As a precursor to PRIDE Alliance’s 13th annual Day of Silence, the HWS student organization brought guest speaker Daniel Stewart, commissioner for the New York State Commission of Correction, to campus to share an incredible story of hardships and successes, including his time as a member of the U.S. Air Force and as the first openly gay mayor in New York State.
Before the event, PRIDE member Constance Mandeville ’12 said she hoped that Stewart’s speech will “Help raise awareness and get more people involved with LGBT rights on campus.”
His speech was covered by the Finger Lakes Times, which called the experiences he recounted, “quite a story,” noting “Stewart was once homeless, living under a bridge in Plattsburgh. He later was elected to run that same city, as the first openly gay elected mayor in the state.”
Stewart told the audience at HWS that he didn’t embrace his homosexuality early on, but rather fought it and lashed out at other homosexuals. When two male classmates in high school wanted to go to the prom as a couple, Stewart said he “became the class spokesman against the two guys going to the dances. I spoke out against it because I was gay, as odd as that sounds,” the Finger Lakes Times quotes him. “I hated myself. I didn’t want it known I was gay.”
He came out in 1991 and as an openly gay man ran for, and won a seat, on the Plattsburgh City Council.
“It took me a long time to live the life of who I am. I hope it’s easier for young people to be open today than when I was growing up,” he is quoted in the Times.
The full article follows.
Finger Lakes Times
State official turned denial into triumph
NY’s first openly gay mayor, now correction chief, speaks at HWS
David L. Shaw • April 17, 2009
GENEVA – Daniel Stewart knew he was “different” at the age of 8.
By the time he was a teenager, he knew he was gay.
He refused to acknowledge it, pushed it deep inside, abused alcohol and drugs, and tried to deny it by speaking and acting against gays.
Today, the 47-year-old Stewart is the state commissioner of correction. He’s in charge of 73 state prisons, 57 county jails, several youth detention facilities and more than 90,000 inmates.
He spoke at Hobart and William Smith Colleges Thursday night about his life as a gay person. It was the same day Gov. David Paterson proposed legislation to allow gay marriage in the state.
It’s quite a story.
Stewart was once homeless, living under a bridge in Plattsburgh. He later was elected to run that same city, as the first openly gay elected mayor in the state.
He joined the Air Force after high school in the hopes that military life would cure him of his “illness.” He later became a Republican who helped convince gays to vote for George W. Bush for president in 2000.
“I grew up in Pawtucket, R.I., and knew I was different as a gay person. I didn’t understand it and was scared. I got a book at the library that said homosexuality is a sickness and that scared me even more,” Stewart said to an audience of about 15.
“I hid it. I fought it. My step-father was a cop who was very bigoted against anyone different. I had to stay closeted,” he said.
His family moved to another Rhode Island community during his high school years. Ironically, that high school was in the news because two male students wanted to go to the junior prom as a couple.
“I knew I was gay, yet I was so determined to stay in the closet that I became the class spokesman against the two guys going to the dances. I spoke out against it because I was gay, as odd as that sounds,” he said. “I hated myself. I didn’t want it known I was gay.”
Those two classmates went to court and won the right to go to the senior ball. Stewart said he agreed to secretly tape them dancing or kissing for a local television station, but changed his mind at the last minute. He said the dance went well.
Still, he fought his sexuality. He enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Plattsburgh, which had a base at the time. He felt that such a masculine atmosphere would break “the curse.”
“Instead, I found more gay men than I ever thought existed. ‘Now what,’ I said. I kept fighting it, and in the process became a full-blown alcoholic at age 26,” he said, adding that he’s been sober for 20 years. He left the military and lived under a bridge in Plattsburgh for a while. He continued to abuse alcohol and drugs and was in a depressed state.
“I knew all the best homophobic jokes. I continued to internalize my true self. It got to the point where I had to decide whether to go ssober or die. I didn’t have the guts to kill myself, so I went sober,” Stewart said.
He got a job as a truck driver and finally decided to come out of the closet in 1991 after finding a boyfriend. He lobbied the Plattsburgh City Council to pass an anti-discrimination law.
In 1993, he ran for a vacant seat on the Plattsburgh City Council. He said he was always interested in politics. Surprisingly, he won by a wide margin.
He was openly gay at that time, with the AIDS epidemic going strong.
Amazingly, his family in Rhode Island still didn’t know he was gay.
His parents came up for his inauguration, and he was able to keep them away from newspapers and television while they were in Plattsburgh.
In 1995, an auto accident killed his mother and injured his step-father. Shortly after that, Stewart was invited to speak at a gay event in Providence, R.I., and there was press coverage. He decided to come out to his step-father, showing him the media coverage.
“He said we’ll just keep this quiet. I said he would either accept me for who I was or not see me,” Stewart said. “I haven’t seen him since then.”
He was re-elected, but then chose not to run for a third year. In March 1999, he switched from the Democratic Party to an independent. He then decided to run for mayor – this time as a Republican. He won by 104 votes to be the first openly gay mayor elected in the state.
“It was strange going to the state Republican convention as one of only six elected Republicans out of 237 gay elected officials in the state,” he said.
That prompted a call from Karl Rove, George Bush’s advisor, asking for his help campaigning for Bush in the 2000 presidential race. He did, was soon disillusioned, and apologized to the crowd last night.
Eight months ago, he went back to the Democratic Party, saying he just couldn’t be in a party that is so anti-gay.
Stewart said his social life was in Montreal, Canada, some 18 miles away from Plattsburgh. It was there he married his male partner in 2004.
Being gay and in charge of the state’s prisons poses yet another challenge to Stewart. Every inmate is housed according to their sex.
“The big issue is transgendered inmates. There aren’t many, but we’re working on how to deal with that,” he said.
He said he believes in the right of gays to marry, preferring to call them civil unions – but not running away from the word marriage either.
He said the gay marriage bill will pass in the Assembly, but it will be more difficult in the Senate.
“It took me a long time to live the life of who I am. I hope it’s easier for young people to be open today than when I was growing up.”