History and the people who make it: Patty Sheehan

Patricia Sheehan [S], Orlando City Commissioner and past president of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Local Officials, was interviewed by Holland Hall [H] in December 2016, six months after the Pulse nightclub massacre.

This is the 39th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

H: Who are some of your favorite queer artists …

S: Melissa Etheridge. We actually jammed together way back when, and we were working together on a community garden for breast cancer survivors. I’m just fried right now, really exhausted, trying to be visionary and what’s fun, it’s kind of hard to get into that space because it’s been really hard the last month or so. But yeah, Melissa, Katy Perry, I love Pink. I find their work to be hopeful. They overcome a lot of odds.

I’m a musician and an artist. I never thought in a million years I would ever run for public office. I moved to downtown Orlando from an area that was a lot cheaper, but it was dreadful quality of life, and it was a stretch for me to afford to live downtown. My city commissioner was very dismissive—didn’t care about the issues impacting my neighbor[hood]. I said, I could do a better job than this. I’m going to run, and I did the first time in 1996, and I only missed the run-off by seventy-five votes …

It was between a closeted lesbian and this guy that was just really awful, but he said he would be supportive of LGBTQ issues. Of course that didn’t happen. I had to weigh it—support a closeted lesbian who used my sexuality against me when she ran—what do I do? It was a tough decision. I ended up supporting him, and I wasn’t happy with the way he represented, so I ran against him and beat him in 2000 with 54 percent of the votes, and I’ve gotten higher percentages ever since.

H: Did you ever, going into the public sphere, want to hide your orientation?

S: No, because I think dishonest politicians hide things. To be a public servant, I had to be honest, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me [or] with the LGBTQ community, so if we participate in that, we’re part of the problem. So I’ve always been open. When I ran the first time, three of the six people running were gay or lesbian, but I was the only one that was honest, and the other two used it against me.

I came out when I was 21, I was a member of an evangelical church, I wanted to do anything but be gay. I thought it was the worst thing in the world. I tried the pray the gay away thing, and it didn’t work. So I accepted myself at twenty-one, I hid it from my family until I was about twenty-three, and I came out to my sisters and my mom. It didn’t go great. She just said, I don’t want you teaching—because at the time I thought about becoming an art teacher. “You shouldn’t be around children, you’d be a bad influence,” and weird stuff like that.

This was thirty years ago. There’s a big difference between things then and now. I was just happy I didn’t get kicked out of the house, because I had already been kicked out when I was seventeen. It was a really bad family situation, more or less a mutual divorce, a lot going on [laughter]. My family was very dysfunctional, but then, they lost me once, I guess they didn’t want to lose me again. It wasn’t approval, but we kind of worked it out. Over the years my mother’s been more accepting, my father’s been out of the picture for a long time. Now she watches me on TV and keeps clippings, and she’s proud of me as opposed to ashamed.

H: What role has your sexuality played in your place in public office?

S: Every time I was mentioned it would be “Sheehan, a lesbian,” “Sheehan, who is gay.” I think that’s gonna be on my tombstone, that wording. And of course, “openly-gay”—there’s always something as an identifier. I don’t mind that. I wish it wasn’t necessary, but I think because of that it’s very important for me to be a good representation of my community.

One of the good things that’s come out of the Pulse tragedy is that so many churches who have not been particularly supportive of the LGBTQ community have reached out. Politicians who’ve not been supportive have reached out, and they legitimately feel bad because they see what the currency of hatred is, and that’s murder. Any complicity in that, I think they felt it for the first time ever, and it’s really changed some hearts. Even though something horrible and tragic happened here, there has been a silver lining. Not for those families, I mean they miss their children, they’re angry. Now as they cycle through grief they’re getting angry at me and other people. I understand that they kind of have to blame somebody, and it’s sad.

I was really proud of how Orlando reacted in love. If you become consumed by hate, you become part of what killed our friends.

The moment it happened—I didn’t find out. I turn my phone off at night because I have a very particular persnickety district, and if I never turn my phone off, I’d never get any sleep. [Next morning] the chief of staff of the city, called me and said, twenty-one people were shot at the Pulse nightclub, we suspect terrorism. I called my police liaison, Eddie, cause I knew that it’d be impossible to get in there without him. I threw on a shirt with my logo so people would know that I was an official, and we went right down. I got there about nine o’clock. I stayed there until midnight. It was just interview after interview.

People wanted to know how can you help? I said, just give blood. I got it wrong, though, at first. I heard that they had relaxed the rules for gay men giving blood. But it was gay men who hadn’t had sex in a year, which to be honest, might not have relaxed it at all, cause my boys are, you know, whatever [laughter]. Equality Florida had their website set up, blew all online fundraising out of the water. My thing was to educate, to communicate, to help raise money, and to help get resources to the families. There were things I couldn’t do while on the street. Kids—I call them kids, they’re young enough to be my kids—they couldn’t get their cars back. They had to go to work, and your car’s been impounded by the FBI. So we set up the assistance center so we could rent them cars. Some of these victims are just now getting their belongings back.

It takes a long time when you have a mass shooting like this, to be made whole. I was just stunned by the outpouring of love. At one point, I was talking to somebody in the media about giving blood, and she turned the monitor around and showed the lines around the blood bank, and I cried. I was so happy, I’m like, wow, everyone’s coming out and doing this. Orange Avenue, a major [artery] in our city, was blocked for a month. I didn’t know how neighbors were going to react. One day, walking through the neighborhood, I saw an Adirondack chair with a hand letter[ed] sign clearly done by a child that said “We love you” with rainbow and hearts. And I just said, wow. That’s the community I live in.

There were a lot of politicians that I felt were just self-serving. They weren’t doing it to educate, they weren’t doing it to try to help the gay community. Marco Rubio, our U.S. senator, stood in the blood, announced his reelection campaign. It was the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen. We also had a Democrat who made a fool of himself and gave away confidential briefing information that he shouldn’t have. I wanted to talk about the hole in my community’s heart, and it was a gay hate crime. “Oh this isn’t about the gay community.” Nonsense.

This is a crime against the gay community. This is not a terrorist attack against America. This was a gay bar on Latin night. If it’s a terror attack, it’s a hate crime, too. Nobody wanted to hear it. I kept talking about the politicians who are trying to talk about anything but the gay community. They don’t want to pass non-discrimination protections, to do anything to assist the LGBTQ community. But then this horrible hate crime happens, they can’t even bother to say the word “gay.” No. You don’t get a pass from me on that.

There’s been a tremendous amount of education, of discussions. There’s been a lot of change of heart. The national election is horrible. It’s unfortunate for the gay community that we now have a person who does not support any American ideals. I’m encouraged that the majority of Americans did not agree with that line of thinking, A lot of my friends supported alternative candidates saying there’s no difference. There’s a huge difference between intolerance and hatred, and acceptance and moving us forward. They didn’t see it. After the election I heard from a lot of kids who had been traumatized, and they were re-traumatized. They were really afraid. But a lot of good things happened. Our Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, managed to get [that] they don’t have to pay taxes on the stipend, the gift from One Fund. Hospital bills were forgiven by Orlando Health. This community continues to care for these victims in a way that’s just remarkable and inspiring. It’s been a hard six months, and it’s not even near being over. But we’ll get through this together.

H: I’ve had people say, our new president supports the LGBT community, he held up a flag, “LGBT for Trump.” Do you have any feelings about people who think that legitimizes his stance toward the LGBT community?

S: He picked one of the most anti-gay governors in America as his running mate. That speaks a lot more than holding a flag. The guy that I beat to get this seat— they asked him to ride in the Pride parade. I need you to support LGBTQ equality ordinances, and public accommodation housing, employment, I could give [a] damn whether you ride in a Corvette in my Pride parade. Sometimes, it’s too much optics, and not enough substance. That’s our fault.

H: Do you have memories from when you were younger, going out to a gay club, where it was an incredible moment for you as an LGBTQ person?

S: That’s the thing a lot of straight people don’t understand. They can’t relate to bars being our safe place. For them, there’s so many other safe places: their place of employment—they can talk about their lives, their partners, their husbands or wives—and they’re safe there. When the straight guy talks about his life it’s charming. When I talk about my life it’s flaunting.

They don’t get that we should feel safe where we are. And bars were, and still are, in a way, our safe place.

A lot of these younger Latinx kids, their parents were from very traditional Hispanic, Catholic backgrounds, and they didn’t accept their kids, some of them didn’t. Some didn’t even know their kids were gay—this is how a lot of these young people came out to their parents. When you’re in a mass shooting, you don’t think, my parents don’t know that I’m gay. So there was a whole ‘nother layer there. But for me, the first time I went in a gay bar. I went with a friend’s daughter, cause I used to hang out with kind of older people, and they played the song, “You Dropped the Bomb on Me”— I’m totally dating myself now—[laughter] and then she kissed me. And that was it. I felt like the top of my head exploded. So yeah, that was my first kiss, and it was in a gay bar, Southern Nights right down the road.

Search for “Patricia Sheehan” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the full transcript of this interview.

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