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State Official: Being Gay Shouldn’t Be A Public Issue, But ...

August 5, 1995

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) _ Being an outsider, one who asks tough questions and is unafraid to rattle even fellow Democrats, comes naturally to Ed Flanagan.

During 2 1/2 years as the elected state auditor, Flanagan has issued reports critical of Gov. Howard Dean’s administration, the former treasurer and other state officials.

``Being on the outside from very early on in my life has contributed to a mindset that questions, in a way that I hope is productive,″ Flanagan said in an interview last week.

Flanagan’s attitude stems not from his days as an All-East defensive end at the University of Pennsylvania, or his degree from Harvard Law School, or his membership in a family with deep Vermont political roots. (His father was an aide to Sen. George Aiken.)

It stems from his homosexuality.

It’s a subject which, in an ideal world, would not even be worth discussing publicly, Flanagan said. ``I think anybody, including me, has a strong instinct to keep their personal life private.″

His ambivalence about going public was plain. He repeatedly said during an interview that his sexuality should not be newsworthy and telephoned the next day to make the same point.

But he said he had to speak up because of hostile talk about homosexuality from conservatives in Congress.

``I think public bigotry creates a moral obligation to respond publicly,″ he said.

Flanagan’s willingness to do so delighted Kathleen DeBold, deputy director of the Washington-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which raises money for openly gay political candidates.

``It’s a real brave thing for him to do,″ she said, adding that Flanagan is the first and only statewide elected official in the country to be openly gay or lesbian.

``It’s exactly what our community needs,″ she added. ``It’s not as if we haven’t been involved in the political process. It’s just that we’ve been invisible. I hope this will inspire others to do what he’s doing.″

Flanagan said the challenge of going public was eased somewhat by Vermont’s climate of tolerance and respect for privacy and human rights. He said he did not expect it to affect his political future.

``I don’t think in Vermont it makes a difference. It’s not about Vermonters approving or not approving. It’s more about Vermonters respecting what is personal and private.″

Flanagan’s view of Vermonters’ tolerance was seconded by the state’s lone congressman and the lone independent in the U.S. House, Bernard Sanders.

``I think that to a very great extent the people of Vermont judge people on their character and their integrity and their ability to do the job,″ Sanders said. ``I honestly don’t think the fact that he’s gay will make any difference.″

Flanagan says it was during his first year in law school at Harvard that he ``fully acknowledged″ he was homosexual, which ``involved being honest with my family about it as well as myself.″

His early adult life was spent mostly out of state, working at large New York law firms and for a year as an aide to Joseph Califano, secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Carter.

He returned to Vermont full time in 1985 and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1988. Labeled too new and too untested by the pundits and rejected by the voters in 1988, Flanagan saw another chance in 1992, when longtime auditor Alexander Acebo was retiring.

Since his election, he’s turned what had been a somnolent auditor’s office into a much more high-profile and aggressive post, insisting throughout that his interest is in good government practice and value for the taxpayers’ dollars.

At the same time, Flanagan said, he was growing in maturity and self-respect, and finally felt ready this June to march in the annual Gay Pride Day parade in Burlington.

What Flanagan called a ``half-step″ toward openly declaring he was gay turned into a three-quarter step when The Burlington Free Press the next day ran a photo of the parade that showed a number of marchers, including Flanagan, although he was not identified in the caption.

Now that the half-step has become a full-step, Flanagan said his fondest hope is for a time in the near future when his sexuality won’t be an issue.

``Once the bigotry is destroyed, there’s no longer that need to respond, no longer that need to inject into the public arena what rightly falls under the right to privacy.″