Julia Boseman won't back down | News Feature | Indy Week
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Julia Boseman won't back down 

N.C.'s only openly gay state senator on politics, parenting and Jesse Helms

click to enlarge Click for larger image • N.C. Sen. Julia Boseman: "I am going to be honest with the people about who I am, just as I will be about honest with them about the issues that affect them." - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

If you know anything about Julia Boseman, it's that she's North Carolina's only out state senator. Or that she was the solitary holdout who voted no on the resolution honoring Sen. Jesse Helms after he died last year. Or that she recently won a nasty custody case with her ex-partner over rights to see her 7-year-old son.

In sitting down with the Indy recently at her Wilmington home, Boseman, a 43-year-old Democrat from New Hanover County, spoke frankly and movingly about those issues as well as her continued loyalty to both Clintons, her disappointment in President Obama's efforts on LGBT issues and her new spouse, Chrystal Medlin, and the baby boy they're expecting in January.

For Boseman (and North Carolina's LGBT community), it's been, as she says, a "really good year," one where she successfully led the fight as primary sponsor of the School Violence Prevention Act (known informally as the anti-bullying bill), which specifically protects LGBT kids and marks the first time that sexual orientation and gender identity are included in North Carolina law. The year also marked the passage of the Healthy Youth Act, which provides young people with life-saving information about STDs as part of a comprehensive sex education program that teaches more than just abstinence.

What do others think of her contributions? Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality NC and a frequent collaborator with Boseman, says, "Julia's making a big difference behind the scenes. She's really stepped up in the past year and made a big difference for us."

Attorney Sharon Thompson, who represented Boseman in the adoption of her son, Jacob, and specializes in LGBT legal issues, explained: "She's really started changing people's perceptions [of lesbians]. It's very significant that she can speak out as a gay parent, a parent like others who go to soccer games. It's had great effect."

One of her biggest boosters remains former President Bill Clinton, with whom Boseman barnstormed the state in support of Hillary Clinton during the primaries. In a statement to the Indy, he said: "I met Julia when we campaigned together for my wife across North Carolina, and I could tell by the way she listened to people and addressed crowds that she was the kind of politician whose first priority was to achieve positive and meaningful changes for the people she served. She has already done great things in the Assembly, helping to create new jobs, improve education, protect families from gang violence, and fight the rising costs of health care. She has broken through stigma and inspired a generation of LBGT public servants to serve openly in North Carolina and beyond. For as much as she's already been able to accomplish, I am confident her best years as a legislator and public servant are still ahead."

As she told us, it's been "a very good year. It's about time."

Indy: When you first ran for office, were you out as a lesbian?

Sen. Boseman: Yes!

How much do you think your sexual identity has been a driver in your political life?

I have to say it's much easier with the whole world knowing that you're gay. I can remember when I ran in 2000 for county commissioner, I had a choice: I can either be closeted or I can run as an openly gay candidate. If I run as an out gay person, I take away the biggest bombshell that they can use against me. There was a lot of interest in my race at that time—especially my first Senate race [in 2004]—because there have only been a handful of openly gay elected officials in North Carolina. So people from around the country had concerns.

[In the end], I made a conscious decision to run as an out lesbian. I have to say it was a little unnerving when the media went through my campaign reports and they found out I got support from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. They came into my office with the cameras running, saying, "You're a lesbian. You're openly gay."

"Yes, I am. I am going to be honest with the people about who I am, just as I will be about honest with them about the issues that affect them."

So what's it like to be the lesbian, the only out state senator, the poster child for being an elected dyke here in North Carolina?

I never really think of it like that. People automatically assume things about you because you're gay—like you're going to raise taxes through the roof because you're liberal. You want everything that's considered liberal. Actually, we care about all the same things as other people—getting a good education, roads, where's the guy who's picking up my trash.

What advice do you have for other LGBT folks who are thinking about politics and public service?

You better have a really thick skin. You better want it real bad. You need to work hard. Don't get distracted from the light at the end of the tunnel.

For you, what is that light?

My son, Jacob, and my spouse, Chrystal. I certainly miss him not being here every day, but coming home to her—it just doesn't get any better. After all I've been through—or the two of us have been through together [referencing her bitter custody case, which has resulted in joint custody with her ex-partner]—we're very fortunate that we have a solid relationship, and we're expecting another child in January. Life goes on.

Click for larger image • Boseman, right, with her spouse, Chrystal Medlin, and son Jacob Boseman-Jarrell. - PHOTO COURTESY JULIA BOSEMAN
  • Photo courtesy Julia Boseman
  • Click for larger image • Boseman, right, with her spouse, Chrystal Medlin, and son Jacob Boseman-Jarrell.

Let's shift gears and talk about the landmark anti-bullying act that was finally passed by both houses this past session and signed into law by Gov. Beverly Perdue.

We've been trying to get it passed for quite some time now. And I have worked very hard with Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) this year. In the past, I tried to avoid being the message and the messenger. This year I just felt that in order for it to pass I had to take on both roles. But I'm not going to lie to you. I've gotten my feelings hurt a couple of times. There were people who would not sign onto the bill and who would not be up-front with me or vote for it, and then say they want to be my friend and hug me and love me. But I know they're not supporting this bill because it has "sexual orientation" in it. That was not the most pleasant experience.

At the end of the day, though, the bill is about protecting kids. And as unfortunate as it was, when we were trying to pass the bill the media pretty much made the case for us. There were two separate incidents, 11-year-old boys—one in Georgia and the other in Massachusetts—who were both bullied for being perceived to be gay, not actually being gay. They both hung themselves. I'm a mother, and believe me, kids are mean. Kids shouldn't have to be bullied to the point where they kill themselves.

Isn't that extreme? Bullying in the schools has gone on for decades. Why do we need protection from the state and why carve out sexual orientation and gender identification?

We had people arguing, like Paul Stam, House Minority leader (R-Wake) and others, saying, "You know we would support it if didn't have enumerated classes [like sexual orientation and gender identity]." But we did the enumeration because we felt that the groups had to be actually named because they were the ones most likely to be bullied and needed the increased protection. It's unfortunate that we have to pass a bill that tells school systems: "You can't let people be bullied. You have to have policies."

So what are the requirements in the schools?

Schools are going to have to come up with policies district by district. We don't tell them what to do if a kid spits at another kid. All we said was, "You're going to have written policies, and these are the people who need to be enumerated out." I think someone stood up and said [when we were debating], "We should have a bullying policy for white Republican men." I said, "I think you guys are doing OK."

What's a big deal for gays and lesbians is that this is the first time in North Carolina that sexual orientation has been written into the law. It was a huge victory for that, but at the end of the day, the bill was about protecting kids.

You mentioned Paul Stam earlier. What's it like to hear ill-informed or homophobic comments from him or the Christian Action League? For instance, during the debate over the bullying bill, they claimed there was a list of more than 30 mental disorders based on sexual orientation and gender identity according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. As you know, no such list exists, and comments like that are meant to incite fear.

I think he's said some pretty twisted stuff—some pretty twisted and sick things. I can take it, but it hurts the people around me more than it hurts me. The only time he ever bothered me was when we were debating the bullying bill in a house committee, and my son was in the room, and he started handing out stuff saying, "Gay people aren't good parents." I'm thinking, what's wrong with you? It's just twisted.

Did he know your son was in the room?

Yes, I believe he did.

Let's talk about the Healthy Youth Act, which allows for sex education to be taught in grades 7 through 9 for the first time. This was another major victory for progressives in the state this past year.

I think it's absolutely fine if parents want to teach their kids abstinence until marriage, but in all reality that ain't going to happen. If you look at the percentage of STDs out there, especially among minority women, we need to make sure our kids know what's going on and are prepared.

When I was growing up, you didn't hear about AIDS or any of these STDs; it just wasn't as prevalent as it is now. There's so much pressure in the high schools now for kids to have sex. They seem to be having it earlier and earlier, and I'm not encouraging it, but I think kids need to be informed of what the risks are.

What was it like to achieve these victories?

Our victories this year were huge. I mean passing the bullying act and the Healthy Youth Act in the same year. It was so great. You should have seen the Christian Action League. They could hardly speak to me, and I was like, "I beat you!" Reverend Mark Creech [the league's executive director] was just red-faced and defeated. It was a great feeling. They tried to say things like you're going to go into the schools and teach the kids how to have gay sex. And, we're like, "No, we're not." The closed-mindedness of people is surprising—but at least we got it passed.

Was there a different strategy deployed this year?

With the bullying bill, [as I said] I had to literally be the message. I had to look people in the face in the House and Senate, and they had to tell me no to my face. It was uncomfortable. This isn't about me—it's about the kids. They would just say horrible things in committee, and I would just tune it out, and Rep. Angela Bryant [D-Nash] came up to me and said, "How can you stand up there and take that?"

I said, "If I didn't stand up for myself, how can I expect anyone else to stand up for me?" She was like, "Julia, I just couldn't do it if I were you." This is about kids; this is not about me. So you take your licks.

How come North Carolina—alone among Southern states—has managed to keep an anti-gay marriage amendment from coming to a vote? Are we a better people? Do we have better LGBT advocates?

It's for a lot of reasons, but a lot of it, frankly, is the pure politics of it. I think the Democratic leadership wants to maintain the [upper hand], and if you allow that amendment to get on a ballot, that's going to bring out people who don't normally vote, who will vote not only for the ballot measure, but will also vote Republican. They don't want that. A lot of this has been about preservation of the leadership, by not allowing it out for a vote at all. I think if the bill were introduced, it would come close to passing.

When will we get domestic partnerships or civil unions statewide?

I have no idea. I would think there would have to be some kind of trade-off. Civil unions for gay marriage. But there isn't even any talk of that.

Click for larger image • Sen. Julia Boseman at home in Wilmington - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

For many in our community, the choice between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the past election was a wrenching one. How did you make your decision? Do you regret it?

I definitely don't regret it. I was fortunate enough to go to the primary debate in South Carolina and see Hillary. I just liked her approach. I liked what she had to say. I believe and still do believe in her. I have great respect for President Obama—and I'm certainly glad he beat McCain and that Palin woman, because she's frightening.

How did you come to be involved in Sen. Clinton's campaign?

First of all, Hillary's people asked me, and Obama's people didn't ask. I've always loved Bill Clinton to death and been a supporter. I would have loved to have seen a female president, but again, I'm happy with President Obama.

What was it like to travel with former President Clinton when he traveled the state before the North Carolina primary?

It was just like he had known you forever. We were flying and I said to myself, "I can't believe I'm sitting on this plane next to President Clinton eating Chick-Fil-A. That was an opportunity of a lifetime. To this day, I still e-mail a couple of times with President Clinton's chief of staff.

Do you have any relationship with the Obama administration?

No, I don't.

As you know, the president has come under much fire from the LGBT community for failing to follow through on a variety of things important to gays and lesbians. How do you rate him on LGBT issues?

I expected and expect more leadership. It's like people are so scared of any gay issue. The best way to deal with something like that is to do it, get it over with and stop talking about it. So, yes, I think he could have done better, but I'm hopeful for the future.

Do you think Secretary Clinton would have been more effective as president at this point?

I do. I do.

Let's turn the clock back a bit and talk about the late Sen. Jesse Helms, who died in July 2008. You're the only state senator who voted no on the resolution honoring him after he died, which made headlines and is highly unusual. In fact, all the others who opposed it chose to walk out rather than vote no. How premeditated was your decision?

I was alone. In some ways I should thank the guy because in 2000 he was still in office, and that's the first year I ran. I could go around the country and say, "I'm from North Carolina, home of Jesse Helms," and just hear the groans. He helped me.

"The only reason I voted no was because there was no 'hell no' button there I could push." —Julia Boseman on opposing a resolution honoring the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms

He was against AIDS and gay people. He was just Mr. Hateful, he was mean—"Senator No." How could I vote to honor the man who treated us the way he did? There's absolutely no way I could do it. I knew his wife was sitting up there in the gallery [when the vote was being taken], and I thought I showed the greatest deal of respect by not standing up and saying, "How can you vote to honor this hateful man after all the horrible things he's done?" The only reason I voted no was because there was no "hell no" button there I could push.

Finally, let's talk about your Court of Appeals victory, in which you sued your ex-partner, Melissa Jarrell, for joint custody of your son with the goal of maintaining Jacob's right to continue having the love and support of two responsible parents. This must have been deeply upsetting to you, as it was to many in the gay community, specifically because had Jarrell won, the "don't ask, don't tell" approach to second-parent adoptions in the state might have ended. Basically, after agreeing to have you become a legal second mother to Jacob, Jarrell tried to have your rights dissolved, possibly undermining same-sex second adoptions statewide. How do you understand what happened with your ex?

I don't, really. This is my son we're talking about. It's not how I like to make laws—by going to the Court of Appeals myself. I'm glad that I did do it, but it wasn't even a choice. I said to my lawyer, "We have to sue her for custody," and he said, "Your political career is over. You'll never get re-elected if you do this." And I said, "It's my son."

I tried everything to work it out with her. Mediation. Everything. It was so bad. At some point, Jacob's going to Google it and he's going to hear what was said, which is why I've tried never to say anything negative about her in public. But she tried to take his parent away from him.

Is it over?

We're hoping that it's done.

What's up next for you on the horizon?

I don't know. I haven't made any [political] decisions. I'm relieved to be out of session, and my [child] custody case is hopefully done with—and that's been the hugest relief. Now, I'm looking forward to having a healthy boy with Chrystal in January.

Steven Petrow is a regular contributor to the Independent and The Huffington Post. He's a past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

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