In 1994, Thorpe was Tompkins County’s first openly gay elected official. Thorpe, an activist for more than 20 years, is working for The Equality Federation, a national LGBT support organization, to build political power in a gay rights organization in Virginia.
Contributing Writer Ryan Miga spoke with Thorpe about her time as a councilwoman in Ithaca and her influence on the LGBT community.
Ryan Miga: How did your career as an LGBT activist start?
Roey Thorpe: I have been an activist since the early 1980s when I first took a Women’s Studies course. … I was an undergraduate studying music, and I was really angry … and my adviser suggested that I should take a Women’s Studies course, even though it wouldn’t help me toward my
degree, because I think he was … you know, helping me figure out where all my anger was coming from. It was really a transforming experience, and it sort of led me into being an active feminist and that helped me come out as a lesbian, and I’ve been an activist ever since … so probably since 1984, I’ve been an activist.
RM: How is the climate [in Ithaca] compared to ... Portland as far as acceptance of gays?
RT: Portland is an extremely tolerant city … it’s a very young city. It has a lot of people who are in their 20s … [they] tend to migrate to Portland; it’s a destination for people and so it’s a very open, very hip city … I love it there. It would be hard to get me to leave there, actually — I love it more than anywhere I’ve ever lived, even though I loved Ithaca very much. And … you know, Ithaca raised the bar for me, for places to live, because people were so open and so genuinely curious and so interested in ideas and, you know, having a community that accepted everyone. I really loved living in Ithaca. I mean just to say how accepting people were … for my last two years I was elected acting mayor ... elected by the other council members. … I was the person that all the other council members could agree upon, when there wasn’t much that they did agree upon … so I consider that a real compliment.
RM: Could you describe your experience as the first openly gay official that was elected to the Ithaca City Council?
RT: I was accepted by everyone. I never had an experience where anyone treated me badly because I was gay. In fact, the times when I felt like I wasn’t being heard had more to do with me being a young woman, because at the time I was just 30. … The hardest part was that in addition to representing my ward … I felt that I was [representative] of all the gay people in the city. And, in fact, I think people saw me that way, so regardless of where people lived they would call me if they had a concern.
RM: Do you know if there’s anyone else who’s followed your example and run for office as an openly gay candidate?
RT: Someone who tells me all the time that the reason she ran for office is because of me is Kathy Luz Herrera who’s [a Tompkins County Legislature], … and she was the first openly gay person elected to the board. … I love her, she’s an incredible, incredible person, and she said that when I ran for office and won … that that was when she thought, maybe I’ll do that one day. It was pretty cool … especially because Kathy is Latina. … She’s an electrician, a union electrician, and she’s used to being the only woman, the only Latina, and the only gay person in the room like all at once when she’s doing her work. So for her to be elected to the county board being a union member and all those other types of minorities … I’m just so proud that she felt like she could do this.
RM: What message do you hope people will come away from your presentation [at the college] with?
RT: I hope people get a sense of not only where we’re at in this moment in terms of gay rights … but also of the past and what the future could hold … because I think that, depending on your perspective, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in this country could either be a glass half-full or a glass half-empty. I think I want the people who come to hear me speak ... to have a sense of both perspectives because we’re at a fascinating point in our history … it’s one that has a lot of promise, but we also have a long way to go.
Courtesy of Roey Thorpe
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