The inopportune disclosure was a personal problem for Low – “I had not fully told all of my family [that I was gay] when the story ran” – and ultimately, he was defeated at the polls. Undeterred, he ran again in 2006, this time successfully. In 2009, he became Campbell’s first-ever openly gay mayor, a position he held though 2010. Low remains on the Campbell City Council today, and will be running for California’s State Assembly in 2012. Here, he looks back on his past seven years in politics – and looks ahead to the future, as well.
What a nightmare the 2004 newspaper disclosure must have been.
It was a challenging issue that I had to deal with. But it’s interesting, just because it was this kind of sensationalized reporting that sells newspapers. They didn’t say my opponent was a 78-year-old, Irish-American, openly heterosexual candidate. They applied different descriptors to me, rather than talking about the substantive nature of what my candidacy was about.
How much time was left before the election?
Probably about two months or less.
And then you lost. Do you think the disclosure of your sexuality had anything to do with the loss?
I’m sure there were people who didn’t vote for me because of it, but I’m sure the opposite is equally true, that people voted for me because of it. So it’s hard to say.
Did anyone overtly make an issue of it in a negative way?
Oh, absolutely. I would get hate mail: “We don’t want the homosexual agenda in our community.” And of course, I’m still unclear on what that agenda is supposed to be, other than equal rights under the law.
In 2006, though, you were elected to City Council. Did you face an anti-gay agenda during that campaign?
Yeah. There was a whispering campaign, “Don’t support him, we don’t want those homosexual values from San Francisco to come into Campbell.”Some people were very blatant about it, too. But it wasn’t just being gay, I also got hate mail about being Asian-American. People saying they wanted their businesses in English, not Chinese. “We want American interests, not Chinese interests.” When I’m actually fourth-generation American.
Did anyone ever suggest that you tone down the gay stuff during your campaigns?
Yes. Even in the Asian-American community, not everyone will support me because of [the gay issue]. So certainly, there were a lot of close friends of mine who said, “Maybe you should hide yourself.” But when I was running, I never felt like I had to tone anything down, because that wasn’t why I was running. I was running to focus on my community. And, I mean, gay issues just don’t come into play that much. We don’t have gay potholes. We don’t have straight street signs.
Now it’s five years later, and you’re running for State Assembly, Have things changed? Is being gay still a handicap in politics?
It’s funny – people think California is so liberal, particularly on this issue, but obviously we lost the marriage fight. So ultimately, I still do think [being gay] is perceived as a negative. There’s still so much stigma against the community.
Any insight into why that is?
Well, as a politician I’ve gone to a lot of different conferences, I’ve met a lot of different people and a lot of times when they find out that I’m gay, they say, “I’ve actually never known a gay person. I thought you were very flamboyant from what I saw on TV.” So there’s a preconceived image. We have to come out and show people that there’s nothing inherently different about us. Of course, it’s easy for me to keep saying this in California because we have protections for being out and being gay, whereas many states do not. So you have to be mindful of that as well.
What’s the key to getting protection everywhere?
One thing is to keep fighting. In California, I see a lot of gay couples holding hands in the street, which is great. But then I try to get them engaged in the political process, and they say, “There’s no need to get engaged, we have legal protections in the state of California, we can serve in the army now.” I think people get complacent and forget about the past and we need to remind them about the struggles that previous generations have been through.
Is it more important for us to have gay elected officials, or straight allies with pro-gay agendas?
There’s nothing more satisfying to me than seeing a straight ally champion an LGBT cause. A perfect example is the Governor of New York. He wanted marriage equality and ne pushed and lobbied and made it his fight, he did everything under the sun to make it happen, and that was so heartening. Because if you have a gay politician saying “Marriage is important, and here’s why,” obviously people will say it’s biased. But if you have a straight ally saing, “Hey, it’s not even my community and I still think we should be fighting for gay marriage,” it has much more of a broad impact. So to answer your question, both are equally important. Straight politicians can help to enlighten other straight people. But gay politicians are important because they demonstrate that you can be out and still survive in politics. Someone being successfully elected to a position demonstrates that there is validity and credibility within that person, and the translation for that is that it’s okay to be out, it’s okay to be gay.
Is there anything about your political career you wish you had done differently?
Um, there’s nothing I would change, but I would hope that I was better educated. I think my [K through 12] education did me a disservice by not talking about the issues of who [gay people] are as Americans and understanding the diversity and different populations of our community.
What difference do you think that would have made to your career specifically?
I think it would have given me a better sense of a foundation, a better sense of pride. When you run for office, you basically have everything on the table and you have to sell yourself to the population, and if you’re unsure of your own self, if you don’t know who you are, and you’re not comfortable in your own shoes, how can you sell yourself? It’s a challenge inherently.
That is true.
It’s like when you see these politicians getting into gay sex scandals when they’ve been voting against LGBT equality for their entire careers, I always wonder, why does this seem to happen so often? And I think it’s because they’re not comfortable in their own shoes, and I wonder if [better education on LGBT issues at an early age] would have allowed them to be true to themselves.
Do you have any advice for aspiring gay politicians?
Well, the Victory Fund is a national organization that does candidate training. When you say you want to run for office, there’s no manual for how to do it. If you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school. If you want to be a lawyer, you go to law school. But if you want to run for office, what do you do? The Victory Fund has a really good educational process for this and so I would advise people to check it out.