Will these two candidates be the first openly LGBTQ elected officials in RVA?
Two openly gay Richmond natives are hoping to redefine who can hold public office and represent the people of the city by running in upcoming local elections.
Rebecca Keel (top image, right), a candidate for city council in the second district, and Sean Smith (top image, left), a candidate for Richmond School Board in the fourth district, are including their LGBTQ identities to relate to the people of Richmond and reinforce the importance of a truly representative government.
Smith is a graduate of the Richmond Public School system and wants to use his personal connection to local schools as a base from which to connect to the issues that he experienced first hand. He sees representation in terms of gay people holding public office as an important factor in elections, “especially when you’re talking about the school system and the students who are really coming into their sexuality and gender identity.”
“Having that representation is important to them because they need someone to be able to speak on their behalf so that way we know policies are being implemented to protect and to address things like bullying or teachers who are not culturally competent,” Smith said “The learning environment should be safe for them. It should be welcoming for them.”
Relatability is a central conversation in Keel’s campaign for city council as well. In what she calls a value-based campaign rather than one that is issue-based, Keel’s message relates her own experiences to those she’s hoping to represent.
“We really work so much better when we bring our whole selves to the table versus sectioning ourselves off,” Keel said. “So I’m not just a woman, I’m a queer, albino Black woman and that says a lot about how I move through the world. The perspective that gives me on the city I think is really important.”
Keel, who identifies as queer, doesn’t see her sexuality as the core of her identity or how she will operate in office, but sees it as a connection to those who are oppressed by the political system. “I also understand what it feels like to be liberated with policy that affects my identity… gay marriage being a really relevant one right now,” she said. “Policy and culture really go hand in hand.”
Being able to connect to the people affected by policies that the city implements might be the most important aspect of the campaign to an openly LGBTQ community member. Smith feels that other school board candidates aren’t as sympathetic to the needs of young students struggling with their sexuality, but are more concerned with pushing their own personal agendas. “I’m starting to think it’s something I need to be more vocal about,” Smith said.
After meeting with parents of students that identify along the spectrum, Smith realized the lack of policies protecting these students within the school system. The main issues that he finds consistent as a past attendee of Richmond Public Schools is a lack of a culturally competent curriculum and educators who don’t know how to deal with behavioral issues that result from trauma that students experience out in the community.
“I’m an advocate at heart,” Smith said. “So my focus is going to be to ensure that those who are marginalized or really can’t speak up to fight for policies and curriculums, to do that on their behalf.”
Keel, who also grew up in Richmond, feels a similar responsibility to stand up for the more marginalized populations of the city. While this is her first time running for public office, she is no stranger to local politics. Her past community work includes participation in many social justice efforts over the years, including Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and the Black Lives Matter movement. After finishing her master’s degree in social work at VCU, Keel decided it was time to take these efforts to the next level to stand up for the problems that she sees within the community.
“People really question my intentions as a former VCU student,” Keel said. “I want to make it really clear that I don’t agree with a lot of the development that VCU is doing in the community. I think it’s disrespectful to the history. I think VCU needs to actually integrate itself into the city versus trying to take it over and claiming that it ‘built this city’ when it very much did not.”
Running for office as an openly queer person does result in some prejudice against her campaign, mostly from an older population warning her that her identification might scare some voters off.
“I know that it’s going to take a while to completely diminish that kind of thinking and fear and hatred of someone who’s not like you,” Keel said. “But I’m hoping that with my candidacy, even if people don’t agree with who I am as a human being, this will begin to plant seeds in people to really reflect on their own biases and own prejudices.”
Your chance to vote for these and other candidates happens Tuesday, November 8th.
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