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We’ve been exploring a series of historic firsts for West St. Paul. We already talked with Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson, the first Black candidate in West St. Paul, and Anthony Fernandez, the first Latino City Council Member. Today we talk with Wendy Berry, the first openly LGBTQ City Council Member in West St. Paul history.
West St. Paul first elected Berry in 2018 to represent Ward 3, and she’s currently in the middle of her four-year term. Berry works in human resources at JustUs Health, an organization that works for equitable health care access and outcomes.
Talking With Berry
We asked Berry about being one of the firsts in West St. Paul. Here’s our conversation:
What’s it like being the first openly LGBTQ City Council member?
Any time you’re the “only” in something, there are ups and downs. At first—probably only for the first council meeting or two—there were times where if I felt like I wasn’t getting my point across to someone else and my first thought was, “Are they not hearing me because I’m gay?” I don’t think it ever really was, but when you’re the “only” at something, it automatically pops into your mind as a theory whether it’s valid or not. But when you are the “first” or the “only,” you’re used to it because you’ve been working through that your whole life. You just learn your audience and you move on.
I’ve been in several situations where I’ve introduced myself as being on West St. Paul’s City Council and had someone else follow that up with, “She’s the first LGBTQ+ person elected, too.” Because it’s not something that comes on a regular basis, I think I only have it in the back of my mind.
As City Council members, we learn from each other by nature and, as the first LGBTQ+ person on city council, there have been opportunities for me to stand up for our community. Our first proclamation used LGBTQIA+ in it a few times. There was a remark made about it being “too many letters” and “hard to say” and that’s not OK. It might be inconvenient to have to slow down and say all those letters, but it’s also inconvenient that up until a few weeks ago LGBTQIA+ folks could get fired from their job for being part of the LGBTQIA+ community. When our six council members unanimously agreed to pass the Pride proclamation, it was definitely an added feeling of elation. They all saw the same importance in it.
Do you feel increased scrutiny or pressure? If so, how do you handle that?
It’s been great representing a group of people, like the LGBTQ community, that had never been directly represented at the City Council dais before. At first, specifically around trying to get the first Pride proclamation read in 2019, I was timid about bringing the idea forward because I didn’t want people to automatically assume it was my “gay agenda.” There were two things happened to make that easier.
The first was looking at how Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan pushed for so many things in her first year in office that were a result of something she’d experienced in her own personal life—expanding the Minnesota Family Investment Program and creating the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force. Yes, those were items of personal interest to her, but they were also things that directly impacted others. She was the first Native woman to be elected statewide, so nobody else had ever brought that mindset and experience to a role that could make so many positive changes.
The second was talking with folks that I knew were strong LGBTQ+ allies on city council—Council Members John Justen and Lisa Eng-Sarne. They were incredible allies. They wanted the same thing I did—to acknowledge June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month in West St. Paul. Knowing that support was there made it less intimidating to approach the topic. Turns out I had five allies all along, but again—it’s not always easy to assume that.
It’s the same with the gay conversion therapy ban I’m hoping we get on an Open Council Work Session agenda very, very soon. These topics are LGBTQ+ centered, but the impact of them reach much further than that. I feel obligated—in a good way—to make sure this topic is discussed before damage continues to happen to people experiencing it.
Why do you think it’s important for West St. Paul to mark these important firsts?
During last year’s West St. Paul Pride in the Park, it was amazing to meet so many LGBTQ+ folks from the city that I’d never met before. There were people from all ages—kids who are learning their own identities who were thrilled to see a community of support right in front of them or older folks who might have had to live the biggest part of their life in the closet—coming up to me, being excited about having a pride celebration in West St. Paul, and asking me how it was going on City Council.
For me, as someone from a community that often is on the receiving end of unjust hatred, I had to prepare myself when campaigning for running into folks who wouldn’t want to vote for me just because I identify as queer. I wasn’t wrong. People had feedback about my hair, my family, the fact that I was a female, and a handful of other things that had no relevance to why I was running for City Council. Do straight cis-gendered white guys get that same kind of pushback? I doubt it.
I think it’s important we continue having these firsts so it’s not as scary for the next person who comes into a public office as the first or the only. If you don’t know who your allies are, you don’t know who to look at in the times when you might be feeling that unconscious bias or a micro-aggression. It’s not about an axe to grind in these situations. It’s about being willing to educate others, even when it gets exhausting.
Most importantly, we need to make sure we are somehow accurately representing the makeup of our community. We need to do better about encouraging “firsts” to run. And if we’re going to do that, we must be prepared to support them in ways that are uncomfortable—calling someone out as a racist, homophobic, or sexist, for example. If we’re not outwardly working to become anti-racist or anti-homophobic, then we’re truly not doing our job as elected representatives of a city that’s as diverse as West St. Paul.
Thanks to Wendy Berry for sharing her insights with us. Check out our piece on historic firsts in West St. Paul for more first candidates and elected officials. And watch our 2020 election coverage for questions with all the candidates and more.
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