O’Keefe responds to homophobic backlash

Courtney in Magoun SquareOn May 14, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone released a letter condemning two residents who allegedly had used homophobic slurs in statements against recently appointed Ward 5 alderman Courtney O’Keefe, whom he didn’t name specifically. In the letter, he referred to an ordinance guaranteeing inalienable rights to all Somerville citizens regardless of characteristics such as gender, and sexual orientation, among others.

O’Keefe, the city’s first openly gay official, says that she believes Somerville to be a “very open and very diverse community,” full of prominent figures and business owners that identify as gay and lesbian, or as allies. She blames the insults on “two bad apples” in a welcoming city.

One of the comments in question came from a citizen who made a homophobic comment within the audience at City Hall the night that long-time Ward 5 alderman Sean O’Donovan recommended her for the position when he resigned. The other came from an individual who proposed “a bridge between the front door of Old Magoun’s Saloon and Daddy Jones bar for a dwarf lesbian crossing,” she says.

For the record, there was a bit a controversy regarding O’Keefe’s appointment. Outgoing alderman usually suggest that ward’s school committee member to the vacant seat. O’Donovan would have been in something of an awkward position if he had nominated Mark Neidergang, who has been critical of O’Donovan in the early parts of his campaign.

However, officials at City Hall feel like the anti-gay comments were unacceptable, even though O’Keefe’s appointment may have been controversial.

Mayor Curtatone’s letter made O’Keefe feel proud to be a Somerville resident. “My first thought was, ‘That’s my mayor. That’s what my mayor does,’” she says. “It shows his character.” While the letter denotes two derogatory comments that O’Keefe feels don’t represent the Somerville community, she instead sees the letter as a representation of how Somerville residents treat people from all walks of life. “Everybody will feel safe when they’re here,” she explains.

O’Keefe doesn’t take the insults as a criticism of her qualifications for the position. “I just think it’s a couple of angry people that maybe wanted the position themselves or wanted a few minutes of fame,” she adds.

In addition, she feels confident in her newly appointed position and doesn’t feel that it gives her a newly-gained unfair advantage in the upcoming November elections … because she started getting involved in Town Hall meetings 10 years ago. “I’ve pretty much had my eye on the ward since then,” she says.

The new alderman and O’Donovan had connected after working together to improve Magoun Square and seeing one another at numerous Town Hall meetings. “I was an easy choice because I was already there,” she says, adding that “the transfer of work flow was very easy” because she had already gained some familiarity with the responsibilities of the alderman position. Their alliance on the Magoun Square project “showed him that [O’Keefe] was a very unbiased, fair, independent voice.”

O’Keefe has received only support and encouraging words since Curtatone’s letter was released. She views her position as Somerville’s first openly gay official as “a reflection of the city,” adding that she enjoys holding the position because, “for all of those students in the Somerville schools … and people in the city who are gay, all they have to do is look to their government to see someone just like them.” –Jake Reed