Agents of Change: Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan

By : Tom Dyer
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Patty Sheehan was active in the growing LGBT community back in the late 80s and early 90s. When Watermark first appeared in 1994, Sheehan penned a recurring Viewpoint column. But she was destined to have a far greater impact as Orlando’s first openly gay city commissioner. Elected in 2000, she easily won re-election to a fourth term in 2012.

Commissioner Sheehan was active in securing non-discrimination protections for Orlando’s LGBT community, as well as partner benefits for city employees and a Domestic Partner Registry. But she is known to most of her constituents as a champion for sidewalks, safe neighborhoods, historic preservation and a vibrant downtown. Her Wheels for Kids program has secured bicycles for more than 1,000 deserving elementary and middle school students.

Sheehan, 53, lives in Colonialtown with a cat, two dogs and three urban chickens. Conveniently, her partner, Deidre O’Malley, is a Tampa-based veterinarian. Sheehan is smart, transparent and always quotable. She makes for a great interview.

WATERMARK: Watermark is 20 years old, but we’ve known each other longer than that. Do you remember what gay life was like back when we first met—back in the 80s?
PATTY SHEEHAN: We have to remember, because if we don’t we may end up repeating it. One example: I remember when some of the men at The Center weren’t amenable to having women involved. And then guys starting getting sick with HIV and lesbians stepped up to care for them. It brought everyone together. And now men and women work and play beautifully together. There’s not the separation that we used to have.

Is that background useful to you as a commissioner?
It’s part of what I bring to the table as a public servant. People are like, ‘Oh let’s get rid of Patty… she’s been in office too long.’ It’s true that I’m the senior member of council now. But that’s useful. We just added transgender identity protections, and I was the only one who’d been there during the Chapter 57 debate, when we added protections based on sexual orientation.

SheehanRetroCapThat was back in 2002. I’ll never forget it.
It was eight hours of testimony… a lot of it very ugly, very hateful. We were just banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. And it barely passed! The vote was four to three! We had to take out transgender protections because otherwise we’d lose Commissioner Diamond’s vote. And this time [transgender protections] passed unanimously. There was no debate. It shows how far we’ve come.

Back in 2002 you were still in your first term as a commissioner. Were you afraid of repercussions?
Because of redistricting, I’ve now represented more of the city than any other commissioner. They keep thinking they’ll get rid of me [laughs], but I keep getting re-elected with higher and higher percentages. People in some very conservative neighborhoods now write me checks when I go door-to-door. This fear that people have—‘If I do the right thing I’ll have a bad result’—never came true for me. But yes, when LGBT rights came up in such a big way so soon, I worried that I might be a one-term commissioner. I also knew it was the right thing to do.

Were you afraid people would think that’s all you cared about?
Well, I wanted to be known for more than that. Luckily the sidewalk thing came along and helped define me as something other than ‘the gay commissioner.’ I got far worse threats over sidewalks than I ever did because of Chapter 57.

When did you first get the idea that you might like to run for office?
I was involved with what was then called Orlando Regional Pride, along with Joel Strack and Phyllis Murphy. When the city double-booked the Lake Eola Bandshell, I helped negotiate a solution. I was actually considered a voice of reason, which is comical because I was kind of a hothead back then.

I remember that. The city denied it, but everyone thought it was intentional.
They just didn’t want us at the bandshell anymore. Then I moved downtown and started getting involved with neighborhood stuff. I was passionate about LGBT rights, but I was also passionate about neighborhood issues and historic preservation. And I had to know what I was talking about. People began to think of me as kind of an expert on that stuff.

So when did you decide to run for office?
I didn’t! [laughs] Keith Morrision did! I ran into him at Joy MCC Church and he had this little map. He said, ‘You know we could elect a city commissioner with 700 votes.’ I had been doing voter registration with the Rainbow Democratic Club so I knew how many gay and gay-friendly people lived in those neighborhoods. At that point 700 votes could elect a commissioner in Orlando. We threw a campaign together in 90 days.

700 votes… that doesn’t seem right.
Back then the turnout in city elections was abysmally low. Remember, they’re in April. My candidacy actually increased turnout to close to 40 percent, which is pretty remarkable.

That was 1996. You just missed making a runoff.
The fascinating thing for me was that half the candidates were gay but I was the only one that was out. It was a very strange time.

And a dirty race, as I recall.
It was a very dirty race. People were upset with me for not supporting the closeted candidate in the runoff, but if we were going to elect a gay person I wanted it to be someone with integrity, who would stand up for our issues.

Did you decide to run again immediately?
Yes. I only lost by 75 votes. And I had learned so much.

Bill Bagley was the incumbent. The second race was ugly, too.
Yes, but I never had to go ugly. I don’t believe in that. I think it turns people off.

What did you do differently?
You can’t just decide to run three months before an election and expect to win. I kept engaged the whole time. Anytime an issue came up in the neighborhood, I went before the City Council. I worked on an AIDS memorial. I was involved when Watermark ran into problems getting Pride flags hung downtown. And it’s not a pink seat. You have to connect with people. They have to know that you care about their issues.

The last 20 years have been remarkable—for you and the community as a whole. What stands out?
I will never forget sitting in council chambers while Chapter 57 was being debated. I kept my hands gripped tightly in front of me. I had to focus on something other than the hateful things that people were saying. I just kept focusing on my knuckles and saying to myself, ‘Don’t react. Stay calm.’ When it was time for the vote I wasn’t sure we’d win… I thought [Commissioner] Ernest [Page] might follow [Mayor] Glenda [Hood] and flip. When it was over I collapsed and started to cry.

You won election in 2000. How have things at City Hall changed since then?
Oh my gosh! When I first got elected, they took me someplace and made me do a drug test. They took hair and blood samples!

I guess they figured that because I’m gay I must be a drug addict. So yes… things have changed.

Who would make that decision?
No idea. I just assumed it was part of my job. I found out later that I was the only city commissioner that had ever been tested.

Another thing was that gay employees at City Hall were reluctant to talk to me during business hours. I called it the ‘After Five Club’ because everyone would wait until after five and then come talk to me. They were afraid to lose their jobs. I knew [Chapter 57] was important. I went to Mayor Hood and she was supportive. I think she kowtowed to higher ambition.

You’ve been in office for 14 years. It seems remarkable. Any regrets?
The only one, really, was supporting that stupid tattoo parlor ban. It came up during my first two weeks in office. I have a tattoo! I’ve learned since that you don’t ban things you don’t want; you find a way to encourage things that you do want. That’s what we’ve done on Mills and Colonial. I’ve worked hard on that.

Watermark’s offices are in your district. There have been a lot of positive changes.
[Laughs] I consider myself the city exterior decorator. Sometimes I had to go out on a limb. People said Thornton Park Central wouldn’t work. I think being gay helped me see things differently. I think it also made me a more effective leader because I was willing to take chances.

What do you mean?
People are fearful of things that usually don’t happen. As a gay person I was always worried… Will someone out me? Will my parents reject me? None of that happened. And I try to apply that lesson in my job.

That’s pretty profound, Patty. When did you learn that lesson?
During three terms in office. Sobriety has helped.

What scares you?
It sounds crazy, but I really thought I would be assassinated in office. I honestly thought some nut would shoot me like Harvey Milk. I got threatened a lot. I’ve been stalked. There have been some other problems.

Right before I was elected this woman was killed in Oregon. It really affected me. I think part of the reason I didn’t take very good care of myself is because I thought I was going to be assassinated. I just drank a lot and carried on and figured, ‘What the hell… I’ll be dead in a couple years anyway.’

One thing I’ve never been afraid of is looking stupid, because I’m not. I know exactly what I’m talking about.

We’ve talked about how the city has changed. How have you changed in the last 20 years?
I’m much less fearful. People close to me knew what my fears were… mostly losing things… my job, my home. When my domestic partnership blew up, that was pivotal. It was the thing I feared most, and I was humiliated. The mayor had just registered us as domestic partners the year before.

The weird thing is that when I lost that it helped me find me. I could go out and do all these things professionally, but I never felt worthy personally. I never felt like anyone could love me. I no longer accept the limitations placed on my by others. And the same applies to our community. When we realize that, the possibilities are endless.

Your appearance has changed, Patty. You stopped drinking. You look fabulous.
I think what’s happened is that I faced my biggest fear: being alone. I didn’t realize how much I had discounted myself. I believed all those horrible things that people say about me. I think gay people—everybody—needs to realize that it is not okay for someone to tell you that you are a second class citizen. I can fight it in public, but it was hard in my personal life.

I was on Lipitor, which almost killed me. I had a breast cancer scare. And I quit drinking. I’ve been sober for a year and a half now. I go to A.A. and I have no problems talking about it.

But if my appearance has changed, I think it mostly reflects changes from within. I’m a much more spiritual person. I’ve seen counselors over the years. Nothing has helped me more than A.A. By making those admissions, facing those fears and making amends you can start moving forward.

As gay people, what issues will we face in the future?
The one thing I wonder about is retirement. What are going to do? Otherwise, I think there will be a level of acceptance. Sadly, I think that our community will achieve that level of acceptance faster than the black community. There is still a level of racism that I find abhorrent. It is insidious and we need to do what we can do combat it. I just wish we could all get along and be accepted for who we are.

You’ve learned a lot, Patty. How will you apply your experience going forward?
In politics, a few years is a lifetime. There are a lot of options for me now, which is something I wouldn’t have been able to say ten or even twenty years ago. That’s exciting. I don’t know what Mayor Dyer is going to do next. Let’s just see what happens.

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