Jason Rae: LGBT Commerce and Community
The youngest person ever elected to the Democratic National Committee, Jason Rae is a political advocate for government accountability and works to build social equality for the LGBT community of Wisconsin.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the electoral process of our democratic form of government?
A: What I enjoy most is that we, the general public, get a direct say in selecting our representatives and have the opportunity for our voices to be heard on issues. I love that people are able to get out and advocate on behalf of the candidate they most prefer. You don’t get to do that in many places in this world.
Q: Was there a particular politician that you wanted to meet one day? And did you ever have the opportunity?
A: One of the politicians I was most intrigued by, from a very young age, was John F. Kennedy. In grade school, I read every book I could get my hands on about his background and life. Obviously, I never got the chance to meet him but have been very fortunate to meet many members of his family, including daughter Caroline and brother Senator Edward Kennedy. Thinking of that, one of the most moving moments I’ve ever experienced in politics was at the 2008 Democratic National Convention when Senator Kennedy, suffering from brain cancer, made a surprise appearance. I was in tears during his entire speech.
Q: Other than being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, what is a superdelegate? And how did you become one?
A: Technically, superdelegates are not a real thing. It’s a term that has been coined by the media to refer to unpledged delegates. Unpledged delegates are automatic delegates to the Democratic National Convention by virtue of a position they hold. For example, all elected members of the Democratic National Committee are unpledged delegates. That is how I became one. Unpledged delegates are free to vote for whomever they feel is best suited to lead the party to victory.
Q: Because you were so young, when you attended the DNC convention did other delegates confuse you as an intern?
A: Yes, often. There were a number of times that they assumed I was the intern back in 2004 and even in 2008. But after about 12 years of serving the party on the National Committee, that doesn’t happen as much anymore.
Q: Were you ever daunted by being so young in the spotlight? And how did you process the experience?
A: Being so young and having the opportunities I’ve had has not been daunting, but humbling. I’ve had more opportunities before 30 than many people will experience in a lifetime. And I will never take any of them for granted.
Q: You were afforded the rare privilege to sit down and chat with then Senator Obama before his election. What was that experience like?
A: During the 2008 presidential contest, the unpledged delegates around the country had the chance to meet with the candidates on a regular basis at DNC meetings and other events. I remember sitting down and having a meeting with then-Senator Obama in December 2007, where we talked about his vision for the country, how he was going to engage young people in the election and the party if elected, and more. At the time, it was before any primary and caucus took place so I didn’t know that I was sitting down with the person who would actually become President of the United States.
Q: When national politicians began calling you, what was your initial reaction? And when they do now, does it feel commonplace or is it still a thrill?
A: The calls really started back in 2005 or so for me, as a new member of the DNC. We were in an open race for DNC Chair and I had several members of Congress, Governors, and others reach out to influence my vote. In the end, Governor Howard Dean ended up winning that race. I was still in high school then and would turn my phone on after the school day was over. It would always be surprising to find a voicemail from one of these national leaders.
While I’ve been privileged to serve on the DNC for almost 12 years, I still consider myself a grassroots activist at my core, and I find it a thrill to chat with national leaders. Just the other day I participated in a conference call with some members of Congress. It was about how the Republican Party is still the party of intolerance and discrimination, even three years after the GOP’s own autopsy report called for them to be more inclusive of young people and people of diverse backgrounds. It was still personally exciting to be speaking with these esteemed national leaders.
Q: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from being involved in our system of government?
A: The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that anyone, and I mean anyone, can have their voice heard and reach positions of leadership. I was just a kid from a small rural town in northwestern Wisconsin. My parents were more interested in the Green Bay Packers than they were in politics. And I ended up being elected as the youngest person ever of the DNC. My parents always voted, but political activism wasn’t what our family did. As a young person I learned that if you work hard and are passionate, that effort can take you anywhere. I hope I’ve been able to inspire others to get involved and know that they can do anything.
Q: Can you describe your efforts with the Governor’s Commission on the United Nations?
A: During Governor Doyle’s tenure, there was a Governor’s Commission on the United Nations that I was honored to be appointed to. The role of the Commission was to help promote the United Nations and human rights issues throughout Wisconsin. We held an event on Human Rights Day each year and worked to educate the public and elected officials on important, relevant topics.
Q: What can be done to get youth more involved in government and our political process?
A: A lot has been done to get youth more involved. I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to do as Chair of the DNC Youth Council to engage people nationally and locally to participate in the Democratic Party. We’ve worked hard with local and state parties to find opportunities to ensure young people are at the table when decisions are made. It’s important not just for young people, but people of all backgrounds, to see themselves represented in leadership positions. The other thing we need to keep doing is making sure to talk about the issues of importance to young people.
Q: As chairman of the DNC’s Youth Council and representative of the next generation of voters, do you have a message for your peers?
A: My primary message is that you can do anything you want to do. Don’t think that you are ever too young to do something. I was just 17 when I first got elected because I worked hard and had a vision. My other message is don’t stay home. Your vote matters, particularly at the local level where turnout can be relatively low. I could be more political and talk about how there is only one party out there that cares about young Americans and ensuring they have a bright future, but I’ll stay away from the political message for now.
Q: Who was your mentor growing-up, or the most influential person on your development?
A: I’ve had a lot of great political and professional mentors growing up, too many to name and I’d be afraid to leave someone out. The most direct people are both of my parents. They have worked extremely hard and always provided for our family, allowing me to be the person I wanted to be.
Q: What observations have you made about being openly gay in America’s political system?
A: The primary observation is not to let one’s sexual orientation or gender identity get in the way. I know a lot of people who think that because they are gay they can’t run for office or things like that. That’s not the case. One of my favorite internships was with the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. I remember the summer that I was there they elected LGBT individuals to State Assemblies in Arkansas and Alabama. LGBT people are getting elected all over the country. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not a barriers to involvement.
Q: When did you know that you were gay, and what was your coming out experience like?
A: I had always known that I was gay. But growing up in a small, close-knit rural town, I wasn’t out during school. My coming out experience started with some close friends and then more publicly in 2008 during the presidential election campaign.
Q: How have you seen attitudes and stereotypes towards gay people change in just the past few years?
A: The last few years have seen an entire change of heart by the public. As more people come out and as others learn that they have a family member or friend that is gay, perceptions have changed. I never thought that by now we’d have an openly LGBT US Senator from Wisconsin of all places, or that we’d have marriage equality in the entire country. It’s been truly amazing to see the progress that has been made recently.
Q: In your opinion, what is the biggest problem gay people still struggle with today?
A: There were a lot of people who thought that after marriage equality was secured, the fight for the LGBT community was done. And that just is not the case. While a lot of progress has been made in recent years, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to secure lived equality for all people. That means ensuring economic equality and justice for LGBT people, to ensuring they are treated with respect and fairly at work, and in every public institution. Marriage equality was one great victory, but certainly not the last victory.
Q: Being an advocate for equality, and so deeply involved in politics, does it all get overwhelming at times? And why do you keep going?
A: There are some days, I do get a little worn out and tired. There are some days I wish the fight for equality would be easier, but I can’t let those days get me down. We have to savor the small wins along the way and appreciate the fact that we are making it easier for the person that comes behind us. But for me, the most important thing is remaining grounded. I have a wonderful and supportive husband, Phillip, who allows me the opportunity to serve my community in so many ways. I couldn’t accomplish the things I do without his constant support and strength.
Q: What inspired you to found the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce and how do you measure its success?
A: A few years after graduation from Marquette University, a lot of my fellow LGBTQ alumni started moving away from Milwaukee to places like DC, Chicago, and New York. I would hear them say that they can’t be an out individual in a leadership position in Milwaukee. I knew that wasn’t the case and I wanted to help change the perception. One way to do that was to highlight the LGBT business owners in the state, as well as the companies that welcome a diverse employee base. Since our launch in 2012, we’ve seen tremendous growth in terms of membership, participation in events, and changes in workplace policies. I’ve seen many companies finding ways to engage and support their LGBT employees, but particularly their trans employees.
I’m proud of the difference we are making to build a pro-fairness business community in every part of the state. I love hearing that business owners are getting new customers and clients from the work we are doing. Just as one anecdote, in February we had more than 31,000 unique searches in our online business directory. We know that consumers want to do business with those that share their values. I couldn’t be more proud to have founded and serve as executive director of this award-winning Chamber. I know we are making a difference every day. This is one of the most important things I’ve been a part of in my lifetime to date.
Q: Is religion a part of your life, and if so what is your faith community like?
A: I have been a proud member of the United Methodist Church my entire life. I was not as active during college or my initial professional years, but have been more recently. My husband and I are members of the Bay View United Methodist Church, a wonderful reconciling church that has welcomed us with open arms.
Q: Is it your goal to be America’s first openly gay president?
A: When I was younger, I always told people I wanted to grow up to be President. I’m not as sure I want to do that anymore, but I can never say no. That being said, I hope we have an openly gay president long before then. I think it is possible and perhaps even likely to have one in the next 30 years.
Watch the video series that was produced as a companion report for this Q&A interview with Jason Rae.