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Great Expectations, Unexpected ImpactKeith St. John ’81 Becomes the Country’s First Openly Gay Black Elected Official

Keith St. John ’81 readily volunteers that “a lot of me is the product” of the upbringing he and his twin sister got from their formidable mother, Cornelia. As an immigrant from British Guiana (now Guyana), estranged from her husband and raising her children on her own in White Plains, New York, “Connie” had very definite plans for them: her son would be a doctor; her daughter would be a dentist.

Like many a young person before him, St. John chose a different path from the one that had been charted for him. In the process, he made history, becoming the first openly gay black elected official in the United States.

That was not his plan, either, when he arrived at Vassar in 1979 to complete the college education he had started at Yale. St. John had been offered admission to all eight schools to which he had applied, including Harvard, which he turned down much to his mother’s chagrin, because he knew someone who lived around the block who was going to Yale. While he enjoyed his two years in New Haven, after he took a year off to address some issues and make some money, he concluded that he might be better off someplace not so large“a smaller school where I wouldn’t feel so lost.”

It was a decision he has never regretted. “Vassar is the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says. “I was finally able to have a close working relationship with professors, and that really worked for me. I loved how different and fun the people were, and the relaxed personality of the school and student body.”

As it turned out, St. John, a self-described “Type A, very driven, who liked to represent the interests of people,” did not himself relax at Vassar. Instead, he became politically active, and discovered that he liked to take leadership positions. He served as President of Jewett House and Chair of the Board of House Presidents while earning his degree in economics. And, he adds, at Vassar, “I started discovering my sexuality.”

“Vassar is the best thing that could have happened to me. I was finally able to have a close working relationship with professors, and that really worked for me.”

That was to cause a deep rift with his mother a couple of years later. After graduating from Vassar, he landed an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fellowship to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and on to the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs at Duke. With a growing interest in governance and the relationship of policy to law, he had decided to go to law school“but not to practice law.” He was at Cornell Law in January 1983 when, he recalls, “I was seeing someone, and my mother called in the late evening or early morning when the rates were lower, so I missed a lot of her calls. When she finally got hold of me, she asked me point-blank, ‘Are you a homosexual?’” The young law student, unprepared, felt he had to be honest, and told her the truth. As a result, he lost his mother’s support economically, and although they continued to speak, their relationship was never the same. 

After graduating from law school, St. John got a job with the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New Yorkhaving only looked for legal aid services workand in fall 1985, he began working in New York’s capital city (“I didn’t know Albany at all”), helping clients of few means with cases involving landlord-tenant disputes, Social Security disability, and family court. As he notes, the local joke is “You’re not an Albanian unless you’re there for decades,” but mindful of his mother’s dictum, “There’s nothing you cannot do,” after only three years in the city, he put himself forward as one of three candidates for two slots on the Albany County Democratic Committee. To everyone’s surprise, he bested one of the incumbents and got elected to the party seat.

Still, when he saw an ad the following year inviting “anyone interested in working on a campaign” to a meeting, he went thinking he would be volunteering for someone else. Instead, he was urged to run for the Albany Common Council, then dominated by the county’s Democratic machine. With a reform candidate already in line for the nomination in his ward, he moved to Albany’s 2nd Ward, in the South End, a poorer neighborhood. Though he was vulnerable to charges of being a newcomer, many in the area knew him from his work at Legal Aid, and he was an adept campaigner.

The night before his primary election against the incumbent, however, he recalls, “Flyers appeared on car windshields throughout the ward, saying, basically, ‘If Keith is elected, he’ll turn the city gay.’ It was a ridiculous caricature of a gay man, and I was mortified. But my campaign manager saw an opportunity for it to boomerang, and called the press.”

On primary night, it seemed clear he would win, although the machine’s use of absentee ballots ultimately caused the margin to dwindle to a razor-thin seven votes out of 1,400 cast: “A radio reporter was sticking a mike in my face, saying, ‘What do you think about being the first gay black person elected to office?’ And I hadn’t figured that out.” 

Nevertheless, he was an instant celebrity. “I was amazed how far the news spread,” he says. “I heard from people all over the country. I was in parades in Columbus and in San Francisco, and spoke at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with RuPaul on the same stage. I mean, who gets to do that?”

Back home in Albany, he says, “I was viewed as an insurgent, but that’s not what I’m about. I don’t do well asking for permission, but I also don’t consider myself an activist”a surprising comment, perhaps, from a Vassar graduate. “I didn’t want to be subjected to my colleagues’ mistrust and distrust. I spent a lot of time learning the system, and trying to dispel fears people had about me. I allowed people to discover who I was, and what I was and was not.” He was lauded as a highly effective advocate around quality-of-living issues such as landlord-tenant confrontations and the development of affordable housing. In 1993, he says he “entertained the thought of running for mayor, and then I remembered the expression, ‘Check yourself before you wreck yourself.’” Instead, he ran unopposed for re-election to the Council seat he had won so narrowly the first time.

Cycles in politics, however, have a way of constantly changing, and four years later, he was defeated for a third term by “a woman who had grown up in Albany, and had family all over the ward. So, I threw myself back into work”as an assistant public defender, teaching at a law school, and as first associate at a small law firm. In 1999, he was appointed as a policy analyst for the State Senate Democratic Conference, and acted for 18 years as ethics counsel to that party’s senators. With that experience, he was a natural for appointment to the staff of the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, where he serves as Director of Ethics, overseeing education, training, and guidance on the subject to 33,000 New York State employees.

Given the state’s checkered political history, he is well used to cynicism about his current mission. “On the contrary,” he says, “if we hear about the misdeeds of a handful of people, we must remember there are thousands of our folks who understand the value of public service, and appreciate the trust they have been given.

“If I were to reduce the work I do into a few words,” he adds, looking back over his entire career, “it’s solving problems.”

His life’s journey continues to take unexpected turns. Raised Anglican, he describes himself as currently “on the path to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.” He knows there will be challenges; when he and his now-husband decided to get married in 2008, “The bishop made perfectly clear there was no intention of sanctioning marriage equality in the Albany diocese.” They had a legal ceremony in nearby Massachusetts, then one of the few states with marriage equality, but, he says, “Having been raised in the church, I wanted to get married in church. I wrote out the entire ceremony, and designed the entire service, and my priest from White Plains agreed to do it. But we still had to find a place. Then I remembered there was this nice place down the river.” They were married at Alumnae House. 

St. John adds that his unexpected place in history continues to surprise him: “Nine months ago, I got a call from a high school girl from California who was doing a research project. We did a Skype interview with her and several of her classmates. People are still talking about this rather remarkable event. The importance hasn’t been lost on mehow important it is for others, who they are, what they are, how they are going to survive.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better life,” he concludes. “I really have been blessed. The odd irony is my mother’s worst fears never got realized. What she feared most has helped me the mostthe fact of being black and gay. Through the grace of God, I have been able to use those very attributes to be able to make me do what I want to do. You cannot be letting personal prejudice in this world stop you. You just run right over the obstacles.”