Out gay Queens borough president candidate Jimmy Van Bramer unveiled an emotional campaign ad on October 22 centering on his own experience overcoming homophobia aimed at him as an adolescent and tying that into a pledge to fight for marginalized communities if he is elected to lead the borough.
Van Bramer, currently serving his third term as a city councilmember representing Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria, and Dutch Kills, has been out since long before he was elected to public office, but his ad reflected on a time when he was still in the closet. The video starts with a young actor portraying a teenage Van Bramer on a rooftop contemplating suicide.
“I was 17 and staring into an abyss,” he said in the ad. “I was growing up in a traditional Catholic family, working poor in a working class neighborhood… And there was no shortage of bullies. I was depressed and I was gay.”
Speaking to Gay City News hours after the video was released, Van Bramer described that time in his youth as “obviously the darkest period of my life” and said the experience helped shape him into the person he is today.
He explained that it was around age 10 or 11 when he realized he was different from other boys — and that other boys also realized he was different, leading to his being bullied. A scene in the video shows the actor portraying Van Bramer getting confronted by harassers as a teen.
“I used to be called gay boy by kids in the neighborhoods,” he explained. “I was once chased by kids calling me gay and faggot. It was horrible.”
He said he remained in the closet partly because he was undergoing puberty in the midst of the HIV/ AIDS crisis during the early and mid-1980s.
He recalled watching a television segment during which a conservative commentator said every gay man would die by the age of 30. That, he said, drove him further into the closet, at least until he saw an advertisement in 1988 in the Village Voice.
“On the back of the Village Voice there used to be a bunch of ads — little box ads,” he said. “I saw an ad no more than a quarter of an inch and it said ‘lesbian and gay youth group in Queens.’ I saw that and I knew it was me, but I was too afraid, so I held onto that for a year and looked at it every week when the paper came out. I couldn’t get myself to call it until May of 1989.”
Van Bramer remembered feeling hesitant up until the moment he arrived at the building hosting the meeting. He circled the block multiple times before he finally walked in to find other LGBTQ folks just like him. That feeling of belonging, one that Van Bramer hopes today’s queer youth can experience, contributed to his decision to compare and contrast his childhood with his modern-day self.
He referred to that meeting in the ad, saying, “My life was saved when I walked into a meeting of a local LGBTQ youth group, and I was welcomed. I knew then I wasn’t alone. They pulled me back from the abyss. And for the first time, I said to myself, ‘It’s going to be okay. I was on my way to being free.”
The ad showed the young Van Bramer actor stepping into that meeting and greeting others before shifting back to the rooftop scene, where the video illustrates the positive outcome of that meeting: The younger Van Bramer steps away from the ledge and makes eye contact with his modern-day self.
Elaborating on that scene, Van Bramer told Gay City News that it represented a way to signal to LGBTQ young people that things will improve for them.
“‘It gets better’ is a catch phrase in our queer community, but its meant to symbolize that it’s the 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old, and if I could go back today and meet him, I would say to him, ‘All of this ends so much better than you think it does,’” he said.
Van Bramer believes that kind of message will not only resonate in the borough, but is important in light of the way modern politics are stained by the presence of President Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump is bullying people in marginalized communities,” Van Bramer said, citing black, transgender, and undocumented folks among those who have been most negatively impacted by the president’s bigotry. “Everybody in their life has faced a moment where it seemed hopeless, where they were counted out, where they were told they were worthless over and over. I thought I’d tie it into the moment we’re in today.”
Van Bramer, who endorsed Tiffany Cabán, an out queer Queens district attorney candidate who nearly won the June Democratic primary, long before her campaign rose to prominence, is rejecting real estate money and putting himself forward as a progressive in the race to replace current Borough President Melinda Katz, who edged out Cabán by just 60 votes and is expected to coast to victory in the general election for district attorney.
Other confirmed candidates for borough president include Councilmembers Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides and State Assemblymember Alicia Hyndman.
Additional names floated as possible contenders include Assemblymember Ron Kim and former Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley.
“There’s a real progressive movement afoot in Queens and nationally, and I know that of all the people in this race I am the progressive, anti-machine candidate who has always been about taking power away from the establishment and returning it back to people,” Van Bramer said. “I want to be their champion.”