Newest Out Gay City Councilmember Hopes to “Contribute”

Bronx City Councilmember James Vacca. | OFFICE OF COUNCILMEMBER VACCA

Bronx City Councilmember James Vacca. | OFFICE OF COUNCILMEMBER VACCA

With a full 26 characters to spare, veteran Bronx City Councilmember Jimmy Vacca took to Twitter with something of a major status update: “After talking w/ my friends & family I’ve decided to come out publicly as a gay man. Now back to the Golden Girls!,” read the January 22 mid-afternoon tweet from @JamesVacca13.

With that Vacca, a Democrat first elected to represent the northeast Bronx’s District 13 in 2005, became the seventh out LGBT member on the 51-seat Council.

Speaking to Gay City News 10 days later, he elaborated a bit on his decision.

“As a public official I felt like I had a responsibility to say something publicly,” said Vacca, who is halfway through his third and — because of term limits — final Council term. “I want to give to the community — over the next two years and beyond.”

After Twitter announcement, Bronx’s Jimmy Vacca talks about challenges facing LGBT community

As for the medium he chose for his coming out, he explained, “I thought Twitter was the best vehicle, not only because I’m the Technology Committee chair, but because of its reach. I’m proud of who I am.”

At 60 and after decades in public life — on the City Council and before that in 26 years as the district manager of Bronx Community Board 10 — Vacca now adds a new dimension to his profile in the community. Asked how long he had thought about coming out, he said only, “I made the decision over the holidays,” before adding, “I’ve gotten to know myself more.”

The father of a college-age daughter, Vacca is separated from his wife as the couple seeks divorce. His family, he said, were “great” about his decision, even if it took his 85-year-old mother time to get used to the news.

“There is something called unconditional love,” Vacca said.

The councilmember sounds pleased at feedback he’s already gotten about the impact of his announcement. A few days after his tweet, a man stopped him on the street near City Hall to praise the work he’s doing on the Council, and then said, “I work in the Sanitation Department, and they’d kill me if I came out on the job. But if you did it, I’ll do it.”

The response from his Bronx district, which he described as “fairly conservative,” has been uniformly positive, he said, with many phoning, emailing, and tweeting their support — and some constituents he’s known for years telling him about a gay family member for the first time.

Asked if he’s gotten any negative reaction from conservative faith leaders, Vacca responded, “No religious leaders have reached out to me.”

New York’s political community was quick to offer its support.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, also on Twitter, wrote, “I’m honored to know you and stand with you.” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted, “Congratulations, Councilman! #loveislove.”

Lower Manhattan Councilmember Rosie Mendez, an out lesbian, on Twitter wrote, “Proud 2call u my brother. Pls remember that our visibility makes it easier4every young person 2 live #outandproud.” Her out gay Jackson Heights colleague Daniel Dromm wrote, “Congratulations to @JamesVacca13 for coming out as an openly gay man. Your courage deserves our respect and the highest admiration possible.”

Later the entire LGBT Caucus, including, as well, the Bronx’s Ritchie Torres, who got his start in politics working in Vacca’s Council office, Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, West Sider Corey Johnson, and Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, issued a statement saying they are “incredibly proud of our colleague, Jimmy Vacca. Throughout his career, Jimmy has always been a strong champion of LGBT rights, and by coming out he is giving inspiration and strength to untold numbers of people. Coming out is never easy — even in 2016 — and we greatly admire Jimmy for his courage.”

Asked on what issues he’d like to make a contribution to the LGBT community, Vacca first mentioned bullying.

“I was bullied in school, and I can tell you where I was and when I was bullied, what room it took place in, and I’m 60 years old,” he said.

Bullying, he added, “has always involved people going after people who looked different.”

“I was a funny-looking kid,” Vacca recalled. “I was short, fat, and I wore glasses.”

When he was in public school in the Bronx, in the ‘60s, however, “you never heard about knives,” he said, in explaining his view that bullying today involves more violence than in generations past.

“And words,” he added emphatically, “have life-long consequences.”

On January 30, Vacca joined Torres, Menchaca, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute for a Bronx Youth LGBT Summit in Mott Haven aimed at showcasing the services available for young people in that borough. Asked whether his northeast Bronx constituents hold onto older perceptions that gay life is something that’s more about Manhattan than the other boroughs, Vacca was dismissive, saying, “That’s not the case.”

Still, he’s well aware that too many LGBT youth — from everywhere — can still face rejection from their families. Recalling how the Council had to repeatedly battle the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to cut back funding for homeless and runaway youth, Vacca voiced praise for de Blasio’s proactive increases in dollars for youth beds. From the Council’s vantage point, he said, “the key thing is accountability: What are the numbers? Where are the beds?”

As deputy leader of the Council and a member of its budget negotiating team, Vacca said another Council priority is making sure that the mayor delivers on his commitment to fund HASA for All — which would open up the services of the HIV/ AIDS Services Administration to everyone with the virus, whether or not they have an AIDS diagnosis — in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Acknowledging that de Blasio’s pledge is dependent on support from the state, he said, “We have not yet heard from the governor on that money.”

Vacca expressed satisfaction that one anti-gay practice that once plagued his part of the Bronx has been resolved. For years, the Throgs Neck St. Patrick’s Day Parade, like most others in the city, barred participation by gay groups; in 1999, six demonstrators were arrested protesting that policy. In 2011, Vacca directed $5,000 in Council funds toward the parade. When asked by Gotham Gazette’s Andy Humm, a longtime Gay City News contributor, about the parade’s exclusionary policy, Vacca said he was unaware of it, but would check on it. He did not return follow-up calls on the matter.

He now explains that when he reached out to the parade’s organizers, “the answer was vague… I thought that was a commentary.” Since then, the event has been opened up, and for the past several years Vacca has marched with a gay group carrying a rainbow banner.

On a more recent issue on which the Council’s LGBT Caucus was split down the middle — $20 million in taxpayer funds made available to religious and other private schools for security services — Vacca sided with Torres, Van Bramer, and Menchaca against some LGBT and civil liberties advocates who raised objections that the funding breached the church/ state divide and was a give-away to schools, many of which espouse an anti-gay philosophy.

“Every kid is entitled to basic protection,” he said. “These are our kids too. San Bernadino was a rude awakening.”

When asked about testimony from NYPD officials that security is provided to any school when specific threats are identified, he responded, “They don’t have it covered.”

One of the biggest challenges Vacca sees for the LGBT community is the defense of funding streams — on issues from housing for homeless youth to battling AIDS — during economic downturns. That, he said, is a national as well as a the local concern, and as the US turns its full attention to the upcoming presidential election, Vacca has made his choice.

“I think Hillary is going to be able to hit the ground running,” he said, explaining that he favors former Secretary of State Clinton based on both her experience and her electability. While effusive in his praise for her — “there really is no comparison” — Vacca is not one of those partisans hell-bent on discrediting her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whom he praised for “raising issues which are moving the debate.”

Still, in response to the inchoate impatience being expressed by many voters on both the left and the right this year, Vacca said, “People are frustrated with the pace of government. Those of us in government are also frustrated with the pace of government.”