncomfortable holding my boyfriend’s hand walking in the mall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or going out to dinner with a group of straight and Gay people mixed together, and having fear of being accepted. We had Gay clubs that were well known.
When I got to San Diego, I found a very accepting Gay culture that was much more organized than I had known in Baton Rouge, in terms of clubs like SDDC; in terms of having Gay City Councilmembers like Toni Atkins; in terms of such as domestic partnership rights. Those things I had not experienced in Louisiana. But as I moved out of Hillcrest and the District 3 area, I lived in El Cajon when I moved here and I know that for the first time I experienced a persecution — not necessarily a direct persecution, but a lack of acceptance that I hadn’t experienced before in Baton Rouge.
So I saw a division between those who were accepting and liberal, but very organized at what they did; and then those who totally were not accepting, what I would compare with some of what I experienced in Louisiana with the Christians that were there. When I first moved to San Diego, I was walking in the Gaslamp with my boyfriend at the time, and people shouted, “Hillcrest is that way.” In other words, “Get out of downtown,” like I wasn’t welcomed in downtown: that there was a specific area I was supposed to be in. In Baton Rouge we didn’t have that specific area. So it’s good to have that specific Hillcrest area where everyone’s accepted and open, and there’s a great place to be where you can be completely open and have all the resources that are there for you. That’s nice.
In Louisiana we didn’t have all those resources. We didn’t have all those rights with the people there. But as a whole, we had a more open culture. Here it’s more like you’re isolated to those areas. If you actually think how people operate, you’re not going to get the answer that most people would expect: “Louisiana was much more conservative, and I hated being there because people hated Gays; but when I moved to California, everything was great and people loved me.” That’s not really how it happens. There are people that hate me in California just as much as they might hate me in Louisiana, and there were people I knew in Louisiana who were as open and accepting to me as anyone in California.