Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're back with our next installment of the series Black Queer Rising. This month we're highlighting stories of change makers who are rooted in Black Queer History and working to forge Black Queer Futures. We're going to the State of Texas for our next change maker.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: My name is Jalen McKee-Rodriguez and I am city Councilman in San Antonio, District Two.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Councilman McKee-Rodriguez is the first openly gay Black man elected to public office in Texas, but before he became a Councilman, he was a math teacher.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Yes, I was a math teacher. I got my start in, I guess, 2017 is when I started my career in education.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How does one go from being a math teacher to a member of the City Council?
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: You know what's funny? My degree is actually in communication. I thought I was going to be working in advertising or something like that. I was around the time that Trump got elected, I got involved in campaigns and politics, while I was teaching. I continued my involvement and around the time this time, last year I was encouraged to run for office.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that. I feel like I should say, "Okay, all you core majors out there, note, you may end up as a math teacher."
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Yes, I had graduated and obviously, you graduate with a liberal arts degree and you think, "Where are the high paying jobs?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, teaching, definitely. That's where you rake in the big cash, especially teaching and then definitely, City Council. I'm sure you all are making the seven figures there.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Oh, I definitely took a pay cut from teaching.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, actually, let's pause on that. We're joking, but we do in this country, not pay our teachers enough. As a Southerner, respectfully, the South is particularly egregious in the extent to which we don't pay our teachers enough. I don't think, however, we often think about our local representatives, whether it's at the City Council level, at the State House. I think we tend to think of them like members of Congress and presume that these are full-time, well pay jobs, as opposed to understanding that if you're really talking about public service, this is where the public and the service meet.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Absolutely. I was actually surprised. I believe it's our state representatives make about 7,000 per session, which is every other year, so they really have to have other jobs. I think when we're talking about public service in this capacity, it makes it really hard for regular working class people to run for office because they know they're not going to be able to sustain themselves off of this pay.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, when you ran initially, you actually ran against someone for whom you'd worked. Is that right?
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Yes. Oh, my gosh. My predecessor, I was her director of communication for about six months and during that time, the chief of staff was very homophobic and created a very hostile work environment. I ended up leaving and got back into education and decided I was going to take a break from politics, but I stay involved in the organizing world and then activist spaces and people encouraged me to run for the seat, that became quite a story
Melissa Harris-Perry: That is quite a story. I think many folks experience those barbs and challenges and distressing workplace environments, particularly around questions of gender or gender self-expression or queer identity or race, particularly as a gay Black man for you living at the intersections of some of those. Yet, to feel empowered enough to think, "You know what? I know how I can change this. I'll actually run for the seat."
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that what was very interesting is that it, during the general election, I think I was very much an underdog and the issue of sexuality didn't really come up too much, but then when it was the runoff and it's just me and the incumbent, that became the story. It was the faith-based community, versus Jalen. This past October, I actually filed a CCR, calling for an expansion to our city's non discrimination ordinance. I think it's very poetic, in a sense.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Because, of course, just to go back for a second to that dichotomy, there are no queer folk in the faith community?
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: I don't know who's believing that, necessarily, but--
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right, but again, communities that intersect and overlap. Talk to me about being the first openly gay Black man to be elected to any public office in the State of Texas.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: It's crazy. My team and I, we spent a lot of time thinking about that after the election, is that I am the first and the district really did this. It means a lot, as in the way that I feel as though I carry a lot of that burden or a lot of pressure to represent well, because I know I'm not the first to try. I'm not the first to be qualified and I'm not the first with the passion and gumption to go after it, but I'm the first to be given a chance. I want to make it easier for the second and third, for those who come after me to get through the door.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's such a good point. In certain ways, it's completely wild that in 2022, 2020, that we can be talking about first, still, but of course also--
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: It's Texas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. I'll give you that. It is Texas, but still, we're well into the 21st Century here. Apparently, I have feelings about this, but you outranked Beyoncé on the Root's Black Influencer list?
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: I would challenge that too. I don't think any list, that anyone ranks above Beyoncé is valid, but I'm so grateful. I will give that she did take a break for a year, her influence is still great.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sabbatical Beyoncé, that you're ranked higher than?
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Yes. I think a lot of it was the history-making nature of the campaign and what it means for a lot of people, because the regular, every day people, people of all racial and marginalized identities, really don't feel represented by our elected officials and I hope that my election gave people hope.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's dig in on that a bit and talk about what it means to represent, not only an identity, but in policy. Talk to me about some of the things that you are working to accomplish and maybe particularly around the issue of food availability and utility.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Absolutely. I was just thinking of the CCR's, the council consideration request that I filed. In San Antonio, we have council consideration requests, which are basically memos, authored by a council person and then signed by four colleagues, for other council members. In October, I filed a non-discrimination ordinance, CCR and then this past January or this January, I filed a CCR calling for an insulin cost share program. I think I might have set a record, I filed quite a bit. One would be an office of crime and recidivism, one was displacement studies for new developments, another one an animal care services master plan to increase our live release rates and to reduce the number of stray animals, as well as a food access master plan to address food deserts. There's another one and then there's the CPS and so is our utilities, a rates freeze for seniors and folks with disabilities. When I think of the last one, I'll drop it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've also been vocal about the ban on gay men being able to donate blood. Talk to me a bit about that.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: This is something that a lot of people don't know about. I brought this up on the Dias and city staff were telling me they had no idea and these are people in well connected spaces. I don't think the average person knows that gay men and bisexual men, cannot give blood. We're in the middle of a blood shortage in America, it's very critical and for a huge segment of the population to be basically banned from it, is unacceptable.
I'm a 26-year-old healthy man and I can't give blood, even though my blood could save someone's life and I'm not being given that chance.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. This is, of course, a policy that goes back to the HIV Aids crisis and the belief that it was related exclusively to identity, rather than being a contagious disease.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Yes and it's crazy. I'm married, I'm in a monogamous relationship, but other men who are straight and are having unprotected sex and doing the most, they're able to give blood. I think at the end, we know that science has evolved and all blood is screened for anything that can be any transmittable disease. It really just goes back to these archaic views of homosexuality, which are out-dated and homophobic and quite honestly, harming our country, not just the LGBTQ community, but all of those who are in need of blood right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm down for you, introducing a new rule that says, "We're not going to do this based on sexuality and identity, but just if you're doing the most, maybe keep your blood."
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Oh no, there's still space. There's still space for everyone to give blood and it is screened. If you're in a place where you can give blood, I think you should be able to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jalen, I have one last question for you. This conversation is part of our series, Black. Queer. Rising and when you hear me say those words, Black, Queer, Rising, what does that mean to you?
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez: Ooh. I definitely think that you hit on intersectionality. I live my life, not only as a Black man and not only as a gay man, but as a gay Black man who's young, who's the son of veterans, I'm not a wealthy person and it makes me think of all those barriers and challenges, that are set in my way, that I have to overcome. I think that's where the rising comes into play. I think that as a society, we're growing, we're rising. As a people, I think we're becoming much more aware of the issues and the intersectionality of all of these different marginalized groups and I think it's powerful.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thank you so much, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, for joining us today.
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