Meet Mark Sickles, the Only Openly Gay Member of Virginia’s House Of Delegates
It’s bright and early and I’m sipping a warm cup of coffee at Urban Farmhouse in Shockoe Slip. Virginia native and General Assembly Delegate Mark Sickles walks into through the massive floor-to-ceiling doors and waves. We’ve never met, but I recognize him from the pictures I’ve seen online.
Sickles looks like a politician – stout, glasses, serious countenance – but a half smile stretches across his face. He’s voice is firm, but he seems to have a dry since of humor, something I appreciate as both a journalist and a cynic. I’m about to interview Sickles because he’s just done something few can take claim to – actually, only one other person shares his new title. Sickles is now the only openly gay member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and, behind Sen. Adam Ebbin, only the second openly gay person in the state’s General Assembly.
An active member of the Democratic party, Sickles’ political history dates back to the late 1980′s – working on political campaigns and being generally active up until his first formal election in 2001. He lost by about 300 votes, and he came back in 2003 and won the seat - the 43rd district, the Fairfax County Suburbs in Northern Virginia. He currently lives in Huntington, but alongside the rest of the state’s elected officials, he makes the pilgrimage to RVA every January to hammer out the future of our state.
Sickles wasn’t on our radar here at GayRVA much – he admits he prefers his privacy and doesn’t seek the spotlight – but last Friday, he penned an OpEd for the Washington Post in which he not only defended the Attorney General Mark Herring’s refusal to defend VA’s voter approved ban on same-sex marriage, but also came out as a gay man.
Hearing such caustic remarks yet again on the House floor, coupled with the overturning of our same-sex marriage ban, has motivated me to state publicly here what many close friends and family have known for decades: I am a proud, gay man.
“I knew that some day, I would do this,” said Sickles between bites of a veggie-sausage sandwich. “I was comfortable in my own skin because I was not completely in the closet, I was out in my private life.” Friends and family, most of his fellow politicians, and others close to him knew, but it wasn’t something he wanted to be necessarily known for.
Sickles said once a year he spoke to Sen. Ebbin, who he considers a close friend, about coming out publicly. And while the OpEd cites the harsh language used by the conservative GA members as one of the reason he chose now to come out, he admits it was something he could have done sooner.
“There were probably other times over the years that I might have [come out]. I don’t know if [it would have helped] because we are in such a deep hole in this state politically… If I knew coming out would change the world, I would have.” But the uphill battle was not beyond him, and he acted when he could. The overwhelmingly Republican House is not known for passing bills protecting sexual minorities with open arms and a wealth of legislation sadly passed before Sickles’ eyes as he sat in session, including the same-sex marriage ban.
But Sickles, like many other professional people who happen to be gay, chose not to make it the focus of his platform or image. He claims his ability to chose when he comes out accurately reflects his political party’s stance on the issue.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party… should be the party demanding people to do this or do that. It’s their own life, and we want people to be comfortable as they want to be with where they are at in life.”
But that didn’t stop Sickles from running in LGBT circles – he said he’s been a regular attendee at Equality Virginia’s Equality Dinner since it began years ago. “So many people knew I was gay, it was funny seeing it in the papers,” he said jokingly, “but seeing someone like my friend Adam Ebbin being called the ‘only gay person [in the GA]‘ made me feel bad… I think it’s just gonna be better that it’s all out there.”
But Sickles’ modesty hasn’t kept his ambitions low – he, alongside Ebbin, is running to replace Congressman Jim Moran when he retires. I jokingly ask him if he thinks coming out has become politically advantageous. “We’ve come a long way, so it certainly doesn’t harm you in the 8th Congressional District,” he said. The 8th is made up of mainly DC suburbs and has gone Democratic for nearly two decades.
But that hasn’t stopped political opponents from using Sickles then-unknown sexual orientation against him. In 2005, Republican Ron Grignol told The Washington Post a mailer featuring a picture of Sickles holding a toddler was “deliberately misleading the voters” because Sickles had no children, and the incumbent Delegate’s “sexual orientation is a mystery to us.”
The ploy didn’t work; Sickles won by almost a 30% margin.
So the public seems pleased with Sickles’ work, but how has the new openly gay Delegate fared in a political body making headlines for doing everything in its power to keep sexual minorities marginalized?
“I’ve gotten really [some] good ‘attaboy’ from our side of the isle. From the other side, several people have said supportive things. Lots of pats on the back from Republicans,” said Sickles.
One of VA’s most outspoken opponents to same-sex marriage, Delegate Bob Marshall, approached Sickles after the OpEd went public and, for lack of a better term, tried to make peace with his freshly-outed colleague. “He came over and said he still wanted us to be friends,” said Sickles. “We’d always been friends – he’s a friendly person even though we disagree on 98% of things.”
Sickles has finished his sandwich and we are about to wrap up. I turn off my recorder and we talk for a minute about how much he loves hockey and baseball and how important construction projects in his district are. He’s got a newspaper in his hand and has already started to check emails. He’s a busy guy, as are most politicians. I ask him if him being out will change his politics at all.
“The first day, I came back and I gave a speech about about medicaid,” he jokes. “So I don’t think so. Get back to me in a year and maybe I’ll have a better answer for that.”
We’ll be sure to keep in touch, Mark. Thanks for the conversation.
Openly gay legislators rally to remove defunct same-sex marriage bans from Virginia law and constitution
“There are a number of Republicans, even those are against LGBT equality, who do accept that fact that the Virginia state code books should say what is the law and not what isn’t the law…”October 19, 2016
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